Did you know George Shillibeer | Elephant & Castle London

4 Dec 2019

Long before the days of black cabs and Uber, horse-drawn public buses were the way to get around London. We look at how one person’s work in France led to a revolutionary way to travel to Southwark.

Long before the days of black cabs and Uber, horse-drawn public buses were the way to get around London. We look at how one person’s work in France led to a revolutionary way to travel to Southwark.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, London’s population grew at such a rate that getting around increasingly congested capital became more and more difficult. As a result, the first quarter of the 19th century saw the development of horse-drawn public transport to ease the problem and allow people to travel more cheaply and easily than ever before.

It was George Shillibeer, a London coachbuilder, who introduced the idea to the streets of London, after working on vehicle designs for the world’s first public bus service in Paris in 1828.

He was so impressed by the efficiency of the French capital’s new horse-drawn bus service that in 1829 he decided to start his own business, operating a single horse-drawn omnibus that connected the suburbs of Paddington and Regent’s Park to the City.

His original omnibus was pulled by three horses and carried 22 passengers. The fares of a sixpence and one shilling were less than those charged by hackney cab and short-stagecoach operators.

The service was so successful that, within two years, 620 licensed horse buses were operating in London and, by 1851, that number had more than doubled, and the routes had increased to 150. In 1833, there were 100 horse-drawn public buses licensed to travel along the Walworth Road in London’s Southwark alone.

What impressed people most was that Shillibeer’s omnibus ran to a strict timetable and picked up and dropped off passengers anywhere along the route. Fares could also be paid on board – unlike the short-stagecoaches, which had to be booked in advance.

Given the success of Shillibeer, it wasn’t long before other competitors entered the game. Shillibeer was later elected chairman of the first horse bus association, designed to limit damaging competition. He resigned the position in 1834.