The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER VIII: Omnibus Men

CHAPTER VIII: Omnibus Men

 

THE omnibus drivers and conductors are so typical of the spirit of everyday London condensed, and, as a class, so peculiar to London, that a book of this kind on London would be incomplete without some reference to them.

We have probably all talked to bus drivers, for they are so convenient to approach, though, be it noted, omnibus etiquette forbids that they should begin a conversation. We have, perhaps, gleaned various facts as to their work and manner of livelihood, and we have come away with the impression that a 'bus driver is "an uncommonly good fellow." So he is, and without going so far as to say that none but good fellows need apply for these posts, it is pretty certain that the bad ones get weeded out. There are far more black sheep, far more habitual drunkards among cabmen than ever there are in the ranks of 'bus drivers. The whole environment of the two sets of men is different, and tends to develop the character differently. A cabman is his own master, even though he does not own a cab.

140

He is free to dawdle and loiter and go where he will, and a very large part of his day is perforce spent in loitering, in reading halfpenny papers, in gossiping with his brother-cabmen, and smoking; so that a man used to this life becomes gradually unfitted for any other requiring steady concentration. So long as he be not recklessly drunk, the cabman can drive as well as when he is sober, sometimes even better, and it would probably astonish the Londoner if he knew how many night cabmen were drunk habitually, and how many day cabmen went home every night with more than was good for them.

Omnibus drivers are under much closer supervision, a man constantly drunk would almost certainly be reported, and besides one with a tendency that way would assuredly by the end of the day be in a condition to call down notice on himself. The average omnibus goes five journeys a day. After driving, it may be, eight miles, it would seem natural enough for a driver to have a drink, yet if he yields to this and takes a drink at each end of each journey he consumes ten drinks a day, exclusive of what he has at meal-times! In these circumstances men with any sense see that they must not give way to a drink at each end of the journey, and soon learn to do without it.

In the matter of money, a driver gets regular wages, 6s. a day for the first year and thereafter 6s. 6d.; or, if on a "non-relief line," is. more. He regulates his expenditure accordingly. With the cabman it is "lightly come and lightly go." He may make a

141

pocketful of money one day, whereupon he has a "roaring spree," and stays off work the next. But the "uncertainty of his gains prevents his attempting to put by for a rainy day; he takes the rainy and the shining days as they come. Consequently cabmen as a class -are utterly unthrifty; generous enough and free in their treatment of comrades, but improvident. If the truth be confessed, each set of men looks down on the other, the drivers holding the cabmen to be a shiftless, thriftless lot, and the cabbies looking on the drivers as slow old stagers who are in service, while they themselves are free men. It is curious that while numbers of drivers become cabmen, hardly ever a cabman passes to the more regular life of the omnibus. But one virtue both classes have in common, they are full of esprit de corps, and a "whip round" for the widow of a comrade never fails to produce a good result.

Let us take a day in the life of an ordinary omnibus driver. He will belong to a yard, that is to say, the Company have accepted his license, and he is an " odd " man until he gets a service of his own. In the early morning, six o'clock at all events, even if he live near the yard, he must be up, and off. There are no omnibuses then to take him to his destination, so in the grey of the wintry morning, it may be, he walks through the silent streets to the great yard, where a few horse-keepers are harnessing the first pair to go out. It is a curious sight this yard; the dim vastness of the roof holds grey fog in its arch; the omnibuses, blue and red and gold, have a forlorn appearance, standing side by side packed

142

like dominoes in a box. As each omnibus comes in at night it takes up its appointed place; it is easy enough for the first man, who has plenty of room to manceuvre in, but the last one has a very tight fit indeed, and has to display great skill in driving. From one end of the yard an inclined plane like a greatly magnified hen-walk, is the staircase for the horses, and leads to the upper storey of the stables.

 

From the stables comes a sound of munching and moving. There are numbers of horses there, probably three hundred altogether, separated by swinging bales only, so low that the row of sturdy, glossy backs can be seen in a line. Eleven horses belong to each omnibus, two for each journey and one out,-the odd horse,-so that each gets one day's rest in turn. The driver takes his pairs in any order he chooses; if he thinks one horse a little tired from the day before he can tell the horse-keeper to put him on for the last journey, so that he gets a longer rest. He takes an interest in his horses too, knows them by name, and can discourse eloquently on all their peculiarities. The average life of a 'bus horse, it is said, is about five years, but some live much longer. They are well fed, they have regular work, one journey out and back once a day, and a veterinary surgeon is ready to inspect them and to prescribe for all their ailments. Numbers of the young horses come over from Ireland and are a little shy of the London streets at first, but the weight of the omnibus and the companionship of a steady old horse soon sober them down.

The driver who takes the first omnibus is at the yard in good time, buttoning up his stout gloves, and feeling in his pockets for the tip that the horse-keeper reminds him of, for though 'bus drivers are looked upon as people to be tipped, they have lesser " tippees" attendant on them. Our friend the new driver has provided himself with a whip, and gloves, and a tarpaulin cape, all of which are his private property, and not supplied by the Company; he will find later, when he gets " a service," that there are other expenses too, curb chains for instance, if he wants to use them, and the wooden boards to protect his legs from the cold as he sits on the box seat. But he has not arrived at this yet. Early as he is, there are three men there before him, who will take precedence of him, so he sits down on a wooden block and thinks regretfully of that last cup of scalding tea he had to leave behind. As each omnibus is ready the men, driver and conductor, appear just in time, having learnt the exact knack by long training; the conductors sign on for their tickets, and off they go at intervals of four minutes.

The system of "relief" is so well worked that even at the risk of boring some people a word must be given to it here. The Road Car Company has relief on all its lines, and the "General" on some. By this system the men have fifteen hours';work one day and nine the next, making the average of twelve demanded at the great 'bus strike. For every four drivers there is one relief driver. The omnibuses are, say, A, B, C, and D. Each bus goes five journeys a day, counting

144

there and back as one. On the morning of Monday the odd driver takes the first two journeys of A. He has the middle journey to himself, and takes the last two journeys of B. The next day he takes C's first two journeys in the morning, and D's last two at night. Consequently driver A begins at the third journey on Monday, and as each journey is reckoned at about three hours, he gets a day of nine hours. The next day he is at work all the time-five journeys of three hours each. On Wednesday morning off again, and so on Friday. The following week the odd driver begins with B in the morning and takes A in the afternoon, so that this week driver A begins as usual but goes off after the third journey, getting his afternoon free, and he has a full day alternately as before. The odd driver has therefore a regular twelve-hour day, but always the middle of the day off, and the others get mornings off on alternate days one week, and afternoons off alternate days another week. The process is just the same with the conductors. Many men prefer the odd work and keep to it all the time, but these regular odd men-to use a contradiction in terms-must not be confounded with the other odd men whom we are considering, and who wait about in the yard on the chance of a day's work.

 

If there are sixty 'buses on what is called a three minutes' line, there will be a difference of three hours between the first and last. The first man starts at seven in the morning and, on a full day, finishes at ten at night; while the last begins at ten in the morning and

145

ends at one o'clock midnight; and to these hours must be added the time taken in going to and from work: then, if any buses are running, the drivers may go free on them. On non-relief lines the men were asked to reply by a plebiscite whether they would have an extra shilling a day or take the full work, and when the majority declared for the extra shilling the thing was established. These men take as an average two days a fortnight off on their own account, of course forfeiting their day's pay, but it is a recognised thing that they should make this break, as no man could go on day in and day out driving fifteen hours!

The conductors on these lines of course keep the same hours as the drivers; they begin on a relief line at 4s. 6d. and rise to 5s., and they get an extra 1s. on non-relief lines.

The odd men who are waiting to get a service receive precisely the same pay as the others, but of course are not sure of a full week's work; as a rule they can count on an average of five days in the week. It may be that the first odd man waiting for a job gets put on to an omnibus of which the driver is ill and will not return to work for three weeks, in which case the odd driver remains on that omnibus for the three weeks. There is great luck in this. Our odd man may chance to wait three hours, and then he may get put on an omnibus where he has to do a full day of fifteen hours. He has already waited three, and therefore his day's work has lasted eighteen hours! But he accepts it all philosophically; another's turn to-day,

146

his to-morrow; with which consolatory reflection he gives a small boy a penny to take a note to his "missus," telling her to be at the corner by the "Salisbury " at two o'clock and to bring along the remains of that beefsteak pudding for his dinner, swings himself on to his box seat, and is off.

It is hard work this driving, it makes men with muscles like steel and bones like iron. To be at it for fifteen hours, with alternate intervals of ten minutes and twenty minutes each three hours, this is no light task. It is not like driving a carriage horse with a mouth of silk; pull as you may you can make no impression on the mouth of a 'bus horse. Any one handling the reins for the first time would find to his surprise that the whole driving is pulling; sometimes when there is a young horse with his head set homeward you may see the man hanging on to the reins with all his force. So hard is the work that if a man goes off for a week or a fortnight's holiday he gets stiff at once, and on resuming suffers until his muscles are in training again. The odd men pretty soon get a service of their own, whether as "regular" odd driver, which some of them prefer, as they can always get home to dinner, or with a service of their own and alternate half days. Our friend of this morning left his house at halfpast six, and will not return until two o'clock A.M., but this is exceptional.

 

Wet and shine, storm and fine, the drivers face the world cheerily; their tolerance of minor annoyances is unbounded; it is almost impossible to provoke an

147

omnibus driver. The policeman may domineer; the slow traffic may prefer to go along in the centre of the road a couple of yards from the kerb; the roadway may be up for an unwarrantable time, necessitating a détour which cuts off nearly the whole of that precious twenty minutes' rest at Liverpool Street; the conductor may be a fool, never looking round before he starts, and so constantly starting and stopping again; yet all these things the omnibus driver bears lightly. The only thing that does vex his soul and make him commiserate his lot in heartfelt accents to any one who will listen, is when the foreman of the yard has a spite against him, and will make up his stud of the worst horses in the stable; for the driver loves his horses, and is as proud of them as if they belonged to him.

In many other things besides his tolerance is he the epitome of London street character-for instance, in his general knowledge of what is going on, and his lack of profundity. He knows all about the topics of _the day, can discuss the King's speech, the fiscal policy, or the latest cause celebre, with any one, but his knowledge of these things is gathered from casual conversation, from the contents bills seen in his daily journey, or at the most from a halfpenny evening paper. And the amazing power even of contents bills to quicken a man's intelligence is seen in the contrast between him and his brother of the country, who strides behind his cart between leafy hedges, and never sees a placard, unless it be that of an enterprising tradesman who announces on a gatepost that his "Boots are the

148

Best in Britain." The 'bus driver's quick wit and his knowledge of affairs are only equalled by his utter want of what may be called "reading capability"; he never opens a book; when he gets in, to sleep and eat are all he cares about; if he has a bit of time off, jobs for the wife, or play with the children, or an outing, fill up his short recreation time ; the 'bus driver who reads is rare indeed. Equally, he never enters a church; he never has the opportunity. The only service attended by 'bus drivers in any numbers is the midnight service on New Year's Eve, which is considered to be a condonation for the sins of the past year. Smart in person, kindly at heart, tolerant, and shrewd, and capable, he is a citizen well worth having. His sense of responsibility is always being indirectly called upon, and no man readier than he or more cool-headed when an accident happens. Does a horse go down? He never stirs, but gives comprehensive directions to his conductor without moving. Does some unmanageable van or other knock against his vehicle and take the paint off, he hardly shows he notices it, yet nothing escapes him. Though apparently looking straight ahead he sees the almost imperceptible nod with which the woman on the off pavement signifies that she wishes him to stop; he can distinguish to a hair's-breadth between the nervous lady who is waiting for his 'bus to pass before crossing, and she who is gathering up her skirts to board him when he shall stop for her. His driving is a marvel; with the most unwieldy vehicle in the world he judges its limits to a nicety. At the time of the great Jubilee,

149

when 'buses, jammed for hours, had struggled slowly on a couple of yards at a time, after having made the circuit of London from the south side of the river, and through the City westward, I said to the driver, " You only touched once." "Twice," he answered, though with a grin of pride; "I felt one of them things just lay against the back end of my 'bus for a second a while ago."

The life is popular; it is regular, lived in the open air, and full of incident. " There's always something going on," said one 'bus driver, "whether it's a horse down, or a street fight, or a regiment of soldiers passing by; you can't very well be dull; and then to hear the talk behind you, well it would make you laugh sometimes; them foreigners think the National Gallery is St. Paul's, and the Nelson Column the Monument; they don't know anything, not so to speak."

These things happen to be on the line of his route, so he is intimate with them; of the rest of London he is profoundly ignorant, but like another great man he might be represented as saying-

What I know not is not knowledge.