Friday, 18 July 2008

London's first buses: the Lewisham connection

London's early buses have been mentioned here in passing, but did you know that two of the most significant figures in the city's bus history had Lewisham connections? They were George Shillibeer, who introduced the omnibus, and Thomas Tilling, who introduced bus timetables.

Shillibeer was a real innovator, if not a great businessman. He had seen omnibuses on the streets of Paris and felt that there was scope for a similar service in London. Unlike the existing stagecoaches, omnibuses were cheaper and did not have to be booked in advance. Launched on 4 July 1829, they were a success and spread throughout London - but so did competitors' services, followed by the railways. Shillibeer went out of business (and instead built combined hearses and mourning coaches - without much success), but is still remembered for his pivotal role in the city's public transport.

However, the original omnibus route was in central London, running from Paddington along Marylebone Road and down City Road into Bank. What, then, was the Lewisham connection? According to John Coulter's Lewisham & Deptford, it was a crucial one. Shillibeer built his omnibuses in a yard at 4 New Cross Road; the site is now Chesterfield Way.

Thomas Tilling bought his first bus in 1850; it came with the right to run 4 journeys a day from Peckham to Oxford Street. His particular innovation was to introduce a fixed timetable with set stops, making the service more predictable and reliable. Not only was his bus business a success; he also supplied horses to organisations including the Metropolitan Fire Service. By the time of his death, he was the largest supplier of horses and vehicles in London; his company survived into the mid-twentieth century. Tilling lived in Lewisham, at Perry Hill Farm, Sydenham.

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