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London buses’ 200-year journey

More than just a mode of transport, the red bus is part of the capital’s DNA. Driver-turned-academic Joe Kerr has co-edited a collection of writing on the subject

01 November, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Bus driver and academic Joe Kerr behind the wheel of a London bus

THE London bus moves millions of us from our homes to work and back again. They have given our streets a sense of order and purpose, and provided a colourful, recognisable backdrop to our roads.

The bus service has worked as a great leveller: carrying everyone from the lowest paid to City bankers, from giving women work in World War One through to providing jobs for people moving to Britain, it has provided a home, colleagues, work, and life.

Now an anthology of writing celebrating its special place in our capital’s heart has been put together by bus driver and academic Joe Kerr with author Travis Elborough.

The collection ranges from contemporary works by the likes of Magnus Mills and Iain Sinclair, to contributions by Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew.
Joe’s life-long link to the buses started as a teenager, when he moved from Herefordshire aged 18 and became a conductor. He worked on the Routemasters on the 253.

“London Transport was still an old-fashioned corporation,” he remembers. “They looked after every aspect of your life. We had garage football teams and social events. You could go to Calais on a bus with your workmates on a day trip. You could even buy your teabags and coffee through your depot.”

Joe joined the Transport and General Workers Union and became a steward. “It was also an era of desperate cuts and campaigning to protect valued services. I remember if one route went on strike, no other bus would drive down the roads they were meant to be running on,” he said.

Having got to know London from the footplate of a Routemaster, Joe considered becoming a driver – but instead studied architectural history at UCL. He became an academic and taught at the Royal College of Art – until he decided he fancied driving one of the Routemasters before they went out of service.

“I spoke to mates at TfL when they had a year left,” he recalls. “It was enough time to train me up.”

And so he returned to the roads, this time behind the wheel instead of selling tickets.

And it was partly through the Routemaster that the book came about.

Author Travis Elborough had written a history of the bus and had got to know Joe when he was doing his research. It prompted the anthology.

“We thought to commission new writing – but we realised there was a great body of work we could include,” he adds. “People think of the London bus as not dating back much beyond Cliff Richard, Summer Holiday and the 1960s, but it has been a feature of our streets for 200 years.”

Joe the conductor, pictured in the 1980s

Victorian London was as much about the mode of transport as our streets today are. Henry Mayhew, whose ground-breaking study London Labour and the London Poor laid bare conditions in the capital in 1851, interviewed drivers, conductors and time keepers. Dickens highlights the issues over having various private companies run the system – something some passengers today would recognise, even if TfL have overall control. Thomas Hardy recalled greasy cobbles on Ludgate Hill making it hard for the horses to drag the bus up the slope; Rudyard Kipling’s poem, In Partibus, speaks of buses running through the streets, and the muck of city living (“I see smut upon my cuff and felt him on my nose; I cannot leave my window wide, when gentle zephyr blows, because he brings disgusting things and drops ’em on my clothes…”)

The iconic red bus dates from the Edwardian period, the book reveals. Before that, buses were in different colours to denote different routes and owners.

The red livery stems from the Vanguard works in Walthamstow: it was here The London General Omnibus Company built their first B-type, which could handle stopping and starting over a long day’s work without breaking down. It sped up the demise of the horse-drawn omnibus. By August, 1914, just four years after introduction, stables were being emptied, drivers retrained, and mechanics replaced stablemen. By 1910, the buses in London were predominantly red – Vanguard had introduced a red livery in 1905 to stand out from competitors and when General bought out Vanguard in 1908, the red bodywork stayed.

And as well as the Routemasters holding a special place in the hearts of Londoners, they were a brilliant example of British engineering, too.

“During the Second World War, London Transport bus engineers built Halifax bombers,” says Joe. “And everything they had learned about planes went in to the Routemaster. The chassis was more akin to a fuselage, which meant they just had to lift the body off the frames to work on the mechanics.”

For Joe, the buses have played such a major part not just in oiling the wheels of how we get through our city, but has been an agent for social change.

“In World War One, the buses provided employment for women,” he says. “In 1910, London Transport employed the first black driver, Joe Clough. They are part of our story of immigration. LT started by going to Malta, as the Maltese also drive on the left, and then set up a recruitment office in Barbados in the 1950s. You can find now almost every nation on the earth working on the buses.”

And one of the most telling passages in the book, in terms of stating this form of transport’s effect on our daily lives, is the coining of the phrase “the man on the Clapham omnibus”.

Used to describe someone who is a rational and intelligent person, it has been a phrase common in English law since the Victorian period. Coined by the constitutional writer, Walter Bagehot, it was reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2014, where Lord Reed said: “the omnibus has many passengers – and the most venerable is the reasonable man, who was born during the reign of Victoria but remains in vigorous health…”

Bus Fare: Collected writings on London’s most loved means of transport. Edited by Joe Kerr and Travis Elborough, AA Publishing, £14.99.

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