Benjamin Adams: a riveting war story

The British armed forces in the Great War took in men with a vast array of skills and experience. Many men ended up in combat arms, but where they had skills that could be useful in other parts of the military machine, they were often moved into roles where those skills could be used. Benjamin Adams was one of those.

Benjamin John Adams was born in Poplar in 1893, the one of the 13 children of boilermaker Robert Adams and his wife Mary. In 1911, he was living with his parents and his surviving siblings: five brothers and three sisters; two of his brothers were boiler makers like Robert, while Benjamin was a riveter.

On 15 April 1915, Adams enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Poplar. In December that year, he was sent overseas. He was not sent to the Western Front, Gallipoli or another war zone, though: Private Adams was sent to Belfast to work for Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilding company responsible for building the Titanic. In the years leading up to the war, the company had successively built six ships that where – at the time of their launching – the largest vessels ever made.

Harland and Wolff riveters, working in Glasgow © IWM (Q 20003)

Harland and Wolff riveters, working in Glasgow © IWM (Q 20003)

During the war, Harland and Wolff continued to build ships, including the ‘mystery ships’ – warships designed as civilian shipping. According to Grace’s Guides, they and one other company were the main builds of the standard warship designs.

After three months in Belfast, Adams returned to the DCLI before being sent away in April 1916 to County Durham for more non-military work. In July, they found him suitable employment in the army, but not in the DCLI: Adams was transferred to the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers. He soon qualified, unsurprisingly, as a riveter.

In September 1916, Adams was finally sent overseas with the RE. He served on the army’s vital railway system for three years, before returning to the UK on 8 November 1918.

Benjamin Adams may not have had an exciting war, nor a particularly dangerous one, but his work was vital. It was also an example of the army making good use of the skills of the men who ended up in its ranks.

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Posted by on 24 February 2015 in Ordinary Londoners


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SS Oriole and the blockade of the UK

On Friday January 29 1915, the merchant vessel SS Oriole set sale from its home port of London, heading for le Havre in France. It was last seen off Dungeness on Saturday 30th. A few days later two of its lifebuoys were washed ashore on the Sussex coast.

The SS Oriole (Daily Mirror 10 February 1915)

The SS Oriole (Daily Mirror 10 February 1915)

The blockades by the Germans against the UK and by the UK against Germany were hugely important in the course of the Great War.  Starvation through lack of imported food was a grave risk to both nations. In the end it was the British blockade that had the decisive effect, although the German attacks on merchant shipping in 1915 and 1917 helped to bring the USA into the war, which also helped to tip the balance in favour of the Allied Powers. Our story today, though, comes just before the German navy proclaimed the seas around Britain to be a war zone.

The Oriole was a steamer built in 1914 and weighing 1,489 tons, owned by the General Steam Navigation Co of London. On 29 January, it set sail with a normal cargo under captain William George Dale, from Wimbledon; under Dale were 20 other crewmen. On the 30th, the crew of (appropriately named) SS London Trader passed the Oriole off Dungeness.

What happened next is not definitively known.  On 6 February, two lifebuoys from the Oriole were washed up on the shore at Rye. On 20 March, a bottle was found by Guernsey fisherman containing a message written by the Oriole’s carpenter: “Oriole torpedoed – sinking”. By that time, the vessel had already been declared lost, and along with it all 21 lives aboard.

It is thought that the Oriole was sunk by submarine U20, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. That same submarine struck two other vessels that day: the Ikaria, which had sailed from Buenos Aires, and the Tokomaru, which had come from New Zealand. The crew of the Tokomaru managed to get away before it sank and were taken to Le Havre; the Tokomaru stayed afloat and was towed into that same port but was taken back out and sank on February 2nd. Nothing was seen of the Oriole, the vessel on the shortest journey.

The newspapers reported the Oriole as missing on 9 February, quoting an official statement:

“The British steamship Oriole, of the General Steam Navigation Company, which left London on January 29, was due at Havre the following day.

She has not arrived, nor is there any news of her whereabouts, except that two lifebuoys marked ss. Oriole were picked up near Rye last Saturda.

There is grave reason to fear that she may have fallen victim to the German submarine which torpedoed the Tokomaru and Ikaria. She carried a mercantile crew of twenty-one hands all told

[The Oriole, a London steamer of 1,489 tones gross was built last year.]”

The Express also carried accounts by the captains of the other two ships. The experience of Dale and his crew, if they were also attacked by U20, may have been similar. Captain Robertson of the Ikaria stated:

“When about twenty-five miles N.W. of Havre, 12.30 on that day, I was on the bridge with the chief and the second officer when we saw the wake of a torpedo coming towards the ship at about 30 ft. from the ship. The ship was stopped at the time for the purpose of getting a pilot as two tug-boats were coming up with flags to the fore.

About a second after we saw the wake of the torpedo we were struck in the fore part of the ship on the port side. An explosion occurred, and a volume of water, mixed with cargo, cement, and parts of the torpedo, arose about 60ft. and fell on the deck.

The ship immediately began to sink by the head. The crew were ordered to launch the boats to leave the ship. The crew and I then boarded the tug which was lying close to us, and waited for the ship to sink.”

Robertson and his crew were lucky; they got away onto the tug.

According to naval history dot net, the attacks by U20 were the first ships sunk without a warning by the submarine crew. Robertson had 30 seconds’ warning after spotting the torpedo, the Tokomaru crew spotted the periscope as they were attacked; we do not know what warning, if any, Dale and his crew on the Oriole had.

The crew of the Oriole are all believed to have died that day. Their details are listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database:

Surname Forename/initials Age Rank Additional information
BROOKE W S 53 Assistant Steward BORN IN LONDON.
CHAINEY W Able Seaman
GRACE E G Seaman


As you can see, most (10 of the 16 with additional details) were Londoners by origin or residence. I don’t know what wives like Sarah Elizabeth Statham in Bayswater or parents like Thomas Lynch in North Woolwich were told during the days after the loss.* Did they start to mourn straight away, or wait until the presumed deaths were official six weeks later?

All 21 men are now commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial to merchant seamen lost and sea.

The U20 sinking the Lusitania

The U20 sinking the Lusitania

A few weeks after the loss of the Oriole, Ikaria and Tokomaru, the Germans declared their first major submarine campaign with its attacks without warning. A few months later the same submarine – U20 – sank the RMS Lusitania, sparking outrage in the UK and the USA. A renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 helped to finally bring the USA into the war.  Many more men and women lost their lives during the war at sea in 1914-18, but these 21 men were among the first of this period of increased aggression by the German Navy in 1915.




* The next of kin details were collected after the war, which explains why some of the wives have new surnames.

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Posted by on 30 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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ML Gardner and a tragic air crash

Maurice Leigh Gardner was killed in a tragic air crash just as he was about to set out on his career as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps.

Maurice Leigh Gardner's accident, reported in the Daily Mirror, 21 January 1915

Maurice Leigh Gardner’s accident, reported in the Daily Mirror, 21 January 1915

Maurice Leigh Gardner was born in 1886, the son of Frederick Leigh Gardner and his Cape Town-born wife Miriam Gardner. Living with his father (and a domestic servant) at 14 Marlborough Road, Gunnersbury in 1911, he is described in the census return as living on ‘private means’. Frederick Leigh Gardner was similarly described – he had been listed in the 1891 census as a ‘dealer in stocks and shares’, but early in the new century gave that up and became an occultist, bookseller and author.

In the summer of 1914, Maurice Leigh Gardner took up flying lessons at the Beatty School at Hendon (run by American aviator George W Beatty). After a few months’ training, he passed his flying test on a Wright biplane and earned his Royal Aero Club Certificate (No. 1002).  At the same time he must have applied to join the Royal Flying Corps because on 19 January 1915, the London Gazette carried a notice that, as of 11 January, he was a Second Lieutenant in the RFC Military Wing.

That same day, 19 January, disaster struck. Flying in a Maurice Farman biplane at Farnborough, Gardner had completed a number of manoeuvres and was approaching the aerodrome at around 4.30pm. Suddenly the aeroplane dived and ploughed into the ground, engulfed in flames.  RFC comrades were soon on the scene and extinguished the flames as quickly as possible, but Gardner was dead and his body charred by the time he was pulled from the wreck.

Accounts vary about exactly what happened. Initial reports were that the aeroplane had mysteriously caught fire in the air (this was reported in Flight magazine and the Daily Mirror). However, the inquest found that the fire occurred after impact, when the fuel tank crashed into the engine.

Why Gardner’s aeroplane plummeted so spectacularly and disastrously into the ground that day is something of a mystery, as far as I can tell. The official inquest was inconclusive. The Aeroplane magazine stated in 1915:

 “An eyewitness of the accident expresses the opinion that Mr.  Gardner must have fainted in the air and have fallen onto his controls, so causing a dive for die last 60 feet. It may be, however, that he merely misjudged his height, and had no room in which to pull the machine back, as in the fatal accident to Flight Sub-Lieut. Ffield, R.N., at Hendon recently. It was not made known whether he was strapped into his seat or not.”

Either way, like Henry Ralph Lumley a few years later, Gardner’s nascent flying career came to a horrible end just as it was beginning. He is now commemorated in Golders Green crematorium.

Sources and links:

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Posted by on 19 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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Joseph Ball, shot at dawn

At 7.30am on 12 January 1915, a firing squad was assembled behind the British lines on the Western Front. Its grim task was to carry out the first double execution of British soldiers in the war. Those men were Private J Ball and F Sheffield of the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. This is Joseph Ball’s story.

The Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire

The Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire

Joseph Ball was born in West Kilburn; by 1912, he was 18, working as a van guard, and apparently keen to join the army. First up, he joined the Special Reserve (which could be called up in wartime) in the 5th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, in May. Then in August, he enlisted full-time as a soldier in the same regiment’s 2nd Battalion. He is described as fresh of complexion, with dark brown hair. Ball served with the unit in England for a year before it went to Malta in September 1913.

In his peacetime service, Ball was far from the perfect soldier. Every month or so, he was punished for some misdemeanour: untidiness, dirtiness, having a rusty rifle, not complying with orders, absence from parade and falling asleep while on sentry duty. The punishments ranged from brief detention, to a few days confinment to barracks, to simply an admonishment.

It was clear to his officers that this young man was not good soldier material. In March 1913, his Company commander wrote to the battalion’s adjutant, “Pte Ball was brought before me again today. I have remanded him in order to ask whether the [battalion’s Commanding Officer] cannot apply for his discharge. The man has absolutely no vice but is less than half witted. He will never make a soldier.”

It was not at all unusual for new recruits to be rejected as unlikely to become an “efficient soldier”, although in this case the application was for discharge as no longer required. In the year to September 1912, over two hundred recruits were rejected by the army within their first three months’ service for reasons over than medical; the following year the figure was 148. Around 400 were rejected on medical grounds in that same period after enlistment.

Sadly for all concerned, this officer’s recommendation for Ball’s discharge was not heeded. The soldier stayed in the Company; his annual reviews reported him (perhaps surprisingly) as of “Fair” military character, but noted that he was “Untidy and unreliable. Weak intellect”.

In September 1914, the 2nd Middlesex went rushed back from Malta to England in readiness to go to war. They arrived in France on 6 November, with Ball in their ranks. According to David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex regiment soldiers who were executed, Ball and Private Frederick Sheffield deserted together: “After only six weeks active service, they had deserted together from their unit. … Ball and Sheffield were discovered hiding in a barn, pretending to be French civilians. They were tried on 30 December 1914.”

Details of Ball's trial and execution, from his service record.

Details of Ball’s trial and execution, from his service record.

The Field General Court Martial convicted them of “when a soldier on active service attempting to desert His Majesty’s Service and sentenced [them] to suffer death by being shot.” Field Marshal Sir John French confirmed the sentence, and the two men were shot on 12 January 1915.  They are now remembered on the Le Touret Memorial in France.

It seems from Joseph Ball’s service record that the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, let themselves and this young soldier down terribly. Despite his clear inadequacy as a soldier, they kept him on for some reason, punishing his misdemeanours but not sending him back out into civilian life. When it came to the Great War, they took this unreliable soldier with them to France, and when he deserted, ruthless punishment ensued and he was executed.


  • J Ball’s service record
  • Annual reports of the British Army, 1912-13 and 1913-1919
  • David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex Regiment men shot at dawn
  • The website Blindfold and Alone shows the stages of trial and confirmation/variation of sentence involved in cases like Ball’s (although his case is not featured)


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Posted by on 12 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners


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Will Owen’s Old London Town

Men and women at war often long for home. Quite what their image of home is can vary. During the Great War, an effort was made to provide a positive, homely and nostalgic vision of London for soldiers returning here on leave (or passing through).  Illustrator and writer Will Owen produced words and images evoking ‘old London town’.

Freybourg and Treyer; illustration from Will Owen's Old London Town (1921)

Freybourg and Treyer; illustration from Will Owen’s Old London Town (1921)

When service personnel arrived on the leave train at one of the London terminal stations in the last six months of the war, they could pick up the free weekly newspaper ‘Welcome’ from WH Smith. It provided those on leave with practical information about getting around, where they could find accommodation and how they could avoid scammers. Much of the material was produced by the propagandist National War Aims Committee.

Among those things, there was also a regular series called ‘bits of old London town’. This consisted of line-drawings and brief, chatty descriptions of old bits of London – buildings and things in the street that evoke a sense of London’s history.

William Widden Owen was born in Malta in 1869 but grew up in London. In 1881, he lived with his parents Thomas and Mary Elizabeth in Brixton; by 1891 he was a Government Clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, still living with his parents, now at 35 Mervan Road. In around 1898, he married Irishwoman Margaret Florence; in 1901 they were living in Richmond and by 1911 they were raising their two daughters in Deal, Kent. By then, Owen’s profession is listed in the census as ‘Artist (painter)’ – he was writing and producing illustrations for various magazines.

His wikipedia entry describes his work during the war: “During the First World War he produced cartoons for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, introducing readers to new terms such as ‘strafe‘, ‘Blighty‘, ‘pipsqueak‘ and ‘brass’.”

He also produced those illustrations for ‘Welcome’.  They range from No 10 Downing Street and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea to the Wapping Old Steps and the London Stone, as well as points at the limit of the urban area of London like Neasden-cum-Kingsbury Parish Church. About the journey to the latter, he writes “A curious fact about Neasden Station is that if you turn to the right you will see nothing but bricks and mortar the whole of the way into London, but turning to the left you find yourself almost immediately in rural England at its truly ruralest.”

The illustrations are mostly street scenes, but there is very little of the streetlife of the war – the food queues and servicemen and women that wartime brought to the streets of London. A solitary exception is the illustration of Shepherd Market off Piccadilly, which shows an officer and a nurse.

Shepherd Market, off Piccadilly; illustration from Will Owen's Old London Town (1921)

Shepherd Market, off Piccadilly; illustration from Will Owen’s Old London Town (1921)

In his thesis on propaganda and the NWAC, David Monger notes the role of these pictures as depicting an idealised British home-front community that servicemen and women were serving to protect.

Owen also continued to create more traditional images for magazines such as The Sketch. Lucinda Gosling’s book Brushes and Bayonets includes several examples.

After the war, Owen continued his work as an illustrator, including for the London Underground. Gosling describes Owen’s most famous work as the creation of the ‘Bisto Kids’.

The "Bisto Kids", Will Owen's most famous creation

The “Bisto Kids”, Will Owen’s most famous creation

Will Owen’s wartime illustrations for ‘Welcome’ were published in 1921 as Old London Town, which is available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. The book has the rather nice preface, ‘I make no apology for the publication of this little book – on the contrary’.


Acknowledgement: Thanks to David Monger for alerting me to the original use of Will Owen’s illustrations, which is covered in his thesis ‘The National War Aims Committee and British patriotism during the First World War’ and more recent articles.

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Posted by on 9 January 2015 in Famous companies, Famous People



When will this war end?

That was a question that was all too often on the minds of soldiers, sailors and civilians during the Great War: when will this war end? Views varied throughout the war on what a realistic answer was.

This recruiting poster promised victory in 1915 if only men would come forward in sufficient numbers

This recruiting poster promised victory in 1915 if only men would come forward in sufficient numbers

In January 1915, businessman F.S. Oliver wrote to his brother in Canada about the progress of the war and attitudes to it in London.

…when will it be finished? The man in the street varies between 3 points of view: Kitchener’s original prophecy of three or four years; the general business man’s view, March 1916 [i.e. another 14 months]; the newspaper (derived from the General staff) optimist, 3 or 4 months. Just now it has made up its mind to the first of these.

What can we learn from this? Obviously it is only the observation of one (quite well-connected) man, but it tells us something about views about the war.  For one thing it tells us that there was some variation in views, so we cannot simply say that people thought one thing or another. The quotation also tells us something of where he felt the views had come from; the 3-year prediction was a well-known statement of Lord Kitchener’s, when he called for a mass army to be formed. The idea that newspapers and generals were promising a short war is something that has become a major part of our mythology of the Great War.

Over by Christmas?

I have written elsewhere about the idea that people in 1914 thought that the Great War would be ‘over by Christmas’. Some may have done, but it was not a widespread belief and is only very rarely expressed in written sources. Soldiers were more likely to say that it would be over so soon, either because they feared not getting to use their training and take part, or because they had taken part and wanted it to be over as soon as possible. Many went from fear of an early end to the war to wishing for it.

Henry Williamson (later author of Tarka the Otter) presents a good example of the effect that war service had on predictions. Having predicted at least a year of war in August 1914, he repeated in September that the ‘war looks as if it will be a long one’. After his first spell of service in the muddy, dangerous front line trenches, however, he wrote home that ‘We all think the war will end soon, thank God when it does’.

Private Henry Williamson, 1915

Private Henry Williamson, 1915

The timing of the recruiting boom of 1914 suggests that men did not join up in droves thinking the war would end by Christmas. The peak of recruiting came in the wake of the British Army’s retreat with heavy losses from Mons – hardly an event to inspire dreams of an imminent victory.

The idea that generals and politicians were telling everyone (through the newspapers) that the war would be over soon doesn’t hold much water.  The only such public statement that refers to that term that I was able to find (other than in reference to a German belief in an early victory) was from Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who told an audience at Harrow School in October that he ‘was perfectly shocked when he read in the papers of people talking about the war being over by Christmas [. . .]. In his judgement more than one Christmas would pass before our soldiers returned’. Curzon was using the phrase in exactly the opposite way to how generals and politicians are popularly supposed to have used it – instead of an optimistic promise to persuade men to join up, it was a warning not to think that victory would be easy.

The phrase and the idea certainly existed in 1914, then. It appears several times in Punch, including in this oddly-prescient exchange in a story in the 14 October issue:

“It’ll be over by Christmas all right,” said James again, but without conviction. “Maybe,” I said; “Christmas, 1918, you mean, I suppose?” James called me a rude name, as soldiers will, and relapsed into moody silence.

The idea that it was dominant, though, is part of the post-war image of 1914 that has grown up since then, during the later war years and particularly after 1918.

After 1914

In general, it seems that people’s expectations of the length of the war revolved around the big battles and calendar years.  Robert Graves notes in Goodbye to All That that soldiers could not really conceive of the war going on for more than another 12 months.  When he was conscripted in the summer of 1916, Edwin Bennett from Walthamstow promised his family that the war would end and he would be home again to play with his new daughter within a year.

Perhaps surprisingly, people could place bets against the ‘risk’ of peace coming within a certain time period. In 1914, even odds were given on peace by March 1915, but the ‘risk’ of peace within around 12 months decreased gradually from 75% in Spring 1915 to only evens in August 1917.

Others placed less formal bets, including many servicemen but also civilians. RWM Gibbs, a Battersea-born teacher then living in Surrey, had such a bet with his outfitter in early 1916 that the war would end that year. Gibbs’s father had made the same prediction a few months earlier.

The big set-piece offensives on the Western Front raised and – for the most part – dashed hopes of victory by the end of the year, or by Christmas. The battle of Loos had this effect, but it was much more prominent in 1916 in the run up to the battle of the Somme and, particularly, in 1917. The year had been unofficially declared the ‘year of victory’, with a ‘Victory Loan’ and a memorial unveiled in the East London cemetery dedicated to the fallen of the war of 1914-1917.

Newspapers made no secret of the 1917 War Loan being a 'Victory Loan' (Daily Mirror, 27/2/1917)

Newspapers made no secret of the 1917 War Loan being a ‘Victory Loan’ (Daily Mirror, 27/2/1917)

The failure to bring about victory in 1917 was a huge blow to British morale. Another enormous offensive at Ypres had brought peace no closer than had the previous summer’s effort on the Somme. The failure to break through or even hold on to ground captured at Cambrai only added to people’s disappointment, as we have seen recent blog post.

As noted in that blog post, the annual debate at Talbot House (in Poperinge, Belgium) on whether the war would end by the end of the coming year had registered a strong ‘yes’ vote in 1916 and 1917. The vote in early 1918 produced a tie, with only the chair’s casting vote producing an overall affirmative resolution that the war would end in 1918.

In 1939?

An interesting echo of Oliver’s observation from the start of 1915 comes in a Mass-Observation survey in November 1939.

Only 19% thought that it would last three years (considerably more than before the government’s prediction of a three-year war was publicised), whereas 21% expected it to last ‘nine months to two years’ and the same proportion thought that the war would be over in less than six months, only two decades after the 52-month Great War! The report noted ‘the exceptionally high proportion [29 percent] who can’t answer’, many of whom had ‘thought there would never be a war and since its outbreak have been wishfully thinking it away’ Similarly there were predictions from 1942 at least that the war would end within the year, while battlefield victories boosted confidence in an imminent peace.

When will this war end?

Of course we all now know that the war ended on 11 November 1918 (or at least the fighting on the Western Front ended then, the peace was signed in July 1919 and actually legally came into force in 1920). One thing that makes contemporary diaries both interesting and at the same time hard to become entirely lost in is that we know when the big battles were to come and when peace would finally return, when those living through the war obviously could no know either. It is very hard for us now to know how it felt to be in, say, November 1916 not knowing that the war would last for another two years. That people withstood the hardships of such a protracted and unpredictable conflict is hugely impressive.

The beginning of a new calendar year prompted widespread expectations (or perhaps more accurately hopes) of peace within 12 months – before the end of the year or by Christmas. From 1915 to 1917 this was a common feature in British morale; ironically, 1918 appears to have been an exception and peace seemed further away than ever.

Main sources:

  • See my article ‘”Over by Christmas”: British popular opinion and the short war in 1914′ in First World War Studies journal 2010
  • FS Oliver, ‘Anvil of War’
  • Diaries of RWM Gibbs and Andrew Clark (Bodleian library)
  • Letters of Mr and Mrs Bennett (IWM)
  • Harrison and Madge, eds. ‘War begins at home by mass observation.’
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Posted by on 4 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, Recruitment


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London buses at war 1914-1918

This week sees the end of London Transport’s “Year of the Bus”, as well as the first year of the centenary of the Great War. In this last post of 2014, we will have a brief look at some of the changes to the life of London’s buses that the years 1914-1918 brought – at war and at home.

Military service

In one of the earliest posts on this blog, we heard of a Londoner who travelled to the Front in 1914 on the same bus that he had used at home – with the same driver! This was just one of many London buses that were deployed with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and remained there for the duration.

A London bus (still displaying the LGOC's name) at Ypres in 1914 © IWM (Q 57328)

London buses (still displaying the LGOC’s name) at Ypres in 1914 © IWM (Q 57328)

Wrecked bus at St Eloi in France, only two weeks after leaving Willesden Garage in 1914 (Daily Mirror photo)

Wrecked bus at St Eloi in France, only two weeks after leaving Willesden Garage in 1914 (Daily Mirror photo)


The first buses to come into service did so slightly earlier, though – back in London. As soon as the war began, London’s buses were pressed into action. The same issue of the Daily Mirror that carried pictures of the scenes in Westminster on the night that Britain declared war on Germany also showed the Territorial Force using a requisitioned bus to transport men and ammunition – the men sat on the upper deck, while ammunition “from the powder magazine in Hyde Park” (an oddly detailed description for wartime!) was carried inside.

A London bus used to transport Territorial soldiers and ammunition (Daily Mirror, 6/8/1914)

A London bus used to transport Territorial soldiers and ammunition (Daily Mirror, 6/8/1914)

Once the buses did reach the front they were used for various purposes. As well as transporting men to the front, they were also used for transport in the opposite direction – both for regular movement of troops and to move the wounded back to hospital for treatment.

London buses used as amublances in 1914 (Daily Mirror, 13/10/1914)

London buses used as amublances in 1914 (Daily Mirror, 13/10/1914)

It was not only people who needed to be moved around at the front. Pigeons were housed in converted buses:

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918 © IWM (Q 9000)

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918 © IWM (Q 9000)

Even more dramatic was the change to this bus, stripped entirely of its superstructure and made into the mobile base of an anti-aircraft gun.


A London bus after a major re-fit as an anti-aircraft gun-carraige (from Illustrated War News 1916)

A London bus after a major re-fit as an anti-aircraft gun-carraige (from Illustrated War News 1916)

Back in Blighty

The volume of traffic on London’s public transport system in the early twentieth century was enormous. In 1881 41.1 million bus journeys were taken in the capital, along with 40.5 million train journeys; by 1901 the figures were 269.9m bus journeys and 236.5m train journeys plus 340.7 journeys by tram – nearly 850m journeys in total. In 1908 the total number of journeys was 1.36 billion and in 1913 over 2 billion.

Around nine hundred or a thousand London buses went to war during 1914-1918. According to the Metropolitan police’s chief superintendent of carriages, there were 2,277 “motor omnibuses” on the capital’s road at the end of 1918, compared with 3,057 in 1914. This must have made a difference to the availability of public transport in the streets during the war years – with the reductions in civilian train services as well, it was noticeably harder to get around during the war than in the years that preceded it. Bus manufacturing also virtually stopped – turned, like so much other production, to war purposes for the duration. The numbers of passengers, however, continued to grow: 2.37 billion journeys on public transport in London in 1918, 682 million of them by bus

As well as the disappearance of the buses, many of the omnibus workers also went to war. By February 1915, 21% of the men employed in London’s bus and tram services had joined the armed forces and only 3.5 percentage points of the shortfall had been made up.

By late 1915 it was quite obvious that women would be needed to keep London’s transport infrastructure working. The first female bus conductor was taken on by Tilling’s (one of the smaller of the main bus operators) on their No 37 route in late 1915. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the main bus provider in the capital, lagged a bit behind but eventually took on bus female bus conductors in February 1916.

One of the first female London bus conductors (the caption notes that London was behind other towns in employing women this way) (Daily Mirror, 28/10/1915)

One of the first female London bus conductors (the caption notes that London was behind other towns in employing women this way) (Daily Mirror, 28/10/1915)

A few months later, the LGOC started to employ women - in rather unfriendly weather conditions (especially for an open-topped double-decker!) (Daily Mirror, 25/2/1916)

A few months later, the LGOC started to employ women – in rather unfriendly weather conditions (especially for an open-topped double-decker!) (Daily Mirror, 25/2/1916)

As with most expansions of women’s work during the war, this change was greeted with much publicity around women doing their bit and how they could do ‘man’s work’. By mid-1918, the number of women employed on buses across the country had increased from 300 to 4,500 (on trams it was even greater: from 1,300 to nearly 22,000). It was estimated that 90% of conductors on trams and buses were women. Generally, men were retained as drivers and doing some of the heavier (and dirtier) engineering roles. The conducting role was said to be beneficial to the health of those women who did it.

In reality, women were not seen as directly doing ‘man’s work’ as they were not paid the same as men doing the same jobs in transport. The transport companies (including LGOC) said that this was because their female employees were less reliable, less able to collect fares during rush hours, required more staff on duty at any one time and more training, and were subject to more complaints by the public. In August 1918, women transport workers across the country went on strike demanding equal pay with men. They didn’t get it but were given a war bonus.

(Daily Mirror, 20/8/1918)

(Daily Mirror, 20/8/1918)

Just as buses at the front could be caught up in the devastation of war, so too could some unlucky vehicles – and their crews – in London. When bombs fell around Liverpool Street station, one bus was very heavily damaged and its driver and conductor killed.

Michael Macdonagh described the scene in his war diary:

Making my way across Moorgate Street and down London Wall, I came to the place where a bomb dropped in front of a motor-onmibus bound for Liverpool Street Station, and blew it to pieces. Twenty people were on board, including the driver and conductor. Nine were instantly killed and eleven seriously injured. The driver had both his legs blown off and died on his way to hospital. The door of a block of offices was pointed out to me where the housekeeper standing on the steps was killed. The roadway was strewn with the glass of shattered windows.

In the driver and conductor’s well-attended funeral procession the next week, a bus was decked out with garlands in his honour.

Seven hundred omnibusmen attended the funeral of their colleauges killed in the 8/9 September 1915 Zeppelin raid. A decorated bus took part in the procession. (Daily Mirror 21/10/1915)

Seven hundred omnibusmen attended the funeral of their colleauges killed in the 8/9 September 1915 Zeppelin raid. A decorated bus took part in the procession. (Daily Mirror 21/10/1915)

As with so many aspects of London life, the Great War brought big changes to the buses. Transport was one of the major – and most visible – areas of the expansion of female employment, while some of the vehicles went to war in 1914 alongside their male operators.


  • Sheila Taylor (ed), The Moving Metropolis: A history of London’s transport since 1800
  • Daily Mirror, 1914-1918 editions and modern story about buses
  • London Transport Museum website
  • Parliamentary papers: Royal Commission on London Traffic (1905, Cd 2597), State of Employment (Feb 1915, Cd 7850), Report from the Select Committee on Transport (Metropolitan Area) (1919 (147)), Women in Industry (1919, Cmd 135),
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Posted by on 30 December 2014 in Famous companies, Ordinary Londoners, Women


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