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Monthly Archives: December 2014

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.

Sources:

  • 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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Santa in wartime

Although war is almost the antithesis of the festive spirit of goodwill, this feeling did show through during the Great War. Most famously, there was the Christmas Truce of 1914. There was also the continued work of old Saint Nick.

Santa Claus was already a fixture of Christmas time well before the First World War – both by that name and as Father Christmas. The traditions of his annual visit to the children of the world was almost a century old in 1914, related in the 1821 poem “A visit from St Nicholas” (better known now as “The Night Before Christmas”.

This peacetime tradition continued into the Great War. Santa could be seen in the streets and hospitals visiting poor and unwell children:

Santa in Hackney (Daily Mirror 27/12/1917)

Santa in Hackney (Daily Mirror 27/12/1917)

He also visited sick soldiers:

Santa visits a wounded soldier in Fulham (Daily Mirror, 27/12/1916)

Santa visits a wounded soldier in Fulham (Daily Mirror, 27/12/1916)

Of course he also visited soldiers at the Front:

Santa making a delivery on the Western Front (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13397) )

Santa making a delivery on the Western Front (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13397) )

Some of those soldiers didn’t quite understand the Christmas spirit, though, it seems:

A less generous-looking Father Christmas! (Daily Mirror 21/12/1916)

A less generous-looking Father Christmas! (Daily Mirror 21/12/1916)

Obviously, Santa was not so pro-British that he couldn’t also visit people on the other side of the lines. In Austria-Hungary, money was raised to help him to visit wounded soldiers (presumably, his capacity to deliver presents to the country suffered alongside the rest of their infrastructure during the war!)

"This Year Santa Claus Belongs to the Invalid Soldiers" (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 7182) )

“This Year Santa Claus Belongs to the Invalid Soldiers” (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 7182) )

 
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Posted by on 24 December 2014 in Famous People

 

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They also served coffee

Londoners serving on the Western Front would have encountered there a familiar sight from home: coffee stalls. The number of these street vendors in London diminished, but they peddled their wares in France and Flanders instead.

Troops outside a London coffee stall at Auchonvillers, November 1916. © IWM (Q 4545)

Troops outside a London coffee stall at Auchonvillers, November 1916. © IWM (Q 4545)

As well as around a million Londoners, other features of pre-war London life appeared on the Western Front. Tradesmen’s horses were requisitioned, as were London buses. Some of London’s previously disparaged coffee retailers also turned up in the areas behind the battlefields.

Before the war, the coffee stall had been a prominent feature of London life, particularly at night. Their history is told in a very interesting post by Peter Jones on the blog London Fictions, in relation to a book called Arthur’s by A. Neil Lyons. The book is a series of vignettes bases around a south-London coffee called Arthur’s. Jones quotes a descriptive passage from the book that suggests the prevalence of coffee stalls in the London night:

Somewhere beyond William’s, which supports the [St George’s Circus] Obelisk, lies Kennington, famous for “Jim’s” and the “Original Pieman”; and beyond these again is Brixton; and between these two you shall find Arthur’s. This is an ambiguous direction; but then we night-seekers are jealous of our ill-fame, and the fear of the Oxford Movement is strong upon us. […] So I will leave the reader to identify Arthur’s for himself; and if he do not succeed, why, there are twenty other coffee-stalls between the Obelisk and Brixton, and the philosophers in charge of any one of them will answer to the name of Arthur.

The coffee stalls were denigrated by many at the time, particularly those stalls that were open through the night. It was felt that ‘night walkers’ and criminals were the only people who would frequent such places in the small hours. Lyons gives a more sympathetic depiction than many of the ‘state of London’ books that Jones quotes in his blog post.

Images of 'old-time' coffee stalls from a 1920s book - from London Fictions blogpost

Images of ‘old-time’ coffee stalls from a 1920s book – from London Fictions blogpost

When the war came, there were two big changes to the fortunes of the coffee stalls. The first is that they became something to be praised and provided rather than denigrated and driven out of business, at least those stalls that were serving soldiers. In December 1914, Messrs Burberrys donated £600 to the Red Cross fund “to provide One Motor Coffee Stall”; the next month, the Students’ Representative Council of London University were raising £600 for another coffee stall “for the wounded”. The reasoning for these stalls is provided by the Bishop of London in March 1915 when unveiling another stall, the first of 20 due to be provided by the Church Army:

“He did not doubt [The Times reported] that the travelling coffee can would be of great assistance, among other things, in promoting temperance. He expressed regret that soldiers who were abstainers had so few facilities in the ordinary way for getting liquid refreshment except that of an intoxicating kind, supplied by the wet canteens.”

In contrast to the coffee stalls of pre-war London, these providers of non-alcoholic beverages for soldiers were welcomed – and indeed run – by the nation’s elites. Lady Mabelle Egerton was reported in April 1915 to be “conducting a coffee-stall at the station” in Rouen.

Soldiers at a coffee stall at Aveluy, November 1916. © IWM Q 4488 - the Daily Mirror's 1916 caption read "A coffee stall behind the lines. It gets as many customers as ever it did when it catered for the revellers and night workers of London"

Soldiers at a coffee stall at Aveluy, November 1916. © IWM Q 4488 – the Daily Mirror’s 1916 caption read “A coffee stall behind the lines. It gets as many customers as ever it did when it catered for the revellers and night workers of London”

The other development was the reduction in the number of coffee-stalls in London during the war.

Political journalist Michael MacDonagh found himself out on Kennington Road during a gap in an air raid in January 1918:

Emerging from Lambeth [North] Station, I found myself at the top of Kennington Road, that long and familiar thoroughfare which I have traversed hundreds of times going to and from the Houses of Parliament. Little did I ever think that I should see it under the disturbing conditions and with the sinister aspect it now wore to my agitated mind’s eye. It lay dead in a hush under the moon. I have been frequently abroad as a journalist at all hours of the night, but never before in such absolute silence and loneliness. In my night-walking hitherto the motion and noise of the streets had never ceased. There were always pedestrians about; always, at first, carriages and hansoms; and, at a later period, always taxis and motor-cars. A policeman on duty was always certain to be come upon on turning a corner. “Nightbirds,” male and female, were to be encountered. To-night no one was abroad but myself. In the mile or so of Kennington Road I met no policeman or special constable; no prowler or drab. Those benefactors of the London streets on winter nights, the hot-potato man and the roasted chestnut man, were gone with the glowing braziers of their trade. That other friend of the night-wayfarers, the coffee-stall, with its red lights, its tea and coffee urns, its cups and mugs, its loaves and cakes, and its packets of cigarettes, had also disappeared.

His experience was unusual of course, as people were sheltering from the air raid at the time. But given that many coffee stalls were semi-permanent, we might expect him to have seen a few closed-up stalls on his walk. Given the shortage (and price) of sugar, it would not be too surprising if many of the coffee stalls had closed up for the duration.

There were certainly a few still left out and about during the war. In November 1917, a Canadian soldier was murdered in central London and the accounts of the event begin around a coffee stall on the Strand.

The war brought a range of changes to the streets of London, particularly at night (with the black out). Among them was the migration of many of the coffee stalls from London’s streets to the area behind the lines in France and Flanders.

Sources:

  • The Times, 4/12/1914, 19/1/1915, 4/3/1915, 20/3/1915, 13/4/1915
  • Michael MacDonagh In London During the Great War: the Diary of a Journalist (London, 1935)
  • Peter Jones, A. Neil Lyon’s Arthur’s, post on the London Fictions blog

 

 
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Posted by on 9 December 2014 in Ordinary Londoners, Places

 

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