Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Horse-drawn omnibuses

Some time ago, Cynthia Kimpton sent this interesting image of a carte de visite depicting a coach, or more accurately a horse-drawn omnibus. The carte de visite is very faded, so I have done some digital enhancement (click here or on the image for a larger version), which has made the subjects more visible than they were in the original, but there's not a great deal that can be done to make the picture any sharper.

Image © and courtesy of Cynthia Kimpton

Cynthia found the photograph "behind another photograph in my late paternal grandmother's family photograph album. She lived all her life in Royton, Lancashire, so I assume that is where the horse bus photograph was taken - or very near there anyway." The coach is of a type that I would initially associate with the late 19th or very early 20th Century, perhaps just prior to or around the time that trams (both horse drawn and electrified) were introduced. It is being drawn by three horses. There are several people in the photo, including:
- the driver up on top, holding the reins, and wearing a coat and top hat,
- a smaller man or boy seated to his right, wearing a peaked cap, perhaps a baggage handler (or in this part of the world, he might be called an "offsider"),
- a man standing on the ground at the back of the coach, wearing a cap and with what looks like a bag across his shoulder, probably selling tickets, and
- possibly another small person, or child, seated on the top of the coach, near the back, although this is not very clear.

There is some writing on a front left hand panel of the coach, but it's not clear enough for me to make out what is written.

Image © and courtesy of Old Bailey Proceedings Online
Horse-drawn omnibus in London, early 20th Century
Image © and courtesy of Old Bailey Proceedings Online

The Old Bailey web site has this image of a somewhat smaller horse-drawn omnibus accompanying an article on early transport, demonstrating its use in the early 20th Century, as evidenced by the early motor car behind it.

Image © and courtesy of George Fawcett Carriages

George Fawcett Carriages of Saintfield in Northern Ireland has this image of another small "omnibus," apparently of a design from a similar era, available for hire.

Image © and courtesy of Andrew Friar
Horse-drawn omnibus in Sydney, Australia, 1895
Image © and courtesy of Andrew Friar

This image of an old postcard shows a very similar omnibus to that in Cynthia's photograph, but located in Sydney, Australia and dated 1895.

This image is of a "double-decker" horse-drawn bus operating in the Derby area, probably in the late 1890s.

Image © and courtesy of Harry Butterton & Breedon Books

A similar horse-drawn bus in this image is apparently destined for use along the Ashbourne Road in Derby, although no passengers have yet boarded. The gentleman at the back appears to be the conductor. Although the caption to this image, which appears in Harry Butterton's Victorian Derby: A Portrait of Life in a 19th-century Manufacturing Town (publ. 2006, Breedon Books, ISBN 978-1859835333), states that is was taken c.1880, this appears very unlikely. The buildings behind the bus are the Derby Tramways Office (at left) and the Athenaeum (at right) - the former was built around 1904, which provides an earliest date for the photograph. It is very similar in style to the London bus shown above, which was also from the early 20th Century.

Both the bus pictured in this image and the previous one have spiral steps at the back, leading to the top deck. The bus shown in Cynthia's photograph is of an earlier type which used a vertical ladder instead.

If anyone can provide further insights into the date that Cynthia's omnibus photo is likely to have been taken, I would be most grateful.


  1. Your suspicions about the date are correct. This ex-Manchester horse bus is seen operating in 1907. Derby Corporation purchased nine in 1903, four of which were the large 37 seaters shown here. These examples were the largest horesebuses ever to operate in Derby.The first four that arrived in March 1903 cost the Corporation £135 including oddments.See page 32of The Story of Transport in Derby by Barry Edwards (Breedon 1993)

  2. Thanks very much, Barry. I will see if I can get hold of a copy of your book, as it may well provide much more of relevance to dating photographs. Regards, Brett

  3. Brett, a very interesting series of early photographs on horse-drawn buses and omnibuses. I have been researching Brisbane's horse-drawn buses for the past 20 years and hope to publish a book on that topic early in 2010. Do you have any photographs of Brisbane omnibuses? I have been tracking 60 companies (mostly family enterprises from the mid 1860s to the 1920s. Our bus services in Brisbane were only very small compared with Sydney and Melbourne and nothing like what was developed in London.
    Thanks, Beryl.

  4. Thanks, Beryl, for your comments. I'm afraid I don't have any photos of omnibuses from Brisbane. All of those featured here were from readers, from the net, or from books. You will find another article that I wrote about electric trams in Derby, here. However, I wish you all the best with your book.

    Regards, Brett


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