by Richard Diment
As far as can be ascertained, the first motor bus service in London was started in October 1899 by the Motor Traction Company Ltd running between Kennington and Victoria. A lack of reliable vehicles, and probably the development of electric trams in inner London, meant that expansion of the use of powered buses was slow. Although some horse-bus route ran from the north of the current borough to Plumstead providing links to the trams from there to Greenwich, it was not until 1907 that the first motor buses reached any part of Bexley.
Peckham-based Thomas Tilling Ltd had started to run horse buses in 1849. The Tilling operation expanded over the next half century and built up an extensive network in inner south east London. By 1900 the company was running 250 buses for which the company needed 7,000 horses. In October 1904 Thomas Tilling Ltd introduced its first motor buses alongside the horse-buses on its long-established route between Peckham and Oxford Circus. At that time it was one of only five motor bus routes running anywhere in the area that is today’s Greater London. There is photographic evidence of a Tilling route between Peckham and Lee Green in the winter of 1905/06 but that had ceased by early in 1906 when Tilling diverted the service at Lewisham to run from Peckham to Catford.
Although trams had been introduced in the north of the current borough by Bexley (1903) and Erith (1905) Councils another couple of years were to pass before the first motor bus route reached the area. Catford remained the furthest incursion of motor buses to the south east of London. Finally in July 1907 (different sources quote the 21st and 28th as the actual date) motor buses reached Sidcup when Thomas Tilling started a service from Oxford Circus to Sidcup using its existing route to Peckham and then via New Cross, Lewisham and Eltham to terminate at the Black Horse Public House in the High Street. 13 buses, mainly Milnes-Daimlers with 34-seat open top double-deck bodies running from the Tilling Garages in Bull Yard Peckham and Salisbury Yard Lewisham, were required to maintain a 15-minute frequency on the service, which at 15 miles in length was probably the longest motor bus route in London at the time.
In those early days route numbers were not used and the Tilling buses, painted predominantly green, used coloured boards and lettering to show customers which route a bus was running on. The Sidcup route carried vermillion boards with gold, black shadowed lettering.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) was the predominant operators of horse-buses across much of London (and soon to be so with Motor Bus services), but had little presence in south east London. Having started to develop its own motor bus routes and incorporated several fledgling bus operators in other parts of London by 1908, the General realised a different approach would be necessary with the relatively large, and in its territory dominant, Tilling business. The General sought an arrangement with Tilling and following an agreement in May 1909, the two bus operators agreed to work in partnership effectively giving Tilling first refusal to develop services in the Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham area in return for limiting expansion beyond its existing services in other parts of London. Also as part of this arrangement, the Tilling company adopted red as the base colour for its colour scheme.
Meanwhile in 1908 LGOC had introduced route numbers for its bus service and as result of the 1909 agreement the Tilling service to Sidcup service was given the number 21, the next available in the LGOC series. This number would remain in use for the route from Sidcup to central London, albeit intermittently in the early years, until 1997 despite the fact that for most of the century the route west of New Cross bore no relationship to the original one.
Suggested further reading:
Motor Omnibus Routes in London: Vol 1: 1899 to 1908 2nd ed, Omnibus Society 1999
Tilling in London, Capital Transport, 1986
From North London suburbia to Kentish countryside Route 21, London Bus Magazine Nos 155 and 158, London Omnibus Traction Society 2011