by Richard Diment
Information about horse buses in Bexley in fairly limited but I have put together what I have been able to find out in the hope that others may be able to add to the story.
Bexley’s position on the main roads from London to Canterbury, Dover and Maidstone certainly meant that passenger-carrying wagons and stagecoaches used the main roads through the area in the couple of hundred years before the arrival of the first railways.
Possibly starting from the historic, and now restored, George Inn in Borough High Street the stagecoaches made stops at The Bull Inn on Shooters Hill, from where local connections could be made to Woolwich and Erith, and at the Golden Lion in what is now Bexleyheath. Pip and Joe Gargery from Dickens’s Great Expectations would have passed through the area by stagecoach as they travelled between London and the North Kent Marshes in the 1820s and 1830s. Before the railways, however, the fastest route to London was undoubtedly by river with regular services running from points along the south bank of the Thames by the mid-1830s.
Continuous use of local buses, picking up and setting down passengers along the whole route, can be traced back to Nantes in France in 1823 (though there had been a short-lived operation, mainly for amusement, in Paris as far back as 1662). By 1828 omnibus services were running in Manchester. Operation of local buses within central London was more difficult. Within an area known as ‘the stones’, the area covered by the City and the immediately surrounding area, passengers could only board and alight from coaches at their starting point or destinations. This measure was to protect hackney cab operators who, even two hundred years or more ago, knew how to lobby effectively.
A partial solution to this restriction was the use of Short Stages. These provided a stopping service until they reached the edge of the protected area then went directly to their central terminus point. The earliest comprehensive records of Short Stages come from a survey conducted in 1825. That found the use of Short Stages was firmly established by this time. On the day of the survey 418 vehicles were recorded making 1190 departures from the City. Short Stages were running into London from Bromley, Lewisham and Woolwich but nothing was recorded from anywhere in Bexley.
However by the time of a report from the Board of Stamps and Taxes in 1839 which listed omnibuses and Short Stages in the London area a service from Bexley Heath (sic) to Fleet Street was listed. This Short Stage was owned by R. Davis and provided one return trip each day.
The protection for hackney carriages within ‘the stones’ was removed in 1839 opening the way for the development of omnibus services within London. In 1855 the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus de Londres was incorporated in Paris with the intention of acquiring as much of the market as possible within London. Under its English name General, this company would eventually run about 75% of horse buses in London. Its fleet peaked at 3736 horse buses in about 1900 and horse buses would not be totally replaced by motor buses in London until August 1914.
Most of the recorded detail of horse bus operation focuses on routes to central London. The earliest list I have seen, from Cunningham’s Hand-Book of London (1850), records very little south of the river with Camberwell probably being the closest that any came to Bexley. By 1865, detailed in Critchley’s London: A Handbook for Strangers, horse buses had reached Greenwich with routes from both Charing Cross and Gracechurch Street in the City. However 14 years later in Dicken’s Dictionary of London (1879) the horse bus routes only came as far south east as Deptford. By that time horse-drawn trams had become a more effective option for the lengthy route from Central London to Greenwich and would retain a monopoly, apart from the trains, until the arrival of electric trams and motor buses early in the 20th century.
Horse-bus development in the Bexley area was therefore limited to local services providing feeders to the railways or tram routes. So far I have identified three groups of these, though there may have been more.
From the 1850s horse-bus services were linking Bexley Heath with stations at Woolwich, Abbey Wood and Dartford on the South Eastern Railway’s North Kent line which had opened in 1849. Details are sparse but the Changing Times Education Booklet (page 14) records that it took half an hour for the omnibus to travel from Bexleyheath to Abbey Wood and that it ran several times a day. In the 1860s William Morris used a wagon to commute between the Red House in Bexleyheath and Abbey Wood for the train to London.
The Dartford Loop line, with its station in Bexley Village, had opened in 1866 but it would be another 29 years before the Bexleyheath line opened. This provided another opportunity for entrepreneurs. T Allen ‘Omnibus and Fly Proprietor’ of ‘the Railway Station Bexley and Fine Cottage Main Road Bexley Heath’ ran a service from the Upton Hotel and Bexley Heath Post Office to Bexley station. A timetable from 1884, again reproduced in the Changing Times Education Booklet, shows the service running five times a day connecting with trains to London leaving Bexley at 10.31am, 12.45pm, 2.55pm, 5.15pm and 7.37pm for a fare of 6d, equivalent today to about £1.50. Many will be familiar with a photograph of Mr Allen’s bus, well-laden, taken by the Prince Albert Pub in Bexleyheath. Interestingly this shows the bus pulled by three horses unlike the normal arrangement for horse buses of two. This probably reflected the effort required to drag the bus back up Gravel Hill as it returned from Bexley.
When these services ceased is unclear. The opening of the Bexleyheath railway line in 1895 would at least have resulted in a scaling back of the services.
The opening of the Woolwich to Plumstead horse tram in 1881 led to the introduction of feeder horse bus services from Plumstead to Belvedere and to Bexleyheath Market Place. Exactly where in Belvedere the bus terminated I haven’t yet been able to ascertain but presumably it was Upper Belvedere as Lower Belvedere was already linked to Plumstead by the railway, The Belvedere service, and some of the Bexleyheath service, was run by the Tramway Company but Woolwich-based coachman Murray, who built up a network based on his home town, ran at least some of service to Bexleyheath. Murray’s service survived into the era of Bexley’s trams. Records from the opening of Bexley tram service from Bexleyheath to Plumstead in 1903 show that Murray’s horse buses attempted to disrupt the trams. A timetable from early 1908 shows Murray still running from Bexleyheath to Plumstead at 40 minute intervals but his service was withdrawn in 1909. Buses, horse-drawn or motor powered, would not be seen in Bexleyheath again until the 1920s.
Suggested further reading:
The 'Changing Times' project produced an Education Booklet looking at the history of the Broadway, Bexleyheath 1812-1912, including transport by horse bus.
For more general material on horse buses in London:
A History of London Transport, Barker & Robbins, London Transport, 1963
The Story of the London Bus, J. R. Day, London Transport, 1973
Victorian London website: www.victorianlondon.org