A London Transport ‘Battle Bus’, aka ‘Ole Bill’ © TfL

The Year Of The… Bus?

5th September 2014

With flak flying over who is to blame for bus services being slashed across the country (in some areas by up to 50%), we can thank our lucky stars for bus-centric London, where TfL has even designated 2014 the Year of the Bus.

Jack Watkins joins the celebrations.

As a man from the sticks, on my regular trips home I’m constantly made aware of the importance of a decent bus service for those with no other means of transport. It’s all too easy to blame Coalition cuts which have led to reduced subsidies to private bus companies, but in truth it’s been an issue for many years. The national transport debate may centre on whether to take the railways back into state ownership, but it’s high time for some creative thinking about bus services, too.

If your main recourse to the bus is restricted to central London, of course, this problem may have sailed clean over your head. The capital rejoices in one the finest services in the world, so when Transport for London (TfL) announced that 2014 was to be the ‘Year of the Bus’ it wasn’t met with the hollow laughter that would have greeted it in, for instance, my native Sussex. According to TfL, it’s all about taking time ‘to celebrate the vital role the bus plays in providing people with access to employment, education, services and social opportunities’, but there is also a strong heritage focal point, with several bus anniversaries cropping up, too.

For instance, it’s one hundred years ago this year that London buses – and their drivers –were requisitioned to carry troops to the frontline at the start of the First World War. It’s seventy-five years since the RT type bus was first taken into stock, and sixty years ago that the RM – or Routemaster – was first unveiled at Earls Court’s Commercial Motor Show.

The top deck of a London bus is such an obviously fine way to take in the visual delights of the city, it’s no wonder the tourist sightseeing companies make full use of them. Pounding the pavement is generally the best way of familiarising yourself with a particular location, but in London you spend too much effort weaving in and out of the crowds to have much time to look up and admire the architecture, so the bus is the perfect substitute.

Of course, there wouldn’t have much been much of a view on the earliest ones. The first omnibus services, between Paddington and Bank, started in 1829, but these were van-like horse-drawn carriages, holding less than twenty people. Thomas Tilling launched his highly popular omnibuses from Peckham in the 1840s, but buses with a top deck didn’t come along until 1881. Horse-driven buses endured until 1916, although the first motor-run buses actually started in 1897.

Their design differed little from that of a horse-drawn carriage, the body of the bus resting between the back wheels and the driver seated out front, behind the engine. The most successful of the these motorised vehicles were the B-type buses, first brought into service in 1911, of which only four examples now remain. One, on loan from the Imperial War Museum and now restored to working condition thanks to money from the Heritage Lottery, London Transport Museum Friends and public donations, has been placed at the heart of the Year of the Bus celebrations.

On the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the British Army requisitioned 300 B-type buses to move personnel around the front line. Driven by the men who had operated them as drivers and conductors back home, at first they retained their red livery, but were eventually painted khaki. Some served as ambulances, and others even doubled up as mobile pigeon lofts. They were named ‘Ole Bill’ buses after a wartime cartoon character, created by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather for his morale boosting Fragments from France column in The Bystander magazine. What a time the Ole Bills endured, though. “We started our engines, our hearts in our mouths,” recalled William Mahoney, an army driver between 1916-17. “Bang! Crash!! Nearly on us. Nine men killed and 14 wounded only 50 yards away. My engine would not start so we had to stay and repair it, the shells pounding around us.”

The restored Ole Bill has already had a busy year. It recently made a journey to Walthamstow Bus Garage before motoring along Blackhorse Lane to the site of the former AEC factory where it was built. In the autumn, it will be making an ‘emotional’ return visit to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium.

Before that, however, you can get a close look at Ole Bill, resplendent in its red and cream livery and period adverts – from Wright’s coal tar soap to Veno’s cough medicine – at a special Open Weekend (13/14 September) at the London Transport Museum’s Acton Depot, a former tube train repair shed complex which is now a ‘working museum store’, and which, with its incredible collection of over 37,000 items not currently on display at the Covent Garden site, is fascinating. There’s everything in the vintage bus line, not least examples of the beloved RTs and Routemasters – both of which, to the delight of nostalgists everywhere, were brought back into service earlier this year during the strike – as well as quite stylish-looking single deckers, and much more, including red Underground carriages (I’m just old enough to remember the last of those) and a Poster Room with the original paintings for London Transport’s ongoing policy of commissioning imaginative poster art. For the moment, though, the spotlight is on the buses. It is, after all, their year.

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