The perils of unfettered competition: a ‘desperate contention’ in the Mile End Road

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One of the ‘big ideas’ of the late twentieth century was privatization. The principle was that all things are made better by competition. The Conservative government of the 1980s believed in the power of the market to deliver better services more cheaply than the state could. As a result Britain saw the privatization of gas, electricity and water supply, telecommunications, the buses and railways, and a number of other formerly state run concerns (even prisons and, more recently and to seemingly disastrous effect: probation).

In the nineteenth century most of society was run privately however and Britain supposedly thrived on the competition for business that entrepreneurial capitalism provided. Margaret Thatcher’s love of ‘Victorian values’ is well documented and her government looked back to a time when Britain stood on its own two feet at the forefront of world trade and enterprise.

However, while competition is usually healthy we have found that the privatization project doesn’t always bring the benefits we were promised. Our utility bills seem to keep on rising, we are paying more for our television and phone use than ever before, the railways are expensive and more inefficient than ever, and our part privatized prison and probation service is in chaos.

Perhaps the reality of competition is then that sometimes the customer suffers rather than benefits from it, and in this case we can see that very clearly.

One Friday in late June 1843 an elderly man was waiting near the police station house on Mile End Road in the hope of catching an omnibus home. Throughout the 1800s several rival omnibus companies plied their trade throughout the capital and were not averse to some rough or otherwise underhand tactics in their competition for passengers.

Two omnibuses were travelling fast on the Mile End Road and both saw the gentlemen up ahead. As he waived his stick to flag them down the two drivers engaged in a furious dash to reach him first.

Thomas Evans was the owner and driver of his Victoria Stratford ‘bus while James Corney drove an omnibus called Monarch for Mr Giles’s company. Both raced towards the old man watched with growing concern by a pair of police constables who had just left the station house.

Corney was quickest and reached the fare first. Evans was close behind though; so close in fact that the pole of his vehicle nearly ran through the Monarch in the process and an accident was narrowly avoided. Both men leapt down from their buses to try and secure their passenger.

When the incident was tried at the Lambeth Street Police court the policemen testified that:

Here a desperate contention took place as to who should have the passenger, and such was the determination of each, that they actually laid hold of the old gentleman, and dragged him too and fro for some minutes’, only stopping when the police became involved.

Before Mr Norton (the justice), Corney admitted he had been driving too fast but blamed Evans. Evans placed the blame on one of his passengers (‘a gentleman who sat on the box seat stamping violently with his feet and hissing at the driver of the other vehicle’). This had caused his own horses to gallop off he said, and it took a while for him to regain control of them.

Crucially the police gave Corney a good character reference as a ‘careful and steady driver’ but condemned Evans as a frequent offender, and said he’d been fined several times for ‘furious driving’ in the past. The magistrate found fault in both their actions but more in Evans’. He fined Corney 10and the other driver 20. Both paid, Evans with much less good grace however.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 24, 1843]

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