On the buses: Mr D’Arcy’s close encounter with John Bull

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There were two important innovations launched in 1829, both of which have become iconic London institutions. As we enter the height of the tourist season in the capitals, tens of thousands of visitors will be heading home with souvenirs and amongst them are likely to be images of London buses and policemen. The Metropolitan Police Force was created by statute in 1829 and on 4 July that year the very first omnibuses set off from the New Road (now the Marylebone Road) at the start of their journey to Bank in the City.

‘Buses weren’t an English invention – Parisians had been enjoying them for a few years already – but it was a Londoner named George Shillibeer who established the first routes in the capital. They weren’t large, carrying just 22 people at first, but as the mode of transport caught on more and more companies followed Shillibeer’s lead and soon there was fierce competition for passengers.

I imagine that omnibuses were quite a novelty at the start and just as tourists today might want to ride on a double decker Viscount D’Arcy (who sounds as if he might have stepped from the pages of Jane Austin novel) was keen to experience it for himself. He was staying at Mivart’s Hotel on Lower Brook Street (which is now quite famously renamed as Claridge’s) so could have taken a hansom anywhere but chose to ride with ‘everyman’.

He hailed a ‘bus bound for Paddington but the driver was reluctant to let him sit outside (where he wanted to) telling him instead to sit inside, where there was lots of room. The viscount wanted to ride outside (like I always want to ride upstairs, where you can see) but the man was abusive and insisted he couldn’t. D’Arcy wasn’t used to being denied what he wanted and got on anyway, making his way up to the roof.

The driver, William Davison, saw that he’d been ignored and raised his fist and waived it at the viscount, shouting more abuse. ‘Disgusted at this strange and unwarrantable conduct’, the viscount ‘determined on alighting as soon as possible’. As the omnibus stopped at St Pancras church he stepped down and was just about to place his foot on the street when Davison spurred his horse and took off at speed. Luckily D’Arcy was uninjured as he tumbled towards the ground but he was angry and made a note of the vehicle’s number (3912). He applied for a summons and, on the last day of July 1833, William Davison was summoned before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court to answer for his actions.

Viscount D’Arcy said he was ‘as much astonished as annoyed’ by Davison’s conduct, ‘from whom, from his round far face and complete “John Bull” appearance, he expected much civility’. Davison denied the charge and told Mr Rawlinson that it was D’Arcy that had started it by calling him a ‘damned fellow’. He brought along a witness but either they lost their nerve or hadn’t been paid enough and failed to back him up. The magistrate sent him off with a flea in his ear and a £5 fine.  The whole experience would have given the viscount a story to regale his friends and family when he returned home from London, something much better than a toy bus or a plastic police helmet

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 01, 1833]

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