OMNIBUS (Lat. “for all”), a large closed public conveyance with seats for passengers inside and out. The name, colloquially shortened to “bus,” was, in the form voiture omnibus, first used for such conveyances in Paris in 1828, and was taken by Shillibeer for the vehicle he ran on the Paddington road in 1829. (1911 Encyclopædia Britannica)
The early days
In the early days of free European settlement in Brisbane, there was no public transport apart from river ferries. The population was very small and the built-up area very compact. Most people walked to their destination. Advertisements for properties for sale usually quoted the walking time, often underestimated, to the city.
The first cabs appeared on Brisbane’s rough roads in the early 1860s and by 1864 there were five in operation when Brisbane’s population had grown to around 13,000.
Occasionally coaches belonging to companies such as Cobb and Co. were used to convey members of the public to events such as the races on weekends, but this did not meet with universal favour.
The first omnibus appeared on our streets in 1863, operating between the town centre and Fortitude Valley and later Breakfast Creek. A newspaper columnist describes both the vehicle and the horses in very disparaging terms. He commented that many people preferred walking, even on warm days.
Omnibus services south of the river began after the completion of the first permanent Victoria Bridge in 1874. By 1877 there were 5 in operation. In the West End direction, they only ran as far as the Boundary Hotel until William Winterbottom began his services from Hill End in 1878.
The beginnings of regulation
In 1865, the Brisbane Town Council saw the need to introduce By-law Number 6 regulating horse-drawn public transport including omnibuses, cars, hackney carriages and cabs. This covered all 2 and 4 wheel horse-drawn vehicles used to transport passengers.
The by-law covered things such as licencing, fares, travelling speed, and inspections. Vehicles were to be driven at a trot, not faster or slower. Drivers and conductors were prohibited from attracting business by the use of bells, horns or shouting. The carrying of coffins or deceased human bodies was prohibited, presumably to prevent competition with undertakers. The law even specified the uniform to be worn by conductors.
Traffic in general in Brisbane had grown to such an extent by 1877, that another by-law was passed to increase road safety. This introduced the requirement to keep to the left side of the road and other measures such as slowing to a walking pace at intersections.
Whether intended or not, the comprehensive regulations were to be a source of continual funding for the council for decades to come.
More regulation and endless fines
Omnibus numbers and routes grew along with the population and size of the city. There was strong competition on some routes, although often licences were not granted where a satisfactory service was already in operation.
The 1865 By-law was regularly updated, including in 1875 and again in 1885, by the United Municiplaites1. Curiously, age requirements of 21 years for drivers and 16 for conductors introduced in 1875 were lowered to 18 and 14 years respectively in 1885.
Vehicles were to be painted a colour specific for the route traversed and public stands were nominated.
At nominated stands, omnibuses were permitted to wait until their departure times.
There were numerous inspectors on the job. As a result, over the years omnibus proprietors, drivers and conductors frequently appeared in the City Police Court.
Fines typically of 5 or 10 shillings and up to 5 pounds were meted out for offences such as going too fast, going too slow, passing another omnibus, not allowing another omnibus to pass, leaving a stand too early or too late, trying to stop passengers getting onto an opposition omnibus and waiting too long at a location that was not a stand.
Often the person found guilty was unable to pay what was a hefty fine for the time and it was “recovered by a levy and distress in default”.
As late as 1907, one hapless driver was fined for allowing a woman to ride on the box seat, which was permitted only for male passengers. His defence that it was not a regular service but a Sunday School picnic outing didn’t prevent him from being fined.
Riding on an omnibus
With open sides, sometimes just a canvas cover, and a completely open top deck on two-level omnibuses, travellers were exposed to the sun, dust, mud, rain and hail. Following an 1897 storm, there were reports of hailstones cutting omnibus awnings to shreds. The driver of a Breakfast Creek to Albion omnibus reported that one passenger hit by a hailstone during this storm had a head wound that bled profusely.
Most locations could be reached with a regulated fare of 3d, which was quite reasonable considering the cost of horse feed and the effect of the rough roads on the useful life of horses.
After climbing a steep set of stairs, passengers sat on plain wooden benches. In busy times, there was often overcrowding and a scramble for seats, especially the popular box seats. Headroom was required to be only 5 foot (150cm) making standing impossible for most. Seating space was at least 14 inches (35cm) wide per passenger.
The bus drivers were described as “good tempered, kind hearted, courteous,and jovial individuals. and would blow their whistles continually on the roads to town to warn their customers that they were en route”. Outbound, in the city they would call out in loud voices their various destinations.
Races between omnibus drivers weren’t unknown, even on crowded city streets and elicited numerous Letters to the Editor. Accidents sometimes occurred, as in an incident on the Victoria Bridge when a rider was knocked of his horse, reported in 1887.
Smoking was by custom usually confined to the driver and passengers on the box seat, however smoke and sparks were blown into the cabin behind. By 1880, smoking was not allowed, although breaches of this regulation seem to have been frequent.
The suspension of these vehicles was rather basic and roads had many potholes, gully crossings and other obstacles, making for a rough ride. The poor standard of roads created many problems, at times delaying journeys. One writer described Melbourne Street in 1880.
“There is on the one side of the road a dangerous swamp, on the other a precipice, lined with thoroughly soaked clay, whereas the road, narrow as it is, is a chaos of bottomless mire – so much so, that buses have to be dragged out of it by additional horses.”
Brisbane’s road surfaces gradually improved over the latter decades of the 20th century, but were still unsealed. On the fringes of the city, many roads remained rough bush tracks.
Passengers also had to contend with the occasional accident.
Reports of omnibus accidents appeared regularly in newspapers. Fortunately, due to the slow speed of the vehicles, serious injuries were rare. Omnibuses typically travelled at 7-8 miles, or around 12 kilometres, per hour. The driver, sitting in an exposed position, was the most likely person to be injured in an accident, along with any passenger sitting on the box seat.
Many accidents were caused by the poor roads. In March of 1883, for example, one of the Winterbottom omnibuses was travelling down Boundary Street in West End. Crossing over a wooden bridge over a creek, a wheel slipped down between two of the logs of the bridge surface. The driver was thrown violently over the railing of the bridge and received an ugly wound on the head, and injuries to both knees.
The frightened horses bolted, and the three passengers jumped out, receiving only a few cuts and bruises. The horses came to a halt at Hardgrave Road where they knocked down a verandah post.
In the 1880s, Montague Road was in such a bad condition that omnibuses frequently travelled on the footpath. In the dark of the night, there was the risk of slipping down unseen adjacent embankments. This occurred to a ‘bus carrying theatregoers one November evening in 1889. The ‘bus overturned without any of the passengers being seriously injured. The newspaper report goes on to say: “There was a good deal of mud and water about the place, and the appearance of the passengers after getting free of the vehicle may be better imagined than described”.
At times, the impact of the poor road system was dramatic. In the winter of 1893, an omnibus was swept away by the strong flow of water across the then very low Norman Creek bridge at Stones Corner. A passenger climbed onto the back of one of the horses and cut the harness straps, preventing the horses from drowning. Miraculously, there were no injuries.
Ironically, on occasions road improvements caused accidents. Queen Street was lined with wooden blocks in 1898 to reduce the dust and mud. On one day alone in 1902, two omnibus horses slipped on the blocks and had to be put down.
Mechanical failures also were a cause of accidents. In August 1895, a double-decker ‘bus belonging to the Winterbottom family was bringing a party of picnickers home from Mount Coot-tha. Coming down the steep incline, the brakes failed.
The horses galloped down the road and the omnibus, carrying 17 passengers on the top deck and 5 inside, overturned. Several were seriously injured and the top of the bus broke off. One of the horses received a bad cut on the leg.
Thousands of horses were employed to pull the omnibuses of Brisbane. The stables were located in less built-up areas near their terminuses, such as Hill End, Mt. Pleasant (Holland Park), Annerley and Coorparoo.
There was some concern for their wellbeing. The 1865 by-law required that horses should be “fit for public use”. Also, the number of passengers permitted to ride in a vehicle was limited. The 1885 By-law specified a maximum of 6 passengers for a one horse vehicle and up to 49 where 4 horses were employed.
Whilst many horses were fit for the job, some unscrupulous owners employed animals well past their prime. As well as traffic inspectors, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had their own inspectors. Operators were fined in the courts for having horses with, for example, abrasions under the collar. Horses unfit or not properly broken in could be ordered off the stand. In 1910, the Queensland SPCA was still calling out omnibus horses as one of their principal areas of concern.
Whilst they became accustomed to the hustle and bustle of city streets, horses taking fright from unexpected noises or objects was a cause of accidents. The introduction of steamrollers and electric trams increased the problem. Occasionally a brave bystander would manage to halt the horses.
When horses bolted, passengers usually jumped off before the omnibus gained too much speed or lay down on the floor to minimise the risk of injury.
Routes in service
Horse-drawn omnibuses reached their peak in numbers in Brisbane around the end of the 19th century. A full set of timetables published in 1892 shows a total of 31 routes with their city terminus at Eagle Street. With 637 departures across these routes between 7am and 10pm, the stand must have been a busy place!
On busy routes, such as Ipswich Road and Enoggera Terrace, there was a departure every 15 minutes or so through the day. Lowly populated areas at the edge of the city like Belmont and Mt. Gravatt had only a few services a day.
Highgate Hill had a service which came down Vulture Street, turned up Sussex Street and then travelled down Brighton Road to the terminus at the corner of Hampstead Road. In the 1890s, there were 38 omnibuses a day on weekdays. Another service ran down Gladstone Road as far as Bower Street 13 times a day. The Winterbottom family ran some 60 services a day via three different routes through West End to the stand on Montague Road near Victoria Street.
On weekends, groups often hired omnibuses for excursions. Picnics at locations such as Ferny Grove, Manly, Lota, Sandgate, Mt. Coot-tha and Enoggerra Reservoir were popular.
The demise of the omnibus
Alternatives to the horse-drawn omnibus started to appear in the 1880s. The first suburban train lines were constructed late in this decade, although the only line close to the Highgate Hill area was that constructed in 1890, with stations at Gloucester Street and Vulture Street. For more on this topic, please see my blog post, Gloucester Street Railway Station.
The Metropolitan Tram and Investment Company constructed a number of horse-drawn tram routes in 1885, including one to West End. A line to Vulture Street followed in 1888.
The tram company also began running feeder horse ‘buses to tram lines despite the complaints of existing operators who couldn’t offer the same combined ticket with the tram.
Electric trams were introduced in 1897. The West End line was amongst the first electrified. As tram routes were established and extended, many omnibus lines closed down, and homes close to tram routes became more sought after.
The death knell of the horse-drawn ‘bus was sounded by the appearance on Brisbane’s streets of the first motor omnibus in 1910. Mr C. A. Wood commenced a service between Bowen Hills and the Melbourne St. Railway Station using a 16 horsepower Albion based ‘bus.
Gradually other operators followed suit. Brisbane Motors Ltd, formed in 1911, was one of the first. It purchased a number of horse omnibus companies and began introducing motor omnibuses later that year. For passengers, it meant not only greater comfort with padded seats and internal electric lighting, but also a faster and safer trip. Early motor omnibuses travelled at around 25 km/hr, roughly twice the speed of their horse-drawn predecessors.
Obsolete horse-drawn omnibuses were converted for other uses, as horse-drawn vehicles remained on our roads for decades to come. Others were broken up or just left to fall to bits, forgotten in paddocks.
The last horse-drawn public transport vehicle operating in Brisbane was the hansom cab operated by Fred de Jersey until 1934 when he passed away, aged 79.
One survivor can be seen today in the Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba which is part of the Queensland Museum and is home to the National Carriage Collection. The ‘bus operated up to 1915 and is possibly the abandoned one pictured above.
So long a common and essential part of Brisbane life, the horse omnibus is today almost forgotten. Only the expression “to get the box seat” remains. In another post, I look at some of the families that ran omnibus services on the Southside of Brisbane.
Notes and Further Reading
1 The United Municipalities in 1885 comprised the Corporation of Brisbane, Woolloongabba, Ithaca, Indooroopilly, Booroodabin, and Toombul Divisional Boards, and the Shire of Toowong. The United Municipalities Act was passed in 1881 and allowed a coordinated approach to various local Government activities.