Image: Tram, Milan, Italy.
“A horse-bus or horse-drawn omnibus was a large, enclosed, and sprung horse-drawn vehicle used for passenger transport before the introduction of motor vehicles. It was mainly used in the late 19th century in both the United States and Europe, and was one of the most common means of transportation in cities. In a typical arrangement, two wooden benches along the sides of the passenger cabin held several sitting passengers facing each other. The driver sat on a separate, front-facing bench, typically in an elevated position outside the passengers’ enclosed cabin. In the main age of horse buses, many of them were double-decker buses. On the upper deck, which was uncovered, the longitudinal benches were arranged back to back.
Similar, if smaller, vehicles were often maintained at country houses (and by some hotels and railway companies) to convey servants and luggage to and from the railway station. Especially popular around 1870–1900, these vehicles were known as a ‘private omnibuses’ or ‘station buses’; coachman-driven, they would usually accommodate four to six passengers inside, with room for luggage (and sometimes additional seating) on the roof.
A small open wagon with or without a top, but with an arrangement of the seats similar to horse-drawn omnibuses, was called a wagonette.
Bus is a clipped form of the Latin word omnibus. A legend promoted by the French Transportations Museum website says the name is derived from a hatter’s shop of the Omnes family in front of the first station opened in Nantes by Stanislas Baudry in 1823. “Omnes Omnibus” was a pun on the Latin-sounding name of that hatter Omnès: omnes (nominative plural) meaning “all” and omnibus (dative plural) meaning “for all” in Latin. Thence, the legend concludes, Nantes citizens gave the nickname of Omnibus to the vehicle.
Though it is undisputed that the term arose with Stanislas Baudry’s company, there is however no record of any Omnès hatter living in that street. In 1892, the son of Baudry’s bookkeeper wrote in the Bulletin de la Société archéologique de Nantes that omnibus had a simpler origin. Baudry used to call his horsecars Dames blanches (White ladies), a name which, critics told him, made no sense. He then replied, with the Latin word: “Then, these are omnibus cars!” (cars for all). The name caught on immediately. Other stories about the name origin quickly spread out.
The term ‘omnibus’ carried over to motor vehicles. The 1914 book Motor Body-building in all its Branches, by Christopher William Terry, described an omnibus as having longitudinal seats in rows with either a rear door or side doors.
In Britain, John Greenwood opened the first bus line in Britain in Manchester in 1824. His pioneering idea was to offer a service where, unlike with a stagecoach, no prior booking was necessary and the driver would pick up or set down passengers anywhere on request.
Horses pulling buses could only work for limited hours per day, had to be housed, groomed, fed and cared for every day, and produced large amounts of manure, which the omnibus company had to store and dispose of. Since a typical horse pulled a bus for four or five hours per day, covering about a dozen miles, many systems needed ten or more horses in stable for each bus.
With the advent of mass-produced steel (at around 1860), horse-buses were put on rails as the same horse could then move 3 to 10 times as many people. This was not only more efficient, but faster and produced, in an age of unpaved streets, a far superior ride.
These horse-cars on rails were converted to cable-drawn cars in larger cities, as still exist in San Francisco, the underground cable being drawn by stationary steam engines.
(Not to be overlooked was the establishment in both London and New York, of steam hauled urban railways, either underground or on elevated structures. These metropolitan railways are where the present term “Metro” began. These systems provided “rapid transit” on their routes).
At around 1890, electric propulsion became practical and replaced both the horse and the cable and the number of traction lines on rails expanded exponentially. (This was seen as a huge advance in urban transport and considered a wise investment at that time). These became known as Streetcars, Trams, Trolleys and still exist in many cities today, though often having been replaced by the less infrastructure intensive motorbus as driven by an internal combustion engine.
From the beginning of the twentieth century the remaining horse buses which had not been converted to rail began to be replaced by petrol-driven motor buses, or autobuses. The last recorded horse omnibus in London was a Tilling bus which last ran, between Peckham and Honor Oak Tavern, on 4 August 1914.”