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How a scarecrow became a Romford omnibus conductor

PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:27 28 May 2017

Stagecoaches were replaced by the horse-drawn omnibus which could carry more people and was quicker. Picture: courtesy of A Century of Romford by Brian Evans

Stagecoaches were replaced by the horse-drawn omnibus which could carry more people and was quicker. Picture: courtesy of A Century of Romford by Brian Evans

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In 1909 Billy Manning reminisced about the omnibus. Prof Ged Martin tells his story

The old gentleman was amused by the thought of his life story appearing in a local newspaper.

“There’s old Billy Manning!”, he imagined people saying. “Thought he was dead.”

A sprightly 83-year-old (slightly deaf, he admitted) in 1909, William Manning lived in Roger Reede’s Almhouses, then located in North Street, Romford (later rebuilt in Church Lane).

Billy was born in Suffolk in 1825. He started work at the age of five (yes, five), for ninepence (nearly 4p.) a week. His job was the shoo birds off the crops, a live scarecrow. He soon learnt to work with horses.

In 1849, as he put it, “I emigrated to Romford,” at first lodging in a High Street pub.

Twenty years earlier, Romford had prospered servicing passing stagecoaches. But the arrival of the railway in 1839 destroyed the coach trade. What brought an expert on horses to Havering’s capital?

Only one horse-powered service could compete with the trains – not a smart stagecoach, but a more mundane “omnibus”. It’s a Latin word meaning “for everybody”, now shortened to “bus”.

Billy was the omnibus conductor, and later became the driver.

At eightpence (3p) a mile (“that isn’t much,” Billy insisted), the omnibus carried 28 passengers, 12 inside, the rest perched on the roof.

The journey, from the White Hart (later the Bitter End) in Romford, to St Paul’s Cathedral, was supposed to take an hour and a half. But picking up passengers on the way meant travel time was “generally about two hours”.

The railway was faster, but in its early years trains only ran to Shoreditch, inconvenient for central London.

“We were patronised all right,” Billy recalled, mainly by older people, “them as didn’t like going in the train.”

On Sundays and market days, customers had to be turned away.

The omnibus left Romford at 9 o’clock on weekday mornings, returning in time for a second service at 3.30pm. Billy failed to move the Sunday departure time back to 8am.

“Them old ladies, they used to take such a lot of time to dress, or else they wouldn’t get up soon enough, so we made it nine,” he reminisced. “We used to carry a fine lot of old ladies.”

Other passengers he remembered with less pleasure. “Once picked up a man that had committed a murder. He was hanged afterwards.”

In days of coal fires, thick fog was a hazard. Billy remembered “leading the horses all the way from London to Romford. That was a lively business.”

The service ceased around 1880. Railway safety had improved. Liverpool Street station opened in 1874, reducing the advantage of an omnibus right into the City.

But Billy continued to work with horses, delivering goods from a depot in North Street. “Many a time I was out all night with them.”

He gave up the carrier business after falling under his wagon, “and the wheel went over my leg”. For a time he worked as a caretaker.

William Manning’s wife Ann came from Wennington, near Rainham. They married about 1858. Their only child, a little boy, died in infancy.

Left a widower in his eighties, Billy retired to the Almshouses, taking up rug-making as a hobby.

“People have been wonderful kind to me,” was his verdict on life.

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