Heritage: Romford's first bus service

London General Omnibus Company c. 1903

An omnibus c. 1903. In 1912 the London General Omnibus Company was granted a licence to operate bus services to Romford. - Credit: Wiki Commons/Appleton's magazine

Before the coming of the railway, all manner of novel vehicles were put forward as the solution to travel problems.

It may surprise some that the first horseless omnibus to venture into Romford was during the 1830s, some years before the railway arrived.

A British inventor, Walter Hancock (1799 – 1852) had been experimenting with steam powered vehicles since 1824, achieving considerably greater success than Richard Trevithick’s earlier attempts with road locomotives.

By the 1830s Hancock was already operating passenger services between his works at Stratford and Central London. In July 1836, The Automaton, a 22-seater steam-powered omnibus, made its inaugural trip between London and Romford and back at an average speed of 10-12mph, attaining a maximum speed of 21mph on the Bow Road.

Although the trip went without incident, Hancock probably realised that the road to Romford would be totally unsuited to such a heavy vehicle during inclement weather. As a result, no further runs were made to Romford. However, The Automaton went on to successfully make a total of 761 trips, carrying 12,761 passengers.

Ultimately, its success was overshadowed by the dawn of the railway era and road tolls arising from the Turnpike Act.

Some sixty years later, during the course of 1908, another experimental service was undertaken by a Clarkson Steam bus. The route ran from Romford, via Squirrel's Heath and Emerson Park, to Hornchurch.

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Thomas Clarkson (1864 – 1933) had designed his first steam-powered omnibus in 1903, manufacturing them from his works at Chelmsford. Although his buses were already being used successfully on other routes in other towns, it was considered by Romford Council that the streets were too narrow to accommodate the 17-ton steam vehicle, so any plans of continuing to operate the service were abandoned.

Suffragettes marching in London for women's votes. Picture: PA

A group of 12 Suffragettes wearing prison garb commandeered a steam-powered ominbus and travelled on it to the Bell hotel in Upminster. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Ironically, in the same year, one of these buses from Chelmsford was commandeered by a group of 12 Suffragettes wearing prison garb, who travelled to the Bell hotel in Upminster upon it. Here they were joined by fellow Suffragettes who had been released from Holloway prison that morning, together with a brass band and a large gathering of supporters.

The march of progress could no longer be held back by Romford Council and at a special meeting of the Urban Council on September 6, 1912, the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) was granted a licence to operate bus services to Romford.

On Sunday, September 8 Romford got its first regular bus service, designated the 93 route from Bow Road Station to its terminus at the Unicorn, Gidea Park. However, the service did not get off to a good start, as the first run was held up by an accident at the Golden Lion Hotel.

A fleet of ‘B’ type buses with open top decks were used for the service, which could be an unpleasant experience during heavy precipitation or freezing weather. Passengers on the upper deck sat upon slatted wooden seats, open to the elements, with the only protection being a leather apron to cover the knees. This was attached to the back of the seat in front.

On November 1, 1912 the service was extended to Mile End, but it was subsequently cut back to Stratford a little over a year later.

The opening of Seven Kings Bus Garage in 1913 had greatly augmented LGOC with provision of regular services, enabling the local stabling and maintenance of the fleet of vehicles.

With the outbreak of the Great War, the War Office requisitioned large numbers of buses and restricted the supply of petrol and oil. As a result the service ceased on November 1, 1914 and throughout the war years. On April 22, 1919 the LGOC stated its desire to reinstate the omnibus service between London and Gidea Park, but it was not until 1920 that bus services to Romford were resumed, when the 93 was replaced by the 26 route.

* More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford Memories Facebook group