Archive for March 25th, 2015

London Transport in the 1920sSome time ago, the VWoolf Listserv entertained a discussion of the meaning behind the omnibus on which Elizabeth Dalloway travels in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). I recently came across some notes from that discussion, and here they are:

  • An essay largely on omnibus travel in Woolf’s works is included in Woolf and the City: Selected Papers of the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. Elizabeth F. Evans & Sarah E. Cornish (Clemson UP, 2010), Pg. 31-39.
  • The London Transport Museum has London transport maps from the dates of Woolf’s novels.
  • In “Moments of Being,” Woolf remembered her mother, who “did all her immense rounds shopping, calling, visiting hospitals and work houses in omnibuses.  She was an omnibus expert.  She would nip from the red to the blue, from the blue to the yellow, and make them somehow connect and convey her all over London.  Sometimes she would come home very tired, owning that she had missed her bus or the bus had been full up, or she had got beyond the radius of her favourite buses.”
  • The most famous bus route in London is the no. 11.  The savvy (and economical) tourist choses that bus rather than a tour bus, as the no. 11 goes past so many famous sights, inc. St Paul’s, on its way to Liverpool St Station.
  • Background: In the first half of the 1920s in the centre of London, almost all buses were double-decker with open tops and open staircases.  (There were single-deckers farther out, but they had roofs; otherwise, I suppose they would have been like charabancs.)  The driver was in the open air and had no protection from the elements, not even a windscreen. While there was quite a variety of vehicles (see earlier email), the majority fell into two types:
    • The B: downstairs passengers sat lengthways with their backs to the windows. 
    • The K (also the S-type): downstairs passengers sat on ?transverse seats, two by two either side of the central gangway … the layout with which we are familiar today? (Baker, p. 57).
  • By the 1920s the main company was the London Transport General Company, and its livery was red, which is why London buses are red today.
  • The reference to a pirate bus is yet one more post-war reference in the novel. Some young men, having acquired skills in a war which was described as the first truly mechanical one, bought a war-surplus bus or lorry and set up business.  A small down payment was all that was necessary. The Metropolitan Police had to approve the roadworthiness of the vehicle, but, that done, it could operate wherever its owner chose. At the beginning of 1920 the demand for buses far outstripped the number available, and there was plenty of scope for those who were prepared to take up the challenge. Very few of these enterprises were long lived. (See London Transport in the 1920s (Hersham, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing, 2009) pp. 7-8).
  • One additional reflection on the middle-class people on the omnibus. B.S. Rowntree’s Poverty, A Study of Town Life, observed that poor people who were living at “merely physical efficiency” must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus?  that nearly 30% of Edwardians lived in poverty.


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