Our man on the Pirate Bus

Ten years ago a revelation appeared in London. To some it was part of the relentless march of technology. To others it was convenience epitomised. The Oyster card had arrived. Since its introduction it’s undoubtedly made life, on the whole, much easier not to mention more fun, especially when you melt them down in nail varnish and stick the chip into something else . It also removed one of the biggest problems with using buses, the need to proffer the exact fare in cash, a problem that has afflicted even the greatest among us. I remember the olden days, when my fare in London was 40p in coins and Noel Edmonds was a beloved television personality. But soon the fares went up, coins and Noel Edmonds fell out of favour, and the world moved on.

For the Victorian inhabitants of London paying for a bus was a more complicated business. Not only was there the need to get your change right, but there was the ominous problem of ‘pirate buses’, which stemmed from the fact that practically anyone was able to buy and operate their own bus. This led to a large number of competing concerns, some commanding a huge number of buses, as the London General Omnibus Company (General) did (controlling in 1856 some 600 of London’s 810 buses), whilst other operators could simply be two guys, a driver and conductor, and one bus. The General chose to standardise its buses, charging low fares, but the other operators could charge what they liked so long as there was a sign in the bus showing what the fares were. In practice, however, the sign was often hidden away out of obvious view. Furthermore, several more canny operators painted their buses to look like the General’s did. As such, unwitting passengers wound up boarding these buses, proffered the usual low fare, found the conductor demanding twice that amount or more, and were forced to pay it because legally they had already started their journey and by legging it they could be charged with fare dodging. Unsurprisingly the operators of such buses were soon referred to as ‘pirates’.

Usually the passenger was obliged to grin and bear it, but at least one man got his own back on the pirates, Mr William Saunders. In 1892 Saunders had jumped onto a bus and to his horror found himself charged double the usual fare; he’d accidentally boarded a pirate. To add insult to injury the bus then made half speed and ‘stopped wherever an apology for doing so could be found’. Saunders, reflecting on his misfortune, decided therefore to warn other people off, and whenever anyone else tried to get on board he shouted at them that it was a pirate bus. At this the conductor got increasingly irate, demanded that Saunders leave the bus, and when Saunders told him he wasn’t going anywhere, the conductor called for a police constable to remove him for ‘interfering’.

The constable tried to get Saunders to leave, but at this point Saunders launched into a speech about how the police ought to defend the rights of the victims robbed by such pirates. This should have been a clue to the officer about Saunders’ occupation. The constable then, according to Saunders, ‘showed a dispensation to attack me’. Saunders decided at this point to tell the policeman that he would happily refer the matter to Scotland Yard. This threat actually transpired to be a rather real one;

Saunders was in fact the Liberal Member of Parliament for Walworth.

Unsurprisingly, the constable, on suddenly discovering that the odds were now stacked exceedingly in Saunders’ favour, bolted a hasty retreat. The conductor, now completely unable to eject Saunders, instead resorted to a tirade of abuse which did as good a job as Saunders had done of keeping other passengers from getting on board. To the MP’s delight not a single other person boarded the bus until he reached his destination. To Saunders the message was clear;

‘I have as great an objection to being robbed by conductors as by landlords, and I was glad to find that a quiet method of passive resistance was so successful. A slight extension of the system would soon render piracy unprofitable in the Strand.’

Alas for Londoners pirate buses lasted well into the 1920s until they were effectively made illegal. But the incident not only proved a good example of the power of passive resistance but furnished us with a delightful account of one man versus a torrid injustice. As the Bristol Mercury wryly titled the article on the matter; ‘An MP in the Pirate Bus; the biter bitten’.

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