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At the end of the seventeenth century most Londoners travelled to work and to their shops and markets on foot. By the beginning of the twentieth century there were still large numbers of pedestrians but the expansion of the metropolis meant that thousands commuted daily from the suburbs by omnibus, tram, railway and even steamboat. While satisfying commuters and shoppers, the growth ot transport provided new opportunities for offending. And while much of the punishable behaviour relating to the expansion of traffic during the nineteenth century involved petty offences too minor for the Central Criminal Court, there were other, more serious offences that found their way to the Old Bailey.

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Horse-Drawn Coaches and Omnibuses

Eighteenth-century London, like its contemporaries, was principally a walking city. But pedestrians had to share the narrow streets with animals on their way to market or to slaughterhouses, with the different forms of carriage used by the wealthy, and with a variety of carts and wagons transporting goods. A carriage or wagon travelling too fast, taking a corner too tightly or failing to lock its wheels sufficiently when stationary posed a potentially lethal threat to pedestrians, especially the very young or the old. Throughout the long eighteenth century the Proceedings contain cases of carters and carriage drivers prosecuted for homicide when their vehicle struck someone, or when they collided with another. See, for example, the case of the little boy killed by the Newmarket mail coach in 1796.

But as a commercial and political capital London needed to develop fast links with the provinces. During the eighteenth century the country began to be criss-crossed with fast turnpikes that carried mail, news and passengers to and from the metropolis. These horse-drawn coaches, as well as the occasional goods wagon and lone, mounted traveller, had to cross several open expanses of land on the fringe of the metropolis which were noted for highwaymen. Concerns about highway robbers almost certainly outweighed the reality, but men charged with robbing stage coaches and other travellers on the roads running in and out of the metropolis frequently appear in the Proceedings until the 1830s.

Two white horses draw a double-decker omnibus.  A mistachioed man in a bowler hat holds the reins, and a policeman in uniform can be seen on the open upper deck.  Advertisements cover the sides of the vehicle. Omnibus, from St John Abcock, Wonderful London (1926/27), vol.II, p.503.

By the 1820s there were a few short stage coaches running in and out of the centre from parishes on the edge of the built-up metropolis such as Camberwell, Clapham, Hackney, Islington and Paddington. The fares were fairly high, and so too were the fares charged by the thousand or so Hackney coaches licensed to take one or two passengers. In 1829, drawing his inspiration from a new and successful system in Paris, George Shillibeer launched the first regular omnibus service in London, running from Paddington to Bank, via the Angel. From the beginning of 1832 the fiercely competitive omnibus companies were authorised to stop for passengers anywhere on their licensed routes.

Clusters of people assembled on the routes waiting for buses at peak times; the clusters, in turn, collected pick pockets. The omnibuses were designed to carry 12 or 15 passengers, but since more travellers meant more fares, people were often squashed on board, again presenting opportunities for petty thieves. In the late spring and early summer of 1835, for example, the Proceedings show Henry Harris indicted for picking a pocket on an omnibus, William Beeby indicted for picking a pocket in a crowd around an omnibus, and Edward Carter for embezzling fare money.

Water Transport

The Thames was an east-west thoroughfare through London, and it was also a working river, especially downstream towards Essex, Kent and the coast. Overseas trade expanded enormously and the cargo ships and wharves where goods were unloaded and stored, as well as the busy roads running to and from the docks, presented great temptations for dock workers and others, leading to many of the thefts prosecuted in the Proceedings.

Railways and Trams

The platform at Paddington Station, built 1854. Paddington Station, from St John Abcock, Wonderful London (1926/7), vol.II, p.523.

In 1836, as "Railway Mania" began to seize the country, the first section of the London to Greenwich Railway, the first potential commuter railway for the metropolis, was opened. The success of trains and omnibuses encouraged new experiments. The first underground railway in the world, running between Farringdon and Paddington followed a generation later in 1863. There were one or two abortive attempts to open routes using horse-drawn trams during the early 1860s, but a tram system to rival some omnibus routes did not come into operation until a decade later. In the last third of the century the expansion of traffic provision was phenomenal as prices fell, real earnings increased. Consequently, the suburbs and commuter links grew. At the same time suburban residents took advantage of off-peak travel for leisure and shopping in the new department stores. This was the hey-day of the horse-drawn omnibus and the profitability of such enterprizes led to greater competition and greater benefits, such as improved comfort, to tempt the travelling public. But the days of these buses were numbered.

Motorised Vehicles

a view up a crowded street, with the neo-classical form of the Mansion House on the left.  The roadway is busy with cares and motorised busses, and the pavements are full to bursting with pedestrians. The Mansion House, from St John Abcock, Wonderful London (1926/7), vol.I, p.55.

The 1890s witnessed experiments with new forms of traction, most notably using electricity and petrol driven motors. London United Tramways opened its first electric tramway in the London area in July 1901. There was an investment boom in motorised buses four years later, and while this boom was followed by the inevitable slump, within a decade these buses had all but replaced their horse drawn competitors. In 1907 there were 3762 licensed buses on London’s streets of which 2557 were drawn by horses and 1205 were powered by motor. In 1912 the number of licensed buses had fallen slightly to 3284, but 2908 of these were motor-powered and only 376 horse-drawn.

The private car first appeared on the streets of London in the 1890s, and worries about reckless driving soon followed. The "motor car" is first mentioned in the Proceedings in 1899, and the first case of manslaughter caused by driving was tried at the Old Bailey in 1906. The combination of motor, horse-drawn and bicycling traffic on London’s roads was lethal, as can be seen in the trial of Robert Evrard the following year.


By the middle of the nineteenth century there was a considerable network of traffic running in, out and across the metropolis. Each day the commuter trains brought about 6000 people into the city, the steamboats brought another 15,000 and the omnibuses, with a probable capacity of 26,000, brought in perhaps 20,000. In addition, another 200,000 individuals appear to have continued to walk.

Opportunities for crimes multiplied. In addition to pickpocketing passeners, cargoes were pilfered at railway goods yards and on the docks. Even at the end of the period most of the goods transport in the streets was horse drawn, and determined offenders indulged in what they called "van-dragging", jumping on the back of a moving goods wagon and pulling off packages. See, for example, the case of Michael William Hickey in 1899.

Introductory Reading

  • Barker, T.C and Robbins, M., A History of London Transport: Vol. 1, the Nineteenth Century (London, 1963)
  • Simmons, Jack, "The Power of the Railway" in Dyos, J.J. and Wolff, Michael, eds, The Victorian City: Images and Realities, (London, 1973), vol. I, 277-310.
  • Ville, Simon P. 'Transport', in Floud, R. and Johnson, P. A., eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: Industrialisation, 1700-1860 (Cambridge, 2004), 295-331.

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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