Part 1: The origins
1731 – 1870: Early stage coach and horse bus services
The first commercial stage carriage service to Birmingham was advertised as early as 1731 from London via Warwick, Banbury and Aylesbury. The coming of the canals in 1769 was made it much easier to move heavy goods to and from Birmingham, and it enabled the Industrial Revolution to take place, but the canals were too slow for passenger traffic. So it was not until after the first railways came to Birmingham in 1838 that stage coaches lost their major importance to the life of the town.
Fig 1 — London and Birmingham Stage carriage in the early 1800s.
During the 18th century, Birmingham was still small enough not to need any form of public transport, although a taxicab business started in the 1790s. It was not until 15 May 1834 that Birmingham’s first horse bus route started operation, between the ‘Swan’ in Snow Hill and the Bristol Road turnpike gate at Priory Road. Two other firms started a few weeks later, running from Steelhouse Lane to the ‘Plough and Harrow’, Edgbaston and the ‘Beehive’, Handsworth and, by the end of that year, horse buses were running from Birmingham to Dudley and Wolverhampton. By 1837 horse buses ran to Wolverhampton, Dudley, West Bromwich, Stourbridge, Brierley Hill, Wednesbury, Bilston and Sutton. Out-of-town proprietors offered less frequent services to Aldridge, Atherstone, Bewdley, Bromsgrove, Coleshill, Dudley, Leamington, Solihull, Stourbridge, Studley and Tamworth, mainly for market traffic.
As the town continued to grow, Birmingham received its Charter of Incorporation as a Municipal Borough in 1838, and more services were opened to new suburbs of the town. By 1846 a number of small proprietors were working local horse bus services to Moseley (6 daily, 4 Sundays), Spon Lane, Smethwick (3 daily), Harborne (5 daily, 4 Sundays), Edgbaston (6 daily), Bristol Road (6 daily, 2 Sundays), ‘New Inns’, Handsworth via Hunters Road (7 daily). The number of horse-drawn coaches continued to grow until the railways reached Birmingham in the 1840s, but the road carriage soon lost its importance for journeys over about 20 miles.
Map 1 — This map shows public transport in 1853, a year after the Great Western Railway had opened its line from London to Snow Hill station, and just as the Stour Valley railway line opened to Wolver.hampton, terminating at a partly-finished New Street station. The Great Western was extended to Wolverhampton Low Level, and the London, Bristol and Derby lines reached New Street in the following year.
Fig 2 — A Bristol Road horse bus in about 1860.
By 1869 Birmingham’s population had risen to nearly 300 000 within the town boundaries, or 400 000 including the neighbouring parishes, and there were 20 horse buses in service on 15 routes, operated by different proprietors. In May 1869, William and Daniel Busby, who had set up a large horse bus company on Merseyside, proposed “an immediate attempt to introduce into Birmingham, the Liverpool system of quick and frequent journeys at low fares”. The following month their new company, the Birmingham Omnibus Company, opened five new routes to Moseley, Bristol Road (Pebble Mill Lane), Hagley Road (Norfolk Road), Villa Cross and Aston Park, running at 30-minute intervals using ten horse buses of a new design based on French practice. Competition between rival operators was fierce, but demand was so great that there was room for all.
1872 - Competition from the trams
On 20 May 1872, the Birmingham and District Tramways Co. Ltd opened the first horse-drawn tramway in the district, from the Birmingham boundary at Hockley Brook through Handsworth and West Bromwich to Great Bridge and Hill Top. Trams were better suited to carry heavy passenger loads, especially over shorter distances, but harder on the horses. For this reason, horse traction was soon replaced by steam, cable and ultimately in the 1890s, electricity. From the mid-1880s, horse buses were used mainly to open up new areas before traffic was heavy enough to support a tram service. But they continued to be used on routes between towns.
Over the next 25 years the various tramway companies merged, frequently taking over horse bus companies to eliminate competition, ending up with the City of Birmingham Tramways Company, formed in 1896, which also operated 45 horse buses. The omnibus department was put in the charge of Mr O C Power who was already responsible for the omnibuses operated by the Birmingham General Omnibus Company. Mr Power later became Traffic Manager of the Midland Red until 1943 — and one of the company’s three legendary personalities who built the company up to become a world leader.
Fig 3 — A horse bus in Acocks Green at the turn of the century.
Meanwhile many of the larger Midland towns used their powers to build and operate tramways themselves, starting with Nottingham in 1897, Wolverhampton in 1900, Leicester and Walsall in 1901, Wolverhampton, Derby and Birmingham in 1904, Coventry in 1912, and Worcester as late as 1926. Birmingham was to follow, starting in 1900 but not opening operation until 1904.
Map 2 — By 1900, horse bus routes [shown in red] were secondary to the trams [routes shown in black] except on the Hagley Road through the Calthorpe Estate, which resisted their construction.