Horse omnibus services in the Black Country

The first horse omnibus service in England began operating in Manchester in 1824. The pioneering services were so successful that others soon followed, mainly in the north of England, and London.

The omnibuses operated in a different manner to stage and mail coaches. In order to travel on a coach, even for a short distance, the journey had to be pre-booked at a booking office. After booking, the traveller had to wait for a hand-written receipt. On the omnibuses, fares were taken on the vehicle, and no tickets were issued. The bus owner relied on the honesty of his staff to hand-over the takings.

The earliest record of a horse-drawn omnibus running to Wolverhampton was in 1833 when Mr. George Bayley of Darlaston, operated a nine-seater vehicle to Wolverhampton from the Waggon and Horses in King Street, Darlaston, every Wednesday. He also operated a service to Birmingham, along with Obadiah Howl's omnibuses which started from the Bell Inn in Church Street, Darlaston. The services to Birmingham ran on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

In 1835 an omnibus service began operating from the Fountain Inn in New Street, Birmingham to the Pack Horse Inn in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton, run by Mr. John Doughty. In September of the following year, the Midlands Omnibus Company opened an office in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton from where services ran to High Street in Birmingham. By 1838 the company ran four direct journeys daily, and two via Walsall, from the Crown & Cushion, in Dudley Street, Wolverhampton. By 1847 the number of journeys from the Crown & Cushion to Birmingham had increased to seven daily, the journey taking 95 minutes. The coach went via Bilston, and West Bromwich. Another coach ran twice daily from the pub to Walsall via Willenhall, and yet another coach ran on the same route from the Red Cow, in Dudley Street, three times daily.

Dudley Street in Wolverhampton. In the centre, the rear of a horse-drawn omnibus can be seen, on its way from one of the nearby coaching inns. From a painting by Alan Eaton.

Another service to Birmingham also started in 1836, run by the Birmingham Omnibus Conveyance Company. Two journeys were made daily from the Castle Inn, Dudley Street, Wolverhampton. By 1838 omnibuses were also running to Ironbridge, Shifnal, Wednesbury, and Willenhall.

Rushton’s omnibus departed from the Three Tuns in Queen Street, every Monday and Wednesday at 3.30 p.m., and travelled to Shifnal, Madeley, and Ironbridge. Every Wednesday at 6 p.m., Cross’s omnibus left the New Angel in Dudley Street for Wednesbury. Also on Wednesdays at 5 p.m., a bus left the Bird-in-Hand in High Green for Stourbridge.

The early omnibuses benefitted from the coming of the railways. When Wednesfield Heath Station opened in 1837 there were omnibus services running between the station and Wolverhampton, meeting every train. By the late 1840s, omnibuses travelled to the station from the Old King’s Head Inn in Dudley Street, the Star & Garter in Cock Street, and the Swan in High Green. Buses from the Star & Garter, and the Swan also called at all of the principal inns in the town. Services continued until the opening of Queen Street Station (Wolverhampton High Level) where people could arrive or depart from a train in the centre of town.

When Wolverhampton Low Level Station opened in July 1854 only a single omnibus service to the railway stations still operated. It ran from the Star & Garter and the Swan. The railway companies soon started running their own cabs, the taxis of the day, and so the omnibus service to the stations soon declined. By this time the roads were becoming neglected because of the disappearance of the stage and mail coaches, which led to a reduction in the number of omnibuses in operation.

An omnibus at Birmingham. From an old postcard.

By 1871 the omnibuses to Birmingham and Walsall had ceased to run, possibly because of the frequent rail services. At this time, two new bus services were listed. One was to Tettenhall Wood via Tettenhall which ran five times daily from Five Ways, via Queen Street and Queen Square. The other went from the High Level Station to Bridgnorth once a day, except on Sundays.

When the horse-drawn trams began to operate in 1878, the Tettenhall omnibus service soon ended. A similar event took place a few years later. By 1879 Mr. J. E. Whitmore of Dudley was running an omnibus service from Dudley to Wolverhampton, until the horse-drawn trams began running between Wolverhampton and Dudley in 1883. The omnibus service was then scrapped.

The Rose & Crown at Penn. On the right is Sampson Tharme's omnibus. Courtesy of St. Bart's Church.

In 1882 a new omnibus service began to operate between Queen Square and the Rose & Crown at Penn. It ran five times daily, and was run by Sampson Tharme of 17 Thornley Street, and W. E. (Billy) Hill of 42 Cobden Street. They also provided services to Compton, Whitmore Reans and Gorsebrook. They started a service along Dudley Road which was almost certainly operated by Billy Hill. In 1902 Wolverhampton Corporation began running omnibus services on Dudley Road during the reconstruction of the old horse-tramway, which put Billy Hill out of business.

Tharme’s services couldn’t compete with those run by the Corporation. By 1904 the service to Whitmore Reans run by Sampson Tharme and Mr. Armstrong had succumbed to the new trams, and Tharme’s Penn bus service had to be cut back to Owen Road Post Office, with a fare of one penny. In 1905 the omnibuses to Gorsebrook  and Wednesfield ceased to run, although a new service run by a Mr. Hughes began to operate from the Mitre Hotel in Queen Street to Wombourne.

On 30th September, 1905, a month after the Corporation had started the motor bus service to Penn Fields, Sampson Tharme wrote to the town clerk stating that he was willing to enter into an agreement not to ply along Lea Road in consideration of an ‘indemnity’ of £250. He stated that he had not reduced his fares to compete with the motor bus and added the following plea:

Thinking that my long services (23 years) to the borough as omnibus provider may entitle me to the consideration of the council, I would thank you to place the matter before the proper tribunal.

Unfortunately his letter was ignored. By 1907 his Owen Road service had ended because it could not compete with the Corporation’s motor buses, and by 1909 his service to Bradmore only ran on Wednesdays and Saturdays. By that time more passengers were carried on the Corporation’s motor bus services to Lea Road, because of the irregularity of Tharme’s services. Tharme’s Penn service ended in 1910. This closed the omnibus career of Sampson Tharme, the last of the early omnibus operators in the town. He had once been a well-known figure. His notepaper was simply headed ‘Sufficient address: Sampson Tharme, Wolverhampton.’

Another view of Sampson Tharme's horse-drawn omnibus called 'Wulfruna', on Penn Road at its junction with The Avenue. Courtesy of St. Bart's Church.

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