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B-type buses on Cricklewood Broadway, London, 1912 (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The lure of the Omnibus

By
Extract | 13 minute read
What was it like to be a woman working the buses during World War One, from receiving equal pay to acquiring 'sea-legs', asks a writer in a vibrant new anthology about the London bus

In March 1916 newspapers up and down the country covered the latest story from the capital: the introduction of female bus conductors by the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC). Regardless of the fact that women had already taken on several other traditionally male roles to aid the war effort, the news that the company was sending out the ‘first 80 women conductors, with 250 more in training, a number that was added to each day’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, Friday 17 March 1916) was considered worthy of extensive coverage.

The reason for this interest can be put down to several factors, all revealed in these articles and indeed the extensive subsequent newspaper coverage of conductresses that lasted for the duration of the war. A close examination of these contemporary writings reveals just why these Hurry-Along girls elicited so much interest and discussion.

The initial wave of articles in March 1916 all centred on two things: training and pay. Conductresses, as most newspapers informed their readers, were trained for 14 days at the Chelsea training facility in subjects such as route orientation, customer service, fares, ticket dispensing and most importantly what was referred to in the bus trade as acquiring ‘sea-legs’ – being able to keep one’s balance while traipsing up and down the stairs and collecting fares and whilst the bus was in motion. During their training women received food and an allowance but once in active service they received wages of £2 per week, exactly the same amount as their male counterparts. This unprecedented pay equality, while applauded by certain newspapers, became the topic of some serious debate and indeed accounts in part for the countrywide interest in the London conductresses. Many questioned the fairness of this equal pay system citing that women were clearly not suited to this type of physically demanding work: ‘the standing up and long hours seem particularly unsuited to women’ (The Graphic, 17 February 1917) and that ‘willing as they may be (they) are not capable of doing the same amount of work as a man for mere physical reasons alone’. (The Tatler, Wednesday 4 September 1918).

This attitude, while certainly problematic to some contemporary eyes, was very much in line with assumptions and gender stereotypes about women that had been societally ingrained since the previous century. A few months prior to the outbreak of war the London Times Weekly set out the widely accepted view of the difference between the sexes and why women were incapable of contributing to the economy in any meaningful manner:

‘Men cannot imagine a woman, dressed as women have seen fit to dress for the last few years, being competent to take any serious or worthy part in the work of the world. He cannot believe in a woman being capable of efficient, vigorous or independent action when hampered by the skirt of the period. A man knows that if for a year he were to submit himself to the restraints which a woman puts upon herself he would be mentally, morally and physically degenerate’ (London Times Weekly, 17 April 1914)

Picture courtesy of London Transport Museum

Indeed the idea that women were physically and mentally weak and belonged in the domestic sphere was oft repeated in the coverage of the conductresses; thus when special seats were added to buses so female bus conductors could sit down on longer routes, newspapers once again picked up the story and reignited the debate of female physical inferiority. But it was not merely the press who peddled these feminine stereotypes. The Vehicle Workers Union went further and tried to block women from working in public transport, citing the work as ‘Unsuitable to women from a moral and physical point of view’ thus a firming this idea of female mental and physical inferiority. Interestingly at this same union meeting a representative from the London General Omnibus Company actively denied this assertion and quoted figures that showed only ‘3.86 per cent of women (had) resigned because they found the work too hard versus 2.13 men’, clearly a negligible difference. He also stated that no disproportionate sick leave had been taken by female conductors (Reading Observer, Saturday 25 November 1916) thus showing that, physically women were fast proving themselves as capable as men.

If it wasn’t her supposed physical weakness that was being debated it was her fragile and impressionable mental state that was a cause for worry. Certain commentators ‘feared women would harden of disposition and would have a coarsening of manners’ (Liverpool Daily Post – 20 March 1916) or simply put become more ‘masculine’ in their demeanour. The arguments that women mixing freely in society, women in employment or women obtaining the vote would turn them into masculine creatures who were ugly, refused to do housework and gave up on marriage had been used since the late 19th century to dissuade support for, and undermine the women’s su rage movement.

This worry for women’s spiritual well-being grew in part out of the increased female engagement with, and visibility in, wider society that the War had enacted. Prior to the conflict middle- class women were very much trapped in the domestic sphere and much female employment was either invisible (domestic work) or subservient by nature (sales assistants and waitresses). The city was very much the domain of men, and if women wished to enter it they were bound by the strict societal rules of the chaperoning system, which meant that for many, large parts of the city were off limits. But while the War put a stop to chaperoning out of simple practicality and necessity, employing women in roles of authority on omnibuses that travelled the length and breath of the city, was for many one uneasy step too far. As one article put it ‘Fleet street was un-known ground to them til today’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 15 March 1916).

Picture courtesy of London Transport Museum

For many of the women who signed up for the training programme, it was exactly these new opportunities and freedoms that attracted them to the role. Interestingly every single article that discussed the popularity of conductress work failed to see this point, and this inability of commentators to conceive why these roles would be attractive to women shows just how deeply engrained ideas around the sexes were, and just how little men understood women and their frustrations with their position in life. Instead of realising this type of role afforded them a host of previously unknown freedoms that they so craved, and that took them away from the monotony of their existence, newspapers instead speculated that women signing up in droves was simply down to the £2 weekly wage. Only just over a week after their introduction the Daily Gazette for Middlesborough reported that ‘300 “young women” are working as conductresses or are in training, but that soon 1,000 will be required if not 2,000 in due course’ (23 March 1916). Unsurprisingly it blamed the favourable wages and went on to speculate about the detrimental impact that this would no doubt have on the domestic labour workforce; the entire article reads more like a covert warning of the evils that will befall society when women are given employment options rather than a genuine appraisal of the situation.

There is no doubt that women were leaving domestic posts in favour of bus conducting or indeed one of the many other new employment opportunities offered by the War, however to merely put this down to the wages misses the point entirely.

In an article titled ‘Lure of the Omnibus’ the Daily Mirror stated that 38 per cent of the new recruits had been domestic servants, that the rest had been typists, shop assistants, waitresses or had worked for the postal service, but most importantly it noted that 10 per cent had formerly stayed at home and had not previously had any formal employment (28 April 1916). While some of this last group no doubt took on a conductress role to ‘do their bit’, for many the lure of excitement, responsibility and freedom no doubt played a deciding role. The happiness this new role afforded those women who had signed up is well conveyed in an unfortunately titled article in the Globe, ‘Joys of Bus Conducting’, which discussed the death of Violette Newman, a bus conductress who had been killed falling off her bus in Whitehall. At the inquest her mother testified that Violette ‘had been happy as a bird and never wanted to return to typing’ (15 February 1916).

While criticism and doubts regarding their capabilities continued to be published, soon after their introduction a steady stream of articles also appeared praising these women as ‘they were after all, releasing fit men for service’ (Daily Gazette for Middlesborough, 5 March 1918). Others lauded them for their efficiency and several were convinced that their presence encouraged better manners on public transport* which meant that ‘she is winning good opinions and good wishes’ (The Illustrated War News, April 5 1916).

Picture courtesy of London Transport Museum

These more favourable articles were often accompanied by a photograph of a conductress in her newly designed uniform. This navy blue Norfolk jacket with white piping and a General badge, a plain skirt 3 inches below the knee, leather and cloth gaiters, and the felt hat in the ‘colonial style’ turned up at one side, drew more attention and had more column inches dedicated to its discussion than all the aforementioned issues combined. The more conservative commentators remarked on the ‘uncommonly short skirt’ which had been designed to allow the women to rush up and down the stairs with relative ease, yet this logical design decision did not detract from their outrage.

Other, predominantly male, writers, worried condescendingly that women would not take to the austerity and functionality of the uniform, citing the stereotype that women’s main preoccupation in life was appearance and that without their frills and individuality they could not be happy. Others used a focus on the uniform to detract from the vital service these women were providing: ‘nobody yet saw two women omnibus conductors who wore their becoming shiny hats at the same angle or for that matter the straps of their money bags and ticket punches in the same manner’ (Daily Mirror, 9 May 1916) This type of reporting which borrowed tone and terminology from fashion reporting trivialised their employment by positioning it as just another opportunity for accessorising.

Illustrations of conductresses featured in certain publications and on popular postcards of the time also often misrepresented the uniform; in several instances the skirt was depicted as either far shorter or far more figure hugging than it was in reality, and in certain images the ‘uniform’ looked more like the latest Paul Poiret Parisian Haute Couture frock than the functional outfit that it was in reality. This glamorisation of the conductress hints at her fetishisation in popular culture and undoubtedly her uniform, combined with her position of authority, titillated many a man unaccustomed to this novel sight. These ‘sexy’ representations did her no favours in terms of being taken seriously as a vital war worker and instead merely reduced her to a pleasant spectacle there for the enjoyment of men, which in turn of course also reduced the perceived threat she posed in trespassing on the male domain.

The majority of female writers however took a very different stance on the uniform and were quick to point that ‘women have taken to uniform like ducks to water’ (Daily Record, 13 June 1917). It was not just the comfort of the uniform (minus the spats – there are multiple accounts to be found of how much women hated the spats), or the fact they were classless as opposed to civilian dress, that made the uniform popular; its most appealing aspect resided with the authority and visibility this o official uniform afforded women for the first time in their lives and the manner in which it commanded respect from civilians. Because it was a symbol of their contribution to society, their authority, and the fact they had secured important, serious and well-respected employment, the uniform was a symbol of pride.

A contributor to the letters page of the Daily Mirror, only identified as ‘a woman war worker’, asked whether uniforms would survive the war. She discussed how the simplicity and functionality of the uniform suited women far better than the extravagant fashions of the day, and she predicted women would continue to wear well-designed suits that afford her comfort and mobility (Daily Mirror, 26 January 1917) Arguably her predictions foresaw the simpler more comfortable cuts that would come to dominate the postwar female wardrobe.

By 1918 press reporting on the conductresses was almost wholly positive and supportive, perhaps because the initial shock had worn off, and more importantly because the conflict which many had predicted would last only a few months was in its fourth year, and anyone making a direct or indirect contribution to war work was unilaterally praised and supported. Nothing makes this change in attitude clearer than the reporting on the 1918 strike by conductresses over pay. While basic pay had been set at the same rate for male and female conductors, men were also awarded a wartime bonus denied to the women workers. To highlight the injustice of this system the women went on strike, and were surprisingly backed by reporters, who argued that these women had proved their worth and delivered an invaluable contribution both to the war effort and to London life, and hence should be awarded the same bonus. This time no arguments of physical or mental inferiority were used to justify the discrepancy in pay, showing just how far public attitudes to conductresses and, to an extent women in general, had shifted.

This support and gratitude did not prevent conductresses from the London General Omnibus Company – like so many other women who had undertaken vital war work- from being dismissed at the end of the war. In total more than 3,500 women had served the role. There was little newspaper coverage about this demobilisation process at the time, except for a small piece in the Daily Herald entitled ‘Bus Girls Make Merry,’ describing how 500 Hurry-Along girls gathered at the People’s Palace in Mile End for a demob beano: ‘The most interesting feature of the evening was the presentation of an artistic souvenir certificate to the girls who had rendered service in the war’ (The Daily Herald, October 22, 1919). Thus men received medals, but women an artistic certificate!

The conductress, who had taken over so many column inches and elicited so much debate about a woman’s nature and ability, disappeared almost entirely from the London landscape, until she was once again called upon during World War II when the Hurry-Along girls came back as clippies.

This is an essay from the anthology, Bus Fare: Collected writings on London’s most loved means of transport, edited by Travis Elborough & Joe Kerr (AA Publishing). Buy here