A bustling market place: This, essentially, seems to sum up Victorian London. And, given that industrial capitalism redefined both time and space, and it is interesting to see how movement is used as a metaphor for commercial society by Thomson (Victorian London Street Life) and Dickens (Bleak House) alike. Thompson talks about streets crowded with salesmen and vendors of all kinds, and street people making their livings off of the scraps of industrial production. Dickens write of a young sweep name Jo, who is lost in “the crown flowing by him in two streams” and constantly prodded to move along. In fact, Jo evokes Thompson’s shoe blacks and board men, street dwellers who, in their struggle to find a place to earn their living, “become entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them.”
Indeed, I think the Omnibus is the perfect manifestation of the close association between physical movement and capitalist production. Brought to London in 1829 to cheaply transport large numbers of passengers, omnibuses were significant in creating mass culture and mass transportation. For example, the omnibus facilitated linkages between different markets, improved economic efficiency, and provided new opportunities for recreation and travel. The intense competition between omnibus companies themselves was another manifestation of capitalism on the streets. Thompson notes how the drivers loved to “race against opposition”–and meant it both in a literal and figurative sense. Drivers from different companies would try to beat each other from point A to point B, hoping to prove the superiority of their company and thus to secure a greater share of the market.
A final way in which Omnibuses signified the commercialization of Victorian Society was that they became moving advertisements. Like every surface, from the walls of condemned houses to the bodies of day laborers, omnibuses were plastered with advertisements for miscellaneous products and services.
In a way, the Omnibus seems to epitomize life in Victorian England. I guess that’s why I adore them so much. If you’re ever in London, I recommend hopping aboard one at the London Transport Museum. Until then, you can read more here.