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14 May 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 4:41am

Buses in battlefields, Tube posters at Passchendaele, and ‘conductorettes’ on equal pay: London transport at war

From rush hour to the Western Front: A new exhibition at the London Transport Museum called Goodbye Piccadilly explores the way the capital’s transport system went to war, both at home and in battle.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Two First World War women bus conductors employed by Thomas Tilling Ltd at a hotel in Croydon. London Transport Museum © Transport for London

An earnest poster issued by the London General Omnibus Company in big black lettering barks: ‘Wanted: Women conductors. Height must not be less than 5 feet. Age between 21 and 35.’

Below it, part of the London Transport Museum’s new exhibition, Goodbye Piccadilly, is a height chart painted onto the wall – at five feet, it reads “Congratulations, you are more than 5 feet tall! This is the required height for a bus conductor.”

A little further down, at three feet, is the disappointing message: “Sorry! You’re not tall enough to be a bus conductor but you could work in a factory making weapons.”

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I hastily measure my height. Just one inch above being condemned from conductorship to the munitions factory, thankfully.

Women recruitment poster. London Transport Museum © Transport for London

London’s transport system, already hardened to the horrors of rush hour and city living, made a uniquely significant contribution to the war effort, both at home and on the frontline. Buses were sent to the Western Front as ambulances, anti-aircraft gun carriages, freight lorries, and even wagons bearing messenger-pigeon lofts.

But the biggest impact of London transport in WWI was at home, as thousands of women were hired as bus conductors, ticket inspectors, train guards, painters and porters.

The capital’s transport companies, then independent of government, joined the war’s recruitment drive, and transport staff volunteered in droves. Posters pasted the walls of the Tube and above ground urging men to join the army, as well as those imploring women to join the bus network as what were known breathlessly  as ‘conductorettes’.

There were a few male mumblings about the existence of women in uniform taking charge of the buses (some patronising postcards with lines like ‘If you want to get off, ring the belle’ are displayed in the exhibition), but overall the new female force of transport workers thrived during the First World War and were respected for their efforts, working seven days a week.

Women painters at Hammersmith Station. They had to wear long overcoats to cover up the fact that they were wearing trousers. London Transport Museum © Transport for London

They were initially paid five shillings fewer than their male predecessors received, so they went on strike – or, as one conductor called Florence Cordell put it, “we struck for three or four days on Willesden Green… It was more or less a knees-up” – alongside trade unionists who were concerned about the threat from this new cheap labour force. They achieved equal pay, and with it a personal freedom and responsibility that they hadn’t before experienced, a large number of them having come from domestic service.

“We would go to the Palladium and have fun,” Cordell recalled of her days as a conductor going on evenings out in the West End, “I’d like to live it all over again.”

Another conductor during the time, Anne Parker, remembered how she and her colleagues longed to stay on beyond the war’s end, “we all stayed on until they had finished with us”.

Curator Laura Sleath explains to me that women were not allowed to continue their work on the buses, as the changeover was “very controlled” by the time the war ended.

“By November 1919, there was the last female bus conductor. That was it then.”

Many of those working in train companies – where they were referred to as ‘substitutes’ – managed to stay on in backroom roles, but not in the positions they had held throughout the war as train guards and even porters.

“[With] jobs like porters, really manual jobs, humping all these suitcases and bags and goods all around the stations, you can imagine people assumed that women were physically incapable of doing these sorts of jobs – actually seeing them proving themselves in front of everyday passengers, it must have been transformative for those women and the people seeing them,” Sleath notes.

“There was this taste of what life could be like elsewhere, and I think a real reluctance to go back to their previous existence when the war finished, for lots of women.”

Join the army Underground poster. London Transport Museum © Transport for London 

The First World War was also transformative for the thousands of male transport staff who left London to volunteer. Many of the 1,185 buses rushed to the front to help an army short of vehicles were manned by those who drove them around London, and some were sent out in such a rush they still had their blue livery from London, with no time to paint them khaki.

Striking pictures of London buses in action pepper this exhibition, with one entertainingly formal photo of a bus with its roof converted into a pigeon loft, flanked proudly by stiff moustachioed soldiers. The dutiful pigeons lining its canopy are a sweetly poignant symbol of the city that was once this bus’s home. Another picture is a chilling snapshot of a shelled-out bus at St Eloi in Belgium, burnt out, staggering nose-down into a ditch.

Wreck of a B-type bus at St Eloi France  The bus lies on its side only two weeks after leaving Willesden Garage in 1914. London Transport Museum © Transport for London 

Soldiers used these visiting vehicles from London to keep morale up. Some had messages like ‘Take your tickets for Berlin’ chalked onto them, and a restored bus nicknamed Ole Bill that returned to London from the front has place names emblazoned on the panels where its stops should be: ‘Somme’, ‘Ypres’, ‘Antwerp’.

A stylish collection of Underground posters called ‘London Memories’ of the capital’s greenest corners – Hampstead, Kew, Wimbledon Common – were exclusively designed for the troops, who displayed them in their billets. In the trenches, sometimes wooden signs reading London street names were put up to help the soldiers navigate their mud-walled warrens. There is a brilliant picture of a soldier standing in a narrow trench where Bond Street meets Conduit Street.

From rush hour in the capital to shelling on the Western Front, London transport stepped up to do its bit in the war. And Goodbye Piccadilly in its colourful collection of anecdotes, posters and gems from the archive both remembers and reveals this contribution compellingly.

LGOC B-type bus (B2132) converted into a pigeon loft (for carrier pigeons) during the First World War. London Transport Museum © Transport for London 

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