One of the most iconic images of London, alongside black taxi cabs, Big Ben and red pillar boxes, is the Routemaster bus.
This distinctive red vehicle entered service in 1956 and came to define the UK’s capital for the next half-century, featuring in films set in the UK and other types of media until finally being withdrawn from regular service in 2005.
Although visitors to London are now only able to use this form of transport on a special heritage route, it’s possible to learn all about the Routemaster at the London Bus Museum.
This museum provides a comprehensive history of buses covering the past 100 years, meaning you can also discover the Routemaster’s predecessors and witness the evolution of public transport in the capital.
The museum is designed to appeal to more than just bus enthusiasts, as it presents the unique engineering heritage of the collection in its historical, social, technological and educational background.
Visitors can experience the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone age, evocative of colourful liveries, elegant coachwork, fine leather and moquette upholstery.
The displays take you from the early days of London buses in the 19th century up to the advent of rear-engine driven vehicles in the 1970s.
It’s even possible to gain a first-hand experience of the buses, as special events are sometimes held allowing people to ride them. Many of the vehicles are still operational and used in TV and films.
Era of the Horse Bus and the transition to mechanical power: 1829-1949
The first exhibit takes in George Shillibeer’s first London horse bus service in 1829 through 85 years of development, including the ‘knifeboard’ and ‘garden seat’ designs.
Later in the 19th century, passengers benefited from a number of innovations, which saw the emergence of mechanical buses, followed by steam, electric, a combination of petrol and electric, and petrol-driven vehicles.
These buses were able to transport people around the capital faster and more efficiently, meaning the last of the horse buses disappeared from the streets in 1914.
Emergence of the Motor Bus: 1914-1929
Public transport boomed in the wake of World War I, with the emergence of the suburbs and a range of other social changes.
As a result, a number of innovative vehicle designs hit the road, displaying the colourful liveries of different private bus companies – including independent operators.
Covered top-decks and pneumatic balloon tyres for improved passenger comfort were introduced by the end of the 1920s, while drivers benefited from a windscreen to protect them against the elements.
The decade of development: the 1930s
The London bus entered a rapid phase of development in the 1930s, as it began to look like those that are currently on the roads.
In 1933, the private companies were compulsorily purchased as an Act of Parliament ordered the creation of the world’s biggest public transport undertaking, the London Transport Passenger Board (‘London Transport’).
Another fascinating range of innovations was introduced during this decade, including diesel engines and power brakes.
RT: The bus designed for London
In order to make repairs and servicing easier, London Transport decided to replace its newly-acquired fleet with specially-designed buses built for the rigours of working in London’s tough traffic conditions.
Chiswick Works ushered in a new era of travel in the capital when it unveiled its first advanced, state-of the art, standardised double-decker bus designed and specially built for London on August 9th 1939.
Only 150 of these vehicles could be manufactured before the outbreak of World War II, however, which halted the programme of standardising the fleet.
World War II: London’s buses…Carry On
When the Luftwaffe bombed London in 1940-41, London’s residents faced a desperate transport shortage.
To deal with this, the government allowed the construction of ‘utility buses’, which were made using wood and metal left over from the war effort.
The museum houses the sole survivor of this fleet of 800 wartime buses, which had a crude but functional design.
Post World War II: Austerity and hardship
The austerity that followed the Second World War was a bleak era for London’s buses, which were damaged by enemy action and hampered by minimal maintenance carried out during the hostilities.
At last, a limited number of new vehicles were commissioned, mostly of provincial design, which bridged the gap until the new RT family of advanced, standardised buses began to arrive in 1947.
New buses for old
By the mid-1950s, the pre-wartime fleet, the ‘utilities’ and London’s last trams had been replaced by 7,000 of the double-deckers.
A new, standardised single-decker, the RF type, was also introduced during this period. They appeared as sightseeing coaches just in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and soon took over nearly all of London’s single-deck services.
Chiswick Works and Aldenham Works
The famous Chiswick Works in west London was the crucible of design for developing and building London’s buses for over 35 years, while the Aldenham Bus Overhaul Works was the other major London Transport plant.
The huge original works signs from these buildings were rescued, and are on display at the Museum.
Routemaster – the last bus made for London
Developed as a replacement for London’s worn-out electric trolley-bus system, the Routemaster was a technological marvel – and soon became an icon of the capital.
Some 2,760 of these vehicles were built in several forms using standardised module construction – as central buses, Greenline coaches, country buses, airbuses – and finally a stretched version.
All-change! Driver-only buses herald the future
In the 1960s, standard RMs and RTs had a crew of two – a driver and a conductor who collected passengers’ fares.
However, London Transport decided to introduce ‘one-man-operated’ buses to cut costs, meaning vehicles had to be redesigned. The museum’s M6 model, built in the late 1970s, is one of these vehicles.
Admissions and ticket prices
Apart from a few days at Christmas, the London Bus Museum is open seven days a week. Opening hours are 10.00 to 17.00 during the summer and 10.00 to 16.00 in the winter.
Adult – £11.00
Senior Citizen/Student – £10.00
Children (5-16) – £6.00, with children under five free
Family Ticket – £30.00 (two adults and up to three children)
Museum Members (with current card) – free of charge
The London Bus Museum is located in Weybridge, Surrey, putting it within easy reach of London cheap hotels. If you plan to take public transport, Weybridge is the closest station, and is on the London Waterloo to Woking, and Staines to Weybridge lines. It takes around 30 minutes to reach the station from London Waterloo.
From the station, take the Arriva bus route 436 to Mercedes-Benz World/Brooklands Museum. The journey takes approximately nine minutes, with buses departing approximately every half hour.