1920: King George V and Ole Bill

king george
King George V in conversation with Lord Ashfield, chairman of the ‘Combine’, with ‘Ole Bill’ driven by James Melton and veterans in the background

This weekend has seen a host of special events commemorating the sacrifices of those made during the First World War, culminating with Remembrance Sunday today. In a series of posts leading up to this event our Director Sam Mullins takes a look at what life in London was like following the war – the beginnings of  Armistice Day, the role of commemoration and the significant contribution made by London’s Transport workers.

In February 1920, a group of LGOC drivers from the Middle Row garage, Kensal Green, who had seen service overseas as drivers were presented, with their B type bus B43, to King George V at Buckingham Palace.  This momentous event was reported in the staff magazine:

“His Majesty shook hands with the men and had a friendly talk with them as His Majesty shook hands with the men and had a friendly talk with them as he passed down the line when they formed up for inspection, and afterwards examined the ‘bus. He remarked that this was the first time he had boarded an omnibus, although he had travelled before on a tramcar of the L.C.C. …There was an appreciative crowd outside the Palace to cheer the old ‘bus and its gallant passengers as they left.”

The bus’s appearance was recorded in a Pathé newsreel, and “thrown on the screen at many picture theatres”.

B43 had been built by AEC at Walthamstow for the LGOC in 1911 and ran on the 8 and 25 routes out of Mortlake garage until requisitioned by the War Department and sent to France in September 1914. Driven by volunteer drivers who joined up, the bus did a huge mileage carrying troops and supplies up to the line and bringing back wounded soldiers. In 1919 it was repurchased by the LGOC and first put back into emergency service still in khaki and then in red to Dalston on the 8 and 9 routes. By the time it was presented to the King, B43 had acquired a small bronze plaque commemorating its passage through the war:

1914 – Antwerp, 1915 – Ypres, 1916 – Ancre, 1917 – Somme, 1918 – Amiens, 1919 – Home

To mark this special occasion, the bus was decorated and became a mobile war memorial. A brass shell was mounted on the dashboard, ornate brass plates for the numbers on the bonnet sides and a brass bust of ‘Ole Bill, the cartoon figure created by Bruce Bairnsfather, formed the radiator cap. This association with the hugely popular cartoon character was to rapidly give the bus its nickname of ‘Ole Bill, commonly but incorrectly rendered as Old Bill. The title was derived from Bairnsfather’s first cartoon of two Tommies under fire in a shell hole, Bill saying to his companion, ‘If you knows of a better ‘ole, Go to it!’

B43 had been given a new body and overhauled for the Palace in 1920. Battle honours were added to the windows – Antwerp, Ypres, Ancre and Somme – before being handed over to the Auxiliary Omnibus Companies Association. The veterans used it for parades and funerals. At the King’s behest, the bus and veterans from Underground and the General took part in the first Armistice Day parade from 1920. These accounts are from the staff magazine ‘Train, Omnibus, Tram’ in the 1920s:

LGOC veterans march with ‘Ole Bill in the Armistice day parade of 1923
LGOC veterans march with ‘Ole Bill in the Armistice day parade of 1923

After many years in the service of remembrance, ‘Ole Bill was retired to the Imperial War Museum in 1970. Back on home ground, this venerable bus is currently on loan to London Transport Museum and plays a central part in the current ‘Goodbye Piccadilly’ exhibition on London in World War One.

Related events and exhibitions

Battle Bus
On Saturday the Museum’s ‘Battle Bus’ appeared in the Lord Mayor’s Show, representing Transport for London. Today marchers and spectators in the Remembrance Sunday parade will also have a chance to see the Battle Bus on display in Parliament Square from 9am to around 3pm.

Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.

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