London | September 1908
White Horse Stables
In the chill of the autumn dawn, Charlie Fletcher pulled his coat collar up around his ears and walked swiftly down the Mile End Road towards the stables behind White Horse Lane.
There was a blur of light and movement behind the steamed-up windows of the bakery on the corner of Cambridge Road, and the fleeting gust of warm bread that enveloped him as he passed lifted his spirits for a moment. At most times of the day or night on this stretch of the Mile End in Stepney, the big Anchor Brewery and the Scottish Laundry filled the atmosphere with a peculiar but wholesome mixture of hops and carbolic, but the pervading smell of a London morning was the sulphurous acridity of coal burning in a million fireplaces and forges, stoves, stations and steam engines, boilers, bread-ovens and kitchen ranges.
Charlie could see the smoke rising from the city to the south and west, spreading into the sky like a canopy of dirty foliage above a forest of chimneys. The early-morning misty air was already thickening into what might on a foggy autumn day become a full-blown London Particular, a proper pea-souper, but today there was a promise that the Indian summer England had been enjoying was going to continue. Charlie pinched the last quarter inch of his Woodbine carefully between his finger and thumbnail, drew on it until the red glow stung his fingertips, and pitched the remaining fragment into the gutter.
At this time just after dawn he was one of the early birds on the still gaslit streets of the waking city. Postmen and milkmen already halfway through their rounds. A dowdy servant girl wrapped in a threadbare shawl, hurrying to another thankless day of drudgery in a tradesman’s basement kitchens. Sales clerks with their breakfast bread in their hands, half-running along the pavement to beat the clock to the shop or the warehouse door.
Two years earlier, when he first started driving the No. 24 horse bus on Gilroy’s London Bridge route, this brisk walk to work and the camaraderie of the dawn workforce had put a skip in his step. It made him feel like a soldier in the unseen army that kept the wheels of the great city turning, and it was reassuring to see how many of those turning wheels were still horse-drawn: hay wagons trundling in from the countryside close by to the east, delivering their loads to tens of thousands of hungry horses standing patiently in their stalls in barracks and depots and mews and jobbing stables; country carts and covered vans from the belt of market gardens that ringed the city, hurrying to catch the early buyers in the swirling vegetable markets of Spitalfields; rail company carriers clattering to catch trains at Kings Cross and Euston; hackney cabs trotting to their first fares of the morning along the as yet uncoagulated arteries of the sprawling, yawning, imperial metropolis. It was still the horses that kept London alive, and Charlie had been a horseman from the day on his second birthday when his father hoisted him onto the broad, warm back of a grey bus horse that had seemed to him then as big and as mythical as an elephant.
This morning, the sights and sounds of the waking city made Charlie feel even more downcast than he had been when he had left his young wife weeping in their lodgings ten minutes earlier. And then to make matters even worse, round the corner of Globe Road came one of the new London General motor buses, chuffing and spluttering past him down the Mile End towards the city.
Just two months back, Ted Gilroy had told him that the London General had made an offer for his remaining routes, and although the old man had shaken his head dismissively and slapped him on the shoulder, the knowledge had cast a shadow of foreboding over Charlie that he hadn’t been able to shake off ever since. The horse bus drivers poured scorn on these red monstrosities, but they could carry half a dozen more passengers than an old-fashioned two-horse omnibus and charge them less, and the London General Omnibus Company was relentlessly squeezing the few remaining small bus operators off the streets and out of existence. He would scoff at the motor buses with the other drivers, but in his heart Charlie knew that the horse buses he drove were fighting a battle for survival, and he knew the internal combustion engine was winning.
The motorbus left in its wake a triumphant alien stink of petroleum fumes that stayed in his nostrils all the way to the stables. It was the smell of ruthless industrial progress, and it was rapidly replacing all the natural smells of old London. In the good old days when his grandfather drove a mail coach, his dad had told him many times, the outside passengers could smell London ten miles before they saw the first houses, downwind on the Ipswich Road. Shit and soot. The all-pervasive ammoniac miasma of horse dung, the sooty taint of coal, and on a scorching summer’s day, the eye-watering sewage stench of the Thames.
Charlie turned onto White Horse Lane, heading towards the stables a hundred yards away, and walked quickly across the road and through the big double gates under their once imposing wooden archway. Gilroy s Municipal Omnibus Service, said the name on the arch. It was a flaking sign of the times, its missing apostrophe a recent symptom of the company’s accelerating decline.
Charlie walked across the cobbled stableyard to a scuffed green door in the corner nearest the road, and stepped into the low, brick building that housed Ted Gilroy’s office. It also served as a clubhouse for his dwindling team of drivers, and it greeted Charlie with the reassuring fug of tobacco, old gaberdine, horse sweat and leather that he had associated with his father ever since he could remember.
There was a small fire burning in the grate, and a single gaslight cast a dim glow over the familiar, diminished ranks of assorted, battered chairs that lined the walls on either side of the fireplace. This was normally a place strictly reserved for the busmen – the drivers and conductors. A decade ago there had been twenty-six drivers. Today there were nine. But in the privacy of this snug, Gilroy’s drivers could tell each other that they were the best of London’s remaining omnibus drivers, and although the golden days were badly tarnished, on their own turf they were still the lords of the White Horse stables.
Over the past six months the driver’s room had become a bolthole for Charlie, but as if his day couldn’t get any gloomier, the first object he clapped eyes on in the inner sanctum was the smirking face of Thomas Potter…