Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

067: “Men of Colour” and London’s public transport, 1900-1932

The safety of Londoners was the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police and it managed public service vehicles, trying to ensure that drivers were skilled, knowledgeable, and trustworthy. They had licensed cabs since 1843, and when motor-powered vehicles appeared on London’s streets they expanded that role. Motor cabs and electric trams appeared in 1903, and motor buses in late 1904, steadily replacing horse-drawn public transport. Drivers had to be muscular (no power-steering) and prepared to work in the open: windscreens were rare. Conductors collected fares on trams and buses; cabs had meters from 1907 (the invention of a German named Taxi). These were male occupations until the 1914-1918 war when some women became conductors. Among these thousands were men of African descent.

Police file MEPO 2/4908 at the National Archives, Kew is concerned with the “employment of men of colour” as public service vehicle drivers and conductors 1917-1932. It refers back to 1900 and includes a note about one man in 1944. The police had noted four black applicants pre-1914. One was refused as he had a conviction for drunkeness and another failed the “topographical” tests (this seems to have been the taxi-driver’s test). A  tram licence [surely horse-drawn?] had been granted to Louis Bruce in 1900: “he had now held this for many years without complaint” was the comment in 1922. South African C.S.E. O’Neil had been successful in 1908 and had held his licence “for several years without complaint”. O’Neil was a fitter and general hand, holding his licence for emergency use but not driving on the public highway. He had gone abroad in 1912.

During the 1914-1918 war four more black applicants had been noted. F.M. Macarth failed in April 1916 due to his lack of knowledge of London, a J. Hawkins was unable to present proof of previous employment, as was Francis Trotman who applied to be a tram driver in August 1918. C.P. John “a West African negro” wanted to drive buses in April 1918 but he abandoned this when he knew the London bus company was unlikely to employ him.

This all came into focus when a question was asked in the House of Commons on 23 March 1922. J. McDonald Robertson, a “West Indian” had been a driver in the Army Service Corps May 1915-May 1916, and March 1917-July 1919 (3 years war service: he had a 30% pension), and had left the army with a “good” character. He wanted to be a London taxi driver but the police had refused. He had trained under the Ministry of Labour’s scheme for six weeks, and had been a resident of Britain for twenty years. The questioner was told that the licence would be issued subject to the usual tests. The file noted applicants cannot “be refused licences on the ground of colour alone”.

Ten years later, in 1932, a licensed bus driver who wanted to drive a taxi was discussed. He was a British subject. An official commented “As people in this country are not accustomed to be waited on by negroes, I doubt whether a woman passenger, on calling a cab from a rank, would care to entrust herself to such a man, especially on a dark night”. But British subjects could not be refused a licence on the grounds of colour only, so the application was accepted. After all, as another official noted, “nobody needs take a taxi with a coloured driver unless they wish”.

The file was returned to the shelves, and years later a note was made that “a coloured man” had been licenced on 19 May 1944. The writing makes his forename uncertain, but it could be Lancelot [perhaps Lanwelt] Stanley Lawrence Fraser.

Two matters are absent from this file. There is no mention of Joe Clough, a Jamaican who drove a London bus before 1914: his photograph by his bus appears in J. Brown, The Un-Melting Pot: An English Town and its Immigrants (Macmillan, 1970). And Louis Bruce, whose address is given as 22 Wellington Road, Hampton Hill (west London) was such an excellent driver that the Managing Director of the London United Tramways employed him as his personal tram driver. His photograph with the MD when the tram route over Kingston bridge was opened in 1906 appears in G. Wilson, London United Tramways: A History 1894-1933 (Allen & Unwin, 1971). One of those three photographs appears on-line in the Wikipedia entry “Trams in London” which makes no mention that the tram driver is black although a quick glance makes that clear.

The black presence in Britain was far more widespread than conventional wisdom has suggested, and from the evidence in this MEPO file perhaps it would be reasonable to suggest that horse-drawn cabs, trams and buses had black drivers too: and not only Bruce in London. We know that blacks worked as chauffeurs – Joe Clough had done that; a French car manufacturer showed a black driver in one of its adverts.

Public transport includes railway trains: Martin Dibobe, from the German colony of Cameroon, was photographed next to the U-bahn [underground] train he drove in Berlin in 1902. Black railway staff in Britain have yet to be traced.

Driving tests were introduced in England in 1934.