Some people say Thomas Tilling was such a household name that he is cockney rhyming slang for shilling and while I only remember a shilling being known as a bob, Tilling was undoubtedly an important figure in transport history and in South London in particular: Blanch’s 1875 history of Camberwell calls him ‘an institution’. By the time he died his firm was a major participant in London’s flourishing public transport and the largest supplier of horsepower in London with more than 4,000 horses.
Thomas Tilling was born in 1825 on the family’s dairy farm in Hendon. Tilling’s milk was delivered by women who wore traditional Welsh costume and carried yokes across their shoulders - perhaps a sign of where Thomas got his marketing skills since the family was actually from Gloucestershire. When he was 21, Thomas married Cornelia Searle, the daughter of a Walworth dairy farmer; he described himself as the son of a cow-keeper on his marriage certificate. In 1847 Thomas took his grey mare called Kitty, spent £30 on a carriage and moved to Walworth. He hired out himself, Kitty and the carriage for weddings and other functions and soon earned enough to buy a second grey mare called Carrie.
In 1851 Tilling bought a horse bus and ran four journeys a day between Peckham and Oxford Street. He drove the bus and hired a conductor named Joseph Eagle, who worked for Thomas for over forty years. By 1857, Tilling owned 70 horses, used for bus and general carriage work. The firm was run from the parlour at Winchester House in Peckham (an early 19th C house demolished in 1952) and from here it grew and grew, enriching other businesses in this part of South London: local tradesmen bought Thomas a silver cup to show their gratitude. A Walworth tradesman called Benjamin Soddy, who agreed to provide horse fodder on credit early in Thomas’s career, became one of the largest corn-chandlers in London. One of Soddy’s sons went on to win the Nobel prize for Chemistry.
Tilling’s success, with 4,000 horses by 1892, was down to his many innovations. His horse buses ran to a fixed timetable, leaving stops on time rather than waiting until the bus was full, making them much more reliable than the competition, not for nothing were they known as ‘Times’ buses). They stopped at predetermined points, rather than wherever the driver or passengers wanted. He even introduced an early form of the Oyster card: a ‘correspondence’ ticket which enabled passengers to travel across London on any omnibus, with ticket receipts being pooled among the different firms. Tilling soon became the biggest supplier of horsepower in London loaning horses for canal barges, the Lord Mayor’s Show and the Royal Family. When the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed in 1866, Tilling supplied and trained the horses that hauled the fire engines. These horses had to respond quickly, straight out of the station and cope with varying conditions. Thomas always supplied greys, the Tilling trademark, and trained them on his Peckham bus route to gain experience with heavy traffic.
One of the Tilling stables was in Milo Road, between Lordship Lane and Beauval Rd. Tilling accounts show a purchase in East Dulwich in 1898 for £5,463 which may be this site. An aerial shot shows just how large an area these stables covered, and Tilling had 500 such stables. His yards were always organised to the same plan: stables in long lines with the horses facing inwards. The stalls were partitioned with wooden walls as opposed to a hanging bale chained to the ceiling, which he said was uncomfortable for the horses and made it harder for them to lie down. A five-year-old bus horse cost £35 and had a working life of around four years, after which it was sold to the knacker for £5. However, Thomas’s motto was ‘Do them really well’. He had his own horse infirmary, employed many vets and each horse was well-fed with a weekly ration of 17lbs of corn, 10lbs of chaff plus hay. The feed was later supplied by a custom-built granary in Peckham.
In stables like Milo Road each horse-keeper was responsible for a stud of 12 horses with each horse working 10 days in 12; both men and horses had Sundays off. Tilling needed huge supplies of horses as driving buses was tiring work, especially in Dulwich: horses driving up Lordship Lane to the Plough had to be taken off the route every other week and worked on an easier one. Days were long. The first buses left Milo Road in time to allow passengers to be at work by 8.30. So, at 5am the keepers started grooming and feeding the horses. At 5.30 am the vet would inspect every animal and take off any that were unfit for work. Horses and buses would then head off for the day’s work. The last bus would arrive back at the Milo stables around 10pm and the horses, having been on the road all day, were handed over to the horse-keepers by the drivers while the conductors checked the buses for dropped coins and lost property. The horses were fed while elsewhere on the site the bus washers and carpenters were finishing their supper ready to start repairing, cleaning and readying the buses for the next day. By 3am the washers had left and the stables were quiet for a few hours until the whole cycle started again.
Doctors were a large market for Tilling, especially around Dulwich where so many of them lived. If a doctor did not want the trouble of keeping a hard-worked horse healthy and fed, Thomas would lease him a carriage horse, coachman and deliver the fodder. Tilling vets would visit to check the animal’s health and Thomas claimed he could replace a lame horse, broken carriage or drunken coachman within an hour.
Thomas died in 1893 and is buried in Nunhead Cemetery. His sons Richard and Edward, together with their brother-in-law Walter Wolsey, took over the business which now had over 6,000 horses and in 1904 they introduced the first double-decker motorbuses built for public service in London. A year later Tilling had 20 motor buses but still owned 7,000 horses. In 1909, the company operated a route from Peckham to Turnham Green, via Oxford Circus. This was route 12 and the service between Peckham and Oxford Circus still operates and still uses the number 12, making it possibly the oldest operating bus route in London.
By 1913, although Tilling had 150 motor buses, horses continued to comprise the larger part of their business. However, the writing was on the wall for horse-drawn transport and the firm announced plans to reduce their stabling, selling 500 horses immediately and advertised several premises for sale, including Milo Road. The auction advert says the Milo Road premises covered nearly 20,000 square feet and was a ‘well-placed … capital block of substantial ground floor buildings’ suitable for conversion into ‘factories, garages or laundries’.
The last Tilling horse-bus ran in August 1914 on the Honor Oak-Peckham Rye route, after which the horses were requisitioned for war work. Tilling supplied thousands of horses for the army and if you’ve read or seen War Horse, you’ll know just how horses were deployed in WW1; Britain lost nearly half a million horses in the war. Richard Tilling wrote to the Secretary of War warning of the diminishing number of horses available due to the rapid increase of motorised transport. He calculated that the number of horses used for public transport in London had declined from 74,000 in 1904 to around 7,000 in 1912. He continued ‘For all practical purposes the omnibus horse and the cab horse no longer exist… after Christmas next we shall have disposed of the balance of our omnibus horses.’ He suggested the army buy up the horses being sold by the omnibus companies and jobmasters to ensure their supply. The War Office was reluctant to incur this expenditure as they did not believe ‘the horse was vanishing to such an extent’.
In 1933, when their buses in London were nationalised, Tilling still owned 300 horses. But the company had also diversified away from transport and later owned, amongst others, Heinemann, Pretty Polly, Cornhill Insurance and Pilkington Tiles. Today, the Milo Road site is garages, and the only Tilling buses in London are in the Transport Museum but we do have bus stops, timetables and possibly some rhyming slang, to remember him by.