An inovator in public transport across Europe
THE DAWNING of the young Queen Victoria’s reign in Britain saw many great minds of the day turning their attentions to the development of public transport trams and buses.
Among those at the forefront of these advancing and in some cases competing technologies was William Henry Sheldon. Born in Preston, Lancashire, in 1812, he became a sufficiently well-known public figure for The Times newspaper to devote several column inches to his obituary when he died on the 8th December 1883. In between times, William established a Europe-wide reputation for creating and developing passenger transport services in urban areas.
In his younger days he had a lengthy connection with the stagecoach business, with The Times recording that “he personally took charge of the coaches from Birmingham to Carlisle and elsewhere”. Indeed, we find him in the 1851 census living at Cooks House in Kendal, Westmorland, with children Elizabeth (b1844) and Joseph W (b1849). William is described as a Mail Contractor and Coach Master. The family had one domestic servant.
The Dundee Courier and Argus, in recording his demise, also noted that “more than half a century ago he had a large share in instituting regularity of communication between England and Scotland by means of stage coaches”.
Moving to London and tackling Europe
The rapid development of the railway network, with its consequential elimination of the stagecoach business, prompted William to give up his home in Westmorland and move his family down to London.
By the mid-1850s he was establishing “an excellent and cheap omnibus service” (as The Times described it) for the newly-formed London General Omnibus Company, which had been tasked with amalgamating and regulating the many horse-drawn bus services then plying their trade on increasingly overcrowded city streets.
Horse-drawn buses had started in London as early as 1829 but until William took a hand they were the preserve of the burgeoning suburban middle classes and were generally priced beyond the reach of ordinary working people.
The catalyst for change was the Great Exhibition of 1851, when horse-bus proprietors were quick to take advantage of the massive influx of visitors requiring means of carriage to the Crystal Palace venue in Hyde Park. The exhibition ran for nearly six months with over 6,000,000 people visiting the 26-acre exhibition site.
Once over, the rapid decline in profitable traffic caused something of a slump in the bus trade but prompted fare reductions as operators were forced to economise to survive, eventually making bus travel a more affordable option for the masses.
An eccentric American entrepreneur, the rather inappropriately-named George Francis Train, first introduced street trams to Britain, setting up a service in Birkenhead on Merseyside. When he decided to test the London market he persuaded William Sheldon to help him.
They began with three demonstration lines in Bayswater, Victoria and between Westminster Bridge and Kennington. But the experiment was not a success; William disapproved of Train’s insistence on raised rails, which greatly inconvenienced other road users, and he soon pulled out of the venture. The stubborn Train, however, persisted and soon found himself arrested for ‘breaking and injuring’ a London street.
Nonetheless, William had learned much from the venture and, together with his son Joseph, he soon found his services in demand across continental Europe, where the cities of Brussels, Copenhagen, Madrid, Geneva, Bucharest and Bremen, all benefited from his knowledge of how to set up and run profitable and sustainable tramways.
The various obituary reports say that William’s continental ventures were highly successful and that subsequently he found himself much in demand back home when a few years later it was realised that trams offered a more profitable solution to transporting larger numbers of people.
He became involved in setting up tramways in Glasgow, Aberdeen and elsewhere and also became an advocate for the development of light steam trams for rural areas.
A man of practical benevolence
The many obituaries penned about him also remarked that William was a member of the Society of Friends and was known within his private circle for being a man of practical benevolence.
The 1861 census sees him living in fashionable Kensington, London, at 35 Peterborough Villas, aged 49 and describing himself as a “retired coach proprietor”. With him and Esther is his daughter Elizabeth, 17, listed as born Lancaster. They have one live-in servant.
By the time of the 1881 census William is living at Clanranald Lodge, Stamford Hill, North London, and described as a director of a tramway company. The census entry lists a live-in nurse, who was probably caring for his wife Esther, who subsequently died in September of that same year. There were also two domestic servants in the household.
These are but sketchy details of the life of a man who undoubtedly had a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands ordinary people. Yet, the obituaries that appeared at the time of his death apart, little else is known about William Henry. His will shows him to have died a wealthy man, leaving a personal estate of £17,351 15s 11d, the equivalent of something approaching £2,000,000 in today’s terms. Probate was granted to Joseph William Sheldon of the same Clanranald Lodge address, described as his son and only next of kin.
Inquiries to various bus and tram museums and historians for further information about William have thus far drawn a blank. Please get in touch with us if you can fill in any further details about him. As ever, comments should be directed to our Facebook page at .