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B1269 Omnibus, horse-drawn, metal / wood / vinyl, Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1890-1896. Click to enlarge.

Horse-drawn omnibus

This 24 passenger horse bus was part of Sydney's first public transport system. In the 1880s Sydney's main streets were laid with durable hardwood blocks. The city was filled with the sound of steel-tyred buses and other vehicles rumbling over these blocks, accompanied by the clip clopping of countless horses' hooves.

The horse bus was usually hauled by two horses. At peak times, or up steeper hills like William Street to Kings Cross, four horses were used. Upstairs seats, reached by a …


Object No.


Object Statement

Omnibus, horse-drawn, metal / wood / vinyl, Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1890-1896

Physical Description

Coach-like horse-drawn bus, consisting of a wooden body with a series of five sash windows along each side. Inside there two rows of blue upholstered seats running the length of the vehicle. At the rear of the vehicle is a short winding stairway which leads to the open seating area on top of the bus. The omnibus seats 24 people. The bus has four spoked coach wheels. Overall colour scheme is beige with dark blue, red and gold leaf detailing. Total weight of horse bus is approximately 1.25 tonnes.



3000 mm


2200 mm



The larger omnibus companies in Sydney, such as the Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company Limited, built, operated and maintained their own buses. The Waverley and Woollahra United Omnibus Company operated from a depot in Woollahra that boasted separate blacksmiths', coachpainters', painters' and saddlers' shops. While smaller horse bus proprietors sometimes built and operated their own vehicles, they were often forced to merge with larger operators such as the Sydney Omnibus Company (formed in 1869), with the smaller depots being maintained as "satellites" of the larger operators.

The early growth of the coachbuilding industry in Australia was based on the structure and practices of the industry in England. From the 1850s, American coachbuilding practices and horse drawn vehicle styles exerted an increasing influence on the local industry, initially resulting from the repeal in 1849 of the British Navigation Acts, which had prevented trade with countries other than Britain.

For the Australian horse bus proprietor who built his own vehicles, the most significant aspect of this American influence was the availability of carriage building machinery. A range of specialised machinery was imported from the United States for use in Australian coachbuilding workshops, most of it designed to facilitate the production of wheels.

A typical Australian coachbuilding workshop in the latter half of the 19th century comprised five divisions of activity, each supervised by a skilled tradesman.

The body maker or body builder was responsible for the design and preparation of the body frame, panels and shafts or poles to which the harness would be attached. Sometimes this tradesman would work with the blacksmith to construct the undercarriage (traditionally referred to as the "carriage"), although a specialist "carriage builder" could be employed for this purpose.

The wheelwright turned the wheel hubs or centres on a lathe, drilled the hub to house the cast iron axle box, cut mortises to receive the spokes and fitted felloes (sections of wheel rim extending over two spokes) or, on smaller wheels, semi circular "half rims".

The wheels were then ready for the blacksmith to cut, shape, heat, forge and "shrink" the steel tyres onto them. A red hot tyre was dropped into place over a wheel rim, and then cold water was used to effect rapid cooling. The tyre contracted as it cooled and imparted enormous strength to the wheel structure as it tightened around the frame of felloes or half rims. The axle and all other "ironwork" for the vehicle such as springs (a horse bus of the late 19th century was mounted on elliptical leaf springs), shackles, steps and lamp irons were prepared by the blacksmith.

The trimmer made the hood, side curtains, seat squabs and cushions using leather, imitation leather ("leatherette"), horsehair and canvas.

Finally, the painter prepared fillers and mixed paints and primers in preparation for painting the vehicle by brush. The coachpainter's most valued expertise lay in the steadiness of hand and wrist action employed in the detailing of his paintwork, which was especially important for a commercial vehicle such as an omnibus. Lettering striping and scrollwork gave each vehicle an attractive and distinctive appearance. The paintwork was covered in two coats of protective clear varnish.



The omnibus, which owes its name to the dative plural of the Latin "omnis", meaning "all", is a public street vehicle designed to carry many passengers. It is in the wagonette class of vehicle and is characterised by an enclosed body with panelled sides and a door at the rear providing access to longitudinal seats that face each other.

The first omnibus was built in Paris in 1819. It was not so named until about 1828 when a bath house proprietor named Baudry referred to the vehicle he operated for his patrons as "L'Omnibus". The early Parisian omnibuses were built by George Shillibeer, an English coachbuilder who lived in Paris. Shillibeer returned to London and began building omnibuses there, the first one operating on 4 July 1829.

In Australia as elsewhere, the appeal of the omnibus lay in its ability to transport many more people more efficiently and cheaply than the two-seater horse cabs, wagonettes, vans and drays for hire that they gradually displaced. While omnibuses was confined to set routes, they quickly became a popular alternative conveyance to hiring a cab, walking, cycling or taking a cable or steam tram, especially for businessmen travelling between work in the city and home in the inner suburbs. This was a significant development for the suburban dwellers of the Victorian era because a reliable horse bus service allowed them to dispense with their own horse(s) and carriages. The advent of the horse bus also led to a significant shift towards "socialised" public transport (that is, shared among many travellers) which would gather momentum towards the close of the century. By then, it would take the introduction of the electric tram to unseat the omnibus from the central role it claimed in Australia's urban public transport.

The omnibus was introduced to the streets of Sydney from the early 1840s. One of the early ones was called 'The Australian'. It was introduced in 1843 and operated from the city to Newtown and the Cooks River dam by Charles Underwood. Underwood's livery stables were located in Pitt Street. London-built horse buses eventually travelled the length of George Street, charging passengers a fare of sixpence. Other regular services ran to Paddington and Surry Hills and by the 1880 to Randwick, Double Bay, Bondi, Coogee and Kogarah. By 1894, there were 290 omnibuses operating in Sydney. Most of these were fitted with knifeboard seating and curved rear staircases. An observer commented in that year that "Sydney is a city of hansom cabs and omnibuses."

One of the largest omnibus companies operating in Sydney in the last decades of the 19th century was the Sydney Tramway and Omnibus company, whose offices were located at 72 King Street. The company built and operated its own buses that were pulled by up to four horses. Passengers who regularly travelled on horse buses came to know the names of the drivers and even the horses that plied the routes. To the regular passengers of the buses operated by the Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company Limited (the name is misleading because the company never obtained a licence to operate trams), the familiar letters "S T & O Co" emblazoned on the side of each of its buses were wryly but affectionately considered to stand for the "sugar, tea and oats" company. Even though the Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company owned the largest fleet of horse buses in Sydney, perhaps around one hundred, the Museum's bus is thought to be the sole survivor.

The Sydney Tramway and Omnibus Company was wound up at a meeting on 4 June 1897 having sold most of its assets including its routes by then. The Woollahra lines were sold to Henry Alexander in December 1896. Alexander rebranded his buses as the Eastern Suburbs Omnibus Company with the fleet name Favourite.

This omnibus was donated to the Museum in 1954 by Rudders Ltd, which also donated several other transport objects to the Museum, including a significant tram hearse. The omnibus was in quite poor condition at the time of acquisition, and conservation work was carried out so it could be used as a means of publicising the Museum's seventy-fifth anniversary in 1955. Archive photographs were obtained from the Government Printing Office, public libraries and railway archives of omnibuses which operated in the same period, and extensive work was carried out to faithfully restore it. For seven days, the omnibus was then put back on its original route between Martin Place in the heart of Sydney and Woollahra in the inner eastern suburbs, complete with horses and a driver in period costume. After this publicity, the bus was put on display in the forecourt of the old Harris Street Ultimo Museum building, and floodlit at night, causing impressed drivers to slow down and create traffic jams. The omnibus is now on display in the 'Transport' gallery at the Powerhouse Museum.

Additonal information supplied by:
Duncan MacAuslan November 2015
Laurie J. O'Neill January 2016


Credit Line

Gift of Rudders Ltd, 1954

Acquisition Date

29 August 1954

Cite this Object


Horse-drawn omnibus 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 3 December 2021, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Horse-drawn omnibus |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=3 December 2021 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}