How a Victorian bus factory was transformed into a thriving 21st century business community.
In 1888 the London General Omnibus Company took a lease on a plot of land adjacent to the Caledonian Market in North Road, Lower Holloway. They planned to construct a production line factory to build and repair horse-drawn omnibuses.
A Victorian factory
Timber to build the buses was stored in a separate building at the western end of the factory. The buses were built in the main building, starting with carpentry, followed by all the iron work and then wheel-making. The buses were then taken up to the first floor to be painted. After that they went to another separate building to the rear to be upholstered and, finally, to have the advertisements sign-written on them.
The finished buses were then stored in the garage at the eastern end of North Road next to what was originally the factory manager’s house and the General Office.
End of a horse-drawn era
At the beginning of the 20th century the internal combustion engine came into use and horse-drawn buses were getting out-dated.
The famous ‘B’ Type open-topped motor bus was designed at The Busworks and prototypes were built. However, the building was not suitable for a modern, mechanical, production line and the ‘B’ Type factory went to Elstree.
Many Edwardian photographs of London show the ‘B’ Type in operation and maybe its finest hours were during the First World War when the buses were modified to become troop carriers, ambulances and even lofts for carrier-pigeons.
No more buses
The Busworks continued to be used as a repair depot for buses until the 1950s.
After that, the building was split into two – with the part that is now Omnibus being used by Fescol Ltd as a steel plating works up until 1977. The part which is now United was occupied until 1985 by a shop-fitting company called Sleefords with a joinery shop in what is now the car park.
The old timber store was used as a works canteen by the bus company but when they left the building was abandoned.
A fresh start
In 1979 architect Philip Lancashire and his business partner Gillian Harwood took a lease on the Omnibus part of building which was, by then, completely vandalised and leaking.
Little by little they refurbished one area at a time as workspace for small businesses. Omnibus became a resounding success and, in 1985, Philip and Gillian were asked by Islington Council and the City of London if they would consider taking over more of the old factory.
The abandoned wood store, meanwhile, had been spotted for its potential by a young group wanting to open a pioneering circus training and performance space. In return for a rent-free period, the group – known as Circus Space – cleared half a century’s worth of pigeon poo from the floor and rigged up trapezes and climbing ropes from the rafters.
Their efforts were so successful that after five years or so they moved on to open much larger premises in Hoxton Square.
Theatre and pub
Christopher Richardson, a theatre designer with offices in Omnibus, spotted the potential of the top floor of the wood store to be converted into a full-blown 300 seat theatre to be known as Pleasance London.
The ground floor of the wood store was opened as a brasserie to serve The Busworks residents in 1992 and it was named Shillibeers – after George Shillibeer who had lived in Holloway and who was renowned for starting London’s first ever public omnibus service in 1839. It has since been renamed The Depot.
Over the 123 years since they were built, the same walls and roof have sheltered so many different technologies from the manual labour of bus-building via motor engines, type-writers, drawing boards, word processors and PCs and Macs through to the virtual world and the worldwide web.
We hope that The Busworks will continue to exist for many, many years to come.