An electrobus threads its way through the traffic outside the Bank of England. This photo dates from 1908.

A prototype electrobus was put through its paces for newspaper reporters in London on 18 April 1906, prior to the flotation of the London Electrobus Company. The bus had been assembled by the Motor Car Emporium, at its works in West London. According to the trade press the electric motor was rated at 14 to 16 horse power and was made by Thomson-Houston, at their works in Paris. The bus body was made by T H Lewis of Chalk Farm.

The battery, made by Emile Oppermann, of the X Accumulator company, weighed 23 cwt (about 1.15 tonnes). The 44 cells produced 90 volts and its capacity was rated at 500 ampere-hours, according to reports in the trade press. The lead-acid battery was a novel, untested design. The plates were made of a lead paste mixed with horse hair. The sulphuric acid in the battery dissolved the hair, giving the plates a sponge-like texture, which increased their surface area while reducing their weight, producing a lighter and more powerful battery, but at the expense of making the plates extremely fragile and prone to fracture.

Another innovative feature of the electrobus was the use of a propeller shaft and differential gearing on the rear axle to drive the rear wheels. This was a precursor of the design that was to become a standard feature on motor vehicles.

On 15 July 1907 the electrobuses began to ply the four-mile route between Victoria Station and Liverpool Street. The buses were assembled by the Electric Van Wagon and Omnibus Company. The major change from the prototype was that the buses used batteries supplied by the Gould Storage Battery Company, based near Buffalo, New York. The batteries had 42 cells, weighed 35 cwt (1.78 tonnes) and gave the bus a range of more than 40 miles, easily enough to make four return journeys between Victoria and Liverpool Street.

An electrobus with a chain drive, posing for a publicity picture close to Westminster Abbey

Engineers from Gould and the electrobus company developed an innovative way round the problem of limited range. The batteries were bolted to the bottom of the bus. After the morning shift, the buses returned to the charging station, which was only 10 minutes drive from Victoria Station, where workers unbolted the batteries, lowered them with a hydraulic lift and took them off to be recharged, swapping the exhausted batteries for fresh ones. This lightning pitstop took just three minutes.

A new batch of electrobuses was delivered in the latter half of 1908. These buses were assembled by the Electric Vehicle Company of West Norwood, the new name of the Electric Van Wagon and Omnibus Company. The London Electrobus Company now favoured batteries made by the Tudor Company, which weighed 30 cwt.

Is the distinctive ironwork behind the stairs a clue to the body builder?

The early propeller shaft transmission had proved to be unreliable and by 1908 the electrobus company adopted the more conventional chain drive. The company also converted the earlier buses to chain drive.

In common with other buses of the day the electrobus could seat 34 passengers. Not much is known about the companies that built the bus bodies. Brown and Hughes, a firm based in Shepherd’s Bush, is said to have built some of them. Some of the 1908 electrobuses have distinctive ironwork on the rear platform, behind the stairs (right). The same ironwork is found on other motor buses with bodies built by Bayleys of Newington Causeway. The electrobus chassis was made by Wolseley.

In November 1908 the press were given a demonstration of an electrobus with a covered top (left). At the time the metropolitan police refused to allow double-deck buses to have covered tops because of the danger that they might topple over. The police refused to license this electrobus, even though its heavy battery gave the bus a low centre of gravity making it very unlikely to turn over.