Yorkshire wheelwright builds Victorian omnibus in his shed to finish final project that's taken 15 years

As a lad joining the family business in coal haulage, Rodney Greenwood had built his own horse-drawn cart, just like his grandfather used.

By Ruby Kitchen
Saturday, 23rd April 2022, 6:00 am

It was a project that was to fuel a passion, and then a career, as one of the country’s last wheelwrights to fix these old carts and drays.

Now, after lockdown brought the chance to finally finish a project he first started 15 years ago, he has made his own Victorian horse-drawn omnibus from century-old plans.

This is a work on no small scale, with every inch hewn from craft. To 67-year-old Mr Greenwood it’s a simple art, as he sees wheels his own way.

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Rodney Greenwood who during lockdown finally finish a project he started 15 years ago - building his very own Victorian horse-drawn omnibus from century old plans in his shed in Halifax. Picture Tony Johnson

“I usually call myself a ‘self-taught wheelwright’,” said the Halifax grandfather-of-seven. “I can look at that wheel and put it back to what it was.

“It’s all very interesting, when you study it, when you look into the material.”

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Mr Greenwood, over 25 years, estimates he’s built more than 150 wheels with expert help from son Tom.

The omnibus has been built from century old plans. Image: Tony Johnson.

There’s elm hubs for twisted grain, oak spokes for strength, then the ash felloes before a hot hoop shrinks it to fit.

By 2019 it came time for a clear-out at the family farm. Some 25 carts, drays, and carriages were sold in a dispersal sale, with just one frame left. The Victorian omnibus.

“I made a start on it, then got busy,” he said. “It got left. Long story short, it’s stayed in my shed for 15 years.

“So this is, you might say, the last job I needed to finish.”

Rodney Greenwood who during lockdown finally finish a project he started 15 years ago - building his very own Victorian horse-drawn omnibus from century old plans in his shed in Halifax. Picture Tony Johnson

Omnibus

Horse-drawn omnibuses were popular in London around the 1900s, before trams came along, though old photographs do suggest they were used in places like Halifax.

As many as 14 people might have hitched a lift on the top deck, with a dozen below, having stood at the side of the road to hail a ride for “a pittance” in price.

Now, there may be fewer than half a dozen original omnibuses left in the country, with four brought together for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.

Wheelwright Rodney Greenwood estimates he's built more than 150 wheels. Image: Tony Johnson.

When lockdown came, Mr Greenwood set to work. It took six months, with original designs from a century ago and the help of his eldest grandson, 16-year-old Sam.

Brand new, it shines in London bus red, with a cream piping and button-back upholstery in vivid royal blue. All it needs now, he said, is a team of horses to lead it.

“I had to build it. That’s top and bottom of it,” he said. “It’s built to be giving rides. It’s ready to move on.”

Wheelwright

Mr Greenwood and wife Linda have been a team through the years, raising their three children Melanie, Kathryn, and Tom, while building the business and breeding shire horses.

He has restored a number of drays for Yorkshire breweries, such as Sam Smiths, which still does deliveries by horse and cart, and recently restored a horse-drawn ambulance.

Rodney Greenwood who during lockdown finally finish a project he started 15 years ago - building his very own Victorian horse-drawn omnibus from century old plans in his shed in Halifax. Picture Tony Johnson

Now retired, he said it’s impossible to ever fully stop tinkering. Of the art, and the craft, he said this was a hobby that turned to a passion and grew.

“We’ve had a great time, we think we can go on and on,” he said. “I love doing it, I can’t ever imagine giving this up.

“Over 25 years it’s a job that’s grown from one to another. From the cart to having horses to using them. I just wish I were 20 years younger.

Care

“The best thing, when you’ve done something like this, is looking back to say ‘that looks good’,” he added. “These crafts are getting lost in time.

“A lot of years ago there would have been a wheelwright on every street in a city. This is continuing that history, and recreating it.

“Every time I rebuild a wheel which must be 100 years old, I know it’s going to be good for a while.

“As long as people look after these carts and drays now, they’re here for another 100 years.”

Family tradition

Mr Greenwood was the third generation to go into the family haulage and coal business, W Greenwood & Sons, founded by his grandfather Walter.

When it came to his turn though, he decided to recreate what it had originally been. So came some shire horses to breed, and an old dray in replica of his grandfather’s.

When the dray was restored, he did some more. With the horses, he became a breeder of what he and wife Linda called Camalter Shires, and eventually brought them to use on film sets for Peaky Blinders, The Village, and Death Comes to Pemberley.

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Rodney Greenwood who during lockdown finally finish a project he started 15 years ago - building his very own Victorian horse-drawn omnibus from century old plans in his shed in Halifax. Picture Tony Johnson