London’s transport is world-famous for its roundel, but just under a century ago, it nearly became a rabbit – Wilfred the Rabbit.
Wilfred the Rabbit wasn’t created for London Transport originally, but was seconded from a strip cartoon in the Daily Mirror that ran from 1919 to 1956, and in the series, Wilfred was the young son with a dog for dad and penguin for a mother.
Fortunately for those you worried about how a dog and a penguin can give birth to a rabbit, Wilfred was found in a field near his burrow and was adopted by Pip and Squeak, who were, in turn, looked after by Uncle Dick and Angeline, the housemaid of their family house on the edge of London.
In 1922, London Transport’s Managing Director, Frank Pick was looking for a new mascot to go on the front of the London General Omnibus Company country buses. It’s suggested that a castle was nearly used, but a rabbit was chosen to represent the rural areas that the bus routes would be plying.
Frank Pick then chose his friend and sculptor, Harold Stabler to adapt the comic-strip character to become the new mascot which would be used on 80 bus routes between London and the countryside.
The design, as you might expect went through a number of changes, but in general, stayed with Stabler’s initial concept of a rabbit sitting upright with paws raised and his ears pointing upwards.
The mascot was due to be cast in aluminium and attached to the radiator at the front of the buses.
A letter from Stabler to Ivor Fraser, the Operations Manager and Chief Engineer, from April 1922 states that “the rabbit which would be five inches over all would be seated on a green glazed mound, and would be coloured”.
Pick seemed to be unconvinced by some of the details and wanted a thinner rabbit and suggested that they could be made in a range of colours.
Also in April though, it was reported in the Daily Mirror that an 8-inch tall bronze model of Wilfred was on display at the Royal Academy, and was to be used as the model for polished aluminium mascots to go on LGOC buses.
This is confirmed in the Royal Academy catalogue for 1922.
The newspaper reported that 50 a day were being supplied and that by the end of the month 150 buses would carry Wilfred on the rural bus routes, rising eventually to around 600 buses.
An official from the bus company told the Daily Mirror that “The idea is that Wilfred shall stand as an unmistakable indication to the public that the bus he adorns is going out to the real country,” adding that “Many of the places served by our buses are unknown to Londoners and the names, therefore, convey nothing. Everyone knows Wilfred, and the Londoners who sees him frisking on the bonnet of a bus will know that he is presented with an opportunity to answer the call of the green fields.”
Later in 1922, a series of pottery rabbits were made for sale to the public, so things were going well with the plans.
Posters were also planned for holidays when many buses from other routes were drafted in to supplement the Country routes, and they were to be decorated with posters adorned with images of Wilfred sitting up with ears erect looking forward to his country run.
The Sunday Mirror got very excited that its rabbit was to adorn London’s buses, and proudly predicted that London’s buses would become known as Wilfreds.
They said that people would soon have a special joy in catching a “Wilfred” motor-bus to the country places around London.
“When is the next ‘Wilfred’ to Kew?”
“I’m catching the next ‘Wilfred’ to Hampton Court”
“Hullo, here comes the ‘Wilfred’ for Epsom Downs!”
All seemed to be going well. The news reports were gushing, the rabbits were being produced, and there is evidence in one sadly not able to be reproduced here archive document, that the rabbits were placed on buses.
On 5th June 1922, the Whitsun bank holiday, the Daily Mirror (yes, them again!) reported that the bus company ran Whitsun ‘rabbit’ services, and that the sign of the Silver Rabbit decorated the bonnets of nearly all the buses.
All seemed to be going well, Wilfred the rabbit was popular and his mascot was widespread.
But then disaster.
Frank Pick suddenly changed his mind, and on 29th December plans to put a rabbit on the front of the buses was dropped.
Why he changed his mind is sadly lost to history, or too deeply buried in archive documents to be found at the moment. Considering the amount of publicity and effort that went into producing the mascot, it must have been a serious issue to drop Wilfred, and it’s pure speculation, but was Frank Pick worried about using a company mascot that was based on someone else’s design? Maybe they fell out over how much London Transport would have to pay to license Wilfred from the artist and the Daily Mirror?
The following year, the rabbit was gone, to be replaced with a turtle, but as they unsurprisingly triggered jokes about the speed of the service, didn’t seem to last long either and was replaced by a blue bird.
Although Stabler didn’t see his rabbits all over London’s buses, he left his mark on the Underground, as he designed the ceramic tile decorations used at St John’s Wood station (and others), and also the decorative ventilation grilles on the Piccadilly line extension, and a series of 1935 Jubilee posters.
His obituary in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts described Stabler as a considerable influence on Frank Pick.
But, what if.
This was all going on while London Transport was still more a collection of separate companies, and the uniform branding we associate with it was still under development. Although early versions of roundel were in use, the classic “bullseye” design wasn’t adopted until a few years later, in 1925.
What if the rabbit had remained in place, and become more popular? What if Wilfred was so popular that rather than designing a new roundel, they adopted the rabbit for the tube?
Would London’s transport network be famous for its rabbit? People would walk around London looking for a white rabbit when catching a bus or train, while Oyster cards would probably Carrot cards.
So this Easter weekend, while you’re munching on your chocolate easter bunnies, just think that you could be eating a famous London icon.
Thanks to the TfL Corporate archive and LT Museum archive for helping with the research and the images above.