History of double-decker buses reveals Oxford’s British connection

Posted on Apr 26 2018 - 5:52am by Olivia Morgan

Coachella was named for the valley in Indio, California, in which the festival takes place. Memphis in May got its name because, well, it is located in Memphis and takes place in May. Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival is eponymously named for a type of blues venue common in the Mississippi Delta. So how did an arts festival in the hill country of Mississippi come to be named after a mode of mass transit most common in the United Kingdom?

The city of Oxford’s Anglophilic obsession began before either Ole Miss or the city proper existed.

When Mississippi was seeking a location for its flagship university, one northern Mississippi town cleverly tried to woo those deciding the placement. Its citizens chose the name “Oxford” – also the name of a prestigious university town in England – to elicit a positive response from lawmakers. In addition to mirroring British culture with the town’s name, Oxonians soon began co-opting more touches of Britain, such as red phone booths and double-decker buses, to their local culture.

“The buses are a tribute to our namesake and our tradition of thinking outside of the box to pull people to our beautiful city,” said Joseph Scott, Visit Oxford’s visitor services coordinator.

The first double-decker “bus” was a two-story horse-drawn carriage crafted in Paris in 1853. By 1857 these horse-drawn buggies had made their way to England, albeit with a modified style that featured an exposed upper deck, which provided extra seating that could be discounted. London began using automated buses reflective of this style in 1923.

Though double-decker buses have become prevalent in mass transit systems across Europe and the rest of the world, including places such as India, Mexico and South Africa, their symbolic attachment to British culture is, admittedly, the characteristic with which most people would readily associate them.

“The Double Decker Festival is a celebration of all things Oxford and is about welcoming people to come and experience our community and culture,” Scott said.

He said part of this culture is the iconic red buses that are modeled after those used in England.

It seems fitting that when the first Double Decker Festival was in the works in 1994, the event’s name was chosen to follow the British tradition. The first double-decker bus was brought across the pond that same year.

According to Scott, all the buses were imported from England, and the two most recent additions had to be driven to Mississippi from Arizona. Currently the city maintains four buses, running them two at a time.

“We also occasionally use them for city events, like the Oxford Art Crawl,” Scott said. “We also offer a public tour Fridays before home SEC football and baseball games.”

Local historian Jack Mayfield serves as a guide for the double-decker buses’ primary use: tourism. The vehicles shuttle visitors from all over the world around the university and town. The buses are also often rented out for private events, such as weddings.

On double-decker tours, visitors hear Mayfield tell stories about the history of Oxford, but the buses themselves also tell an interesting story. Their lives – begun in Britain the 1960s and still going strong decades later after being shipped to a small town in Mississippi – highlight the connection between these distant places that was first established with Oxford’s name.