Fare’s Fair

As the site is entitled CabbieBlog I thought on the anniversary of the blog’s 250th post the time was opportune to give a little of the history of London’s cab trade.

The name cab derives from the French, cabriolet de place and London cabbies have a surprisingly ancient heritage, the now defunct Corporation of Coachmen having secured a charter to ply for hire in London back in 1639.

[H]ackney Carriage is still the official term used to describe taxis and has nothing to do with that area in east London. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse, it literally means, ‘ambling nag’.

In 1625 there were as few as 20 cabs available for hire and operating out of inn yards, but in 1636 the owner of four hackney coaches, a certain Captain Bailey a retired mariner, dressed his four drivers in livery so they would be easily recognisable and established a tariff for various parts of London and most important of all brought them into the Strand outside the Maypole Inn, and in so doing the first taxi rank had been established, this attracted the attention of other hackney coachmen who flocked there seeking work.

In 1636 Charles I made a proclamation to enable 50 hackney carriages to ply for hire in London, it was left up to the City’s Aldermen to make sure this number was not exceeded.

After the Civil War, in 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by an Act of Parliament, and taxi driving became a profession; their numbers was allowed to increase to 200 hackney carriages. The Act was replaced in 1662 under Charles II by a new act, which required the hackney coaches to be licensed, and restricted their number to 400. In 1688 the number was increased to 600, and then again six years later by an Act of Parliament to 700.

Despite licensing they failed to attract the right sort of passenger, however, so that in 1694 a bevy of females in one cab reportedly behaved so badly in the environs of Hyde Park that the authorities responded by banning hired cabs from the park for the next 230 years.

Between 1711 and 1798 some 24 separate Acts of Parliament were passed dealing specifically with the cab trade and increasing the number of drivers who could ply for hire. In 1711 800 licenses were issued and by 1815 the numbers had reached 1,200.

In 1833 the number of drivers became unregulated, and there was no longer a restriction on the amount of taxis, the only limit was that the driver and vehicle be ‘fit and proper’, a condition that still applies today. This makes the licensed taxi trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world, and it is the licensed cabbies in the trade that have demanded that it stays this way. With the passing of The London Hackney Carriage Act the Metropolitan Police gained control of the trade for the next 169 years.

In December 1834, Joseph Hansom of Hinckley, Leicestershire, registered his Patent Safety Cab, but sold the patient for £10,000 before he had it manufactured. Its design was improved by cutting away the body of the cab under the passenger’s seat at an angle, inserting a slope in the floor where the passenger’s feet rested, and raising the driver’s seat some 7ft off the ground; this produced the perfect counterbalance and gave us the most famous Hansom carriage to ply London’s streets. Because of London’s congested streets modern London cabs average speed is now lower than the 17mph attainable by the 1834 Hansom carriage.

By mid-Victorian times the drivers had acquired a bit of a reputation, prompting a number of philanthropists – led by a certain Captain Armstrong from St. John’s Wood, the editor of the Globe newspaper – to pay for the erection of London’s distinctive green cab shelters, places where drivers could eat rather than drink alcohol, and where discussion of politics was strictly forbidden, 64 were built although only around a dozen still remain.

In 1887 Gottlieb Daimler, having previously invented the internal combustion engine some four years earlier, built the first petrol-powered cab, but the Metropolitan Police refused to license such a crazy device until 1904.

The taximeter was invented in 1891 by Wilhelm Bruhn and it is from this that the term taxi is derived. The taximeter measures the distance travelled and time taken of all journeys, allowing an accurate fare to be charged. The word comes from French taxe (‘price’) and Greek metron (‘measure’). Previous inventions for calculating fares included the ‘Patent Mile-Index’ in 1847 and the ‘Kilometric Register’ in 1858. These were disliked by cab drivers as they did not want their incomes regulated by machines. Even Bruhn’s taximeter ended up being thrown in the river by drivers, and were not made compulsory until 1907, his invention is still being used today.

The Knowledge of London was introduced in 1851 by Sir Richard Mayne after complaints that cab drivers did not know where they were going at the time of The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Passing the Knowledge involves detailed recall of 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. The locations of clubs, hospitals, hotels, railway stations, parks, theatres (including the stage door), courts, restaurants, colleges, government buildings and places of worship are also required. In addition Blue Plaques, statutes and London curiosities can be asked. The examinations take the form of a one-to-one oral test and take over three years to pass.

Taxi Trivia

2nd cabDrivers do not have to stop if you hail them, whether or not the yellow ‘taxi’ sign is lit. This is because legally, taxis are not plying for hire when they are moving. However, if they do stop, they are considered ”standing in the street” and cannot refuse a fare under 12 miles or that will take less than one hour.

2nd cabMany people believed the original 6-mile limit was to ensure that the poor old horse didn’t get too tired pulling the cab. In fact it was linked to London’s chain of defences that had been erected during the Civil War in 1642. The defences were approximately 6 miles from the City and Westminster and it was deemed as dangerous for Hackney coaches to pass through these robust emplacements.

2nd cabTaxi drivers do not have to wear a seat belt when they are working, but must belt up when they are driving home.

2nd cabTaxi drivers are not legally obliged to give change. If a large note is offered the driver is entitled to take the cash and then offer to post the change to the passenger’s home address.

2nd cabThe classic London black cab is the Austin FX-4 and was introduced in 1958 remaining in production until 1996. In 1989 a version of the vehicle went on sale in Japan badged as the ‘Big Ben Novelty Car’.

2nd cabIn the 1960s the wealthy oil heir Nubar Gulbenkian had a luxurious limousine built on an FX-4 taxi chassis for his own use while in London. “Apparently it can turn on a sixpence”, he used to tell acquaintances, “whatever that is”.

2nd cabThe reason London taxis are so high is so that the ‘toffs’ didn’t have to remove their top hats when they were going to the races.

2nd cabThe rate of a shilling (5p) was set in 1662 when King Charles II passed an Act to control coachmen; this rate was not to be exceeded until 1950.

2nd cabAn Act of Parliament in 1784 gave the Hackney carriage trade the sole right to use their coaches as ‘hearses and mourning coaches at funerals’.

2nd cabThe heroic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was a regular visitor to the old green shelter which originally stood at Hyde Park Corner; the shelter’s regulars presented him with a set of pipes and a pipe rack. His letter of thanks hung proudly on the shelter wall until the shelter was pulled down to make way for the Piccadilly underpass.

2nd cabIt is a surprising fact that the last horse-drawn Hackney carriage license was surrendered as late as 3rd April 1947.

2nd cabRear-view mirrors became a legal requirement in 1968, but to prevent cabbies ogling the legs of their lady passengers they couldn’t be adjusted, rendering them almost useless.

2nd cabHarold Wilson when Prime Minister wanted to nationalise the taxi trade and force drivers to wear a liveried uniform and be paid a salary.

2nd cabLondon cabbies are expected to abide by laws encompassed in the London Hackney carriage Acts of 1831 and 1843. Among these antiquated laws are terms of one or two months imprisonment for “misbehaviours during employment” and “use of insulting or abusive gestures during employment”.

2nd cabTake care that you don’t contravene the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 when hailing a cab for ‘No person who knows he is suffering from a notifiable disease shall enter a cab without previously notifying the owner or driver of his condition’.

2nd cabWhen a special Buckingham Palace Brownie Pack was formed for Princess Anne in 1959, one of the other nine-year-olds handpicked to keep her company was the daughter of a London cabbie.

2nd cabThe actress Keeley Hawes’ father is a cabbie as are both her older brothers. Amy Winehouse’s dad Mitch, in addition to being a musician and singer, drives a London cab. Entertainer Brian Conley’s late father was once a London cabbie.

In case you still haven’t had enough of our history I would suggest reading The Black Car Story by Alf Townsend, in it is more than you will ever need to know about London’s cab trade, written by our foremost trade journalist.

2 thoughts on “Fare’s Fair”

  1. Hi there,

    We are the Directors of Keyfetch Limited, a lost property retrieval service which connects owners and finders directly and safely. Passengers lose their valuables in cabs all the time so this is a product drivers will relate to and probably be able to endorse. As such, we would like to enrol them as ‘mobile salesmen’, whereby they could generate extra cash by selling our product directly to their passengers. No financial risk at all, we buy back all unsold inventory at the drivers’ call.

    We have 2 questions for you:

    -It doesn’t seem to mention anywhere in the London Hackney Carriages Act that drivers are not allowed to carry independent commercial activities (unrelated to any paid advertising). Is that correct ?

    -Assuming it is correct, do you think there would be much interest from drivers ?

    Our socially responsible product sells itself, requires no set up and carries high margins for the drivers.

    Many thanks for your thoughts on this.


    1. Thanks for your interest in CabbieBlog.

      Yes valuable items (including keys) are often left in cabs and as such there is a set procedure we should follow.

      In practice, particularly with mobiles, we tend to try to reunite the owner direct.

      Although some of my colleagues conduct tours of London as an ongoing business rather than the punter requesting a ‘tour’ once in the cab, I’ve yet to hear of any travelling salesmen.

      I can’t see how we can act in that capacity, please expand on your idea.

      Advertising on the tip up seats might prove beneficial, although the cost could prove prohibitive.
      Check your ideas out with the Carriage Office also it might be worthwhile talking it through with Steve McNamara General Secretary of the London Taxi Drivers’ Association. If approved advertising in their bi-weekly publication TAXI should certainly be considered.


What do you have to say for yourself?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.