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.
Drivers 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.
Many 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.
The 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’.
In 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”.
The 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.
London 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”.
Take 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’.
The 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.