Little Green Gems

‘Offsales are for all but only those with “The Knowledge” get a seat inside.’

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Cab shelter, Kensington Road from a bus © 1Q89

Often overlooked Green Cabbie Huts are a quaint anachronism from Victorian days and very, very English. These small shelters providing refreshments are dotted around London’s streets, with many open to the public for takeaway sales, they are worth a visit.

London cabs have been licensed since 1639, and by 1860 there were 4,600 plying for trade. Being out in all weathers poor health and conditions have historically dogged the trade, never more so than in Victorian times.

At that time, the cab-driver’s vehicle of choice was a Hansom Cab a horse-drawn carriage which was open to the elements for the cabbie. He was expected to ‘sit on the box’ in rain, snow, cold and wind waiting for a fare and the only place of sustenance and comfort was a public house. But to utilise this facility meant paying someone to watch the cab and the horse, as it was illegal to leave them unattended. Most cabbies would have a lad who was employed for this purpose, as well as for the carrying of cases and general menial jobs.

In January 1875, a certain Captain Armstrong, ex-soldier and editor of The Globe newspaper based in Fleet Street who lived in St. John’s Wood, sent his manservant out into a raging blizzard to engage a taxi to take him to Fleet Street.

The manservant eventually found the cabbies enjoying each other’s company in a local hostelry, each with varying levels of intoxication.

Returning a full hour later and soaked to the skin, the good captain – slightly miffed – asked his manservant why he had been so long to be told that although there were cabs on the local rank all the cabmen were in no condition to take him to Fleet Street.

Now at that time the Temperance Society was at the peak of its powers, and excessive intake of alcohol was frowned upon.

So in line with the Victorian ethos of public service, Captain Armstrong decided to do something about this and came up with the idea of dedicated shelters for cabbies’ use close to the cab ranks.

With the assistance of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, then aged 73, and a few like-minded philanthropists, they founded the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund which took up offices at
19 Buckingham Street, just off the Strand.

From the Illustrated London News, 20th February 1875 © Peter Jackson Collection

The aim was to build and run shelters at the busiest cab stands within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Each shelter would have an attendant and provide ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices’. This would both address the problems of food and shelter and, more importantly, reduce the cabbies’ temptation to indulge in alcohol.

From The Graphic, 6th February 1875 © Peter Jackson Collection

Many shelters had books and newspapers – donated by the benefactors and publishers – for cabbies to read and provide up-to-date topics of conversation. Publications included such riveting reads as: The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World. Gambling, swearing and political discussion was strictly forbidden – the last condition was almost certainly ignored.

The Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII, put in a few bob. Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter?

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An early architectural drawing of a typical shelter.

One shelter erected in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, was paid for by members of both Houses of Parliament, presumably to ensure the politicians would never have to wait for a cab to get them home after a hard day debating in the Chamber.

The first of the early shelters was opened in 1875 in Acacia Avenue, St. John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100.

The cramped confines of a cabman’s shelter showing the lunch counter. The attendants were usually superannuated cabmen. Pictured wearing an apron is this shelter’s proprietor standing in the doorway of the tiny kitchen. From the Outing magazine 1904.

Between 1875 and 1950 forty-seven of these shelters were built at a cost of £200 each. At first the shelters had no provision for supplying meals, but by 1882 larger shelters were erected, which included a small kitchen so that hot meals and drinks could be provided by the shelter-keeper or for a charge of half-a-penny the attendant would cook any food brought in by a cabbie.

By now the watermen seem to have become the London cab stand officials who ensured that cab horses had enough water to drink. Originally, the watermen seem to have been hangers-on who fetched buckets of water from the nearest pump, or did other services for hackney coachmen and their passengers in exchange for tips. By 1850 the waterman had become a quasi-police official charged not only with supplying water, but also with keeping order on the stands and administering punnishments after disturbances. Ironically, the watermen were paid by the cab drivers themselves from a compulsory fee of one penny for each time they came onto the stand, and a further half penny each time they were hired from it. By 1860, watermen had been absorbed into the police force and were not only paid a regular wage of fifteen shillings a week, but were also issued with uniforms.

Only a dozen or so of these green gems remain. They’re worth searching out, because their appearance – a cross between a cricket pavilion and a large garden shed – serves to underscore the truth that the cab trade is so ancient that it pre-existed the modern city.

The proviso laid down by the Metropolitan Police that, as these shelters were situated on the public highway, they could be no larger than a horse and cart. This has given them their characteristic style.

Plans for a Cabmen’s Shelter. From the Building News, 1878 © Peter Jackson Collection

They are of rectangular shape with dimensions described as ‘7 bays long, by 3 bays wide’. Windows are situated on the upper part of the walls in the middle bay of the short sides, and in the second, fourth and sixth bay on the long sides, with the middle window replaced by a door at one end.

The roof was originally felt-clad, but is now more often protected from the elements by traditional slates or oak roof shingles and pitched. In the middle of each shelter was a wood burning stove with a flue leading up a the vent in the roof to carry off the smoke, this square slatted ventilation structure on the roof is not dissimilar to a dovecote. There are railings around the shelters that were intended for the tethering of the Hansom cab’s horses. Some of these can still be seen today.

The upper panels between the windows are decorated with a pattern of holes that include a monogram CSF, standing for Cabmen Shelter Fund, which most shelters have. However, some shelters have either glass or wood in the top panels instead. The whole shelter is painted the distinctive Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green.

Inside, it is warm and bright but this is no Tardis, the shelters really are tiny with enough space for only 10-13 diners. Two benches run along the white walls behind two long, thin Formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people can pass with care in the central aisle, if they turn sideways. At the far end the shelter the proprietor resplendent in their apron moves between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney.

The shelters seem to take on the characteristics of the areas that they reside. The Sloane Street Shelter has a awning sponsored by top estate agent Winkworths protecting customers from the sun. The shelter gleams like a designer emporium with seasonal hanging baskets reflecting perhaps the Chelsea Flower Show. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging the All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. While in St. John’s Wood, a stone’s throw from Regents Park, is surrounded by exotic potted plants.

Cabman’s shelter, Albert Bridge, London, circa 1873-1900 © English Heritage

Many cabbie huts were destroyed in the Blitz and with the subsequent post-war redevelopment and road widening the shelters went into decline leaving only thirteen. They soldiered on with TGWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon butty was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at a cost of £25,000 each. They are now Grade II listed buildings and protected by English Heritage.

One shelter which stood at Hyde Park Corner until it was pulled down to make way for the Piccadilly Underpass was often frequented by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The regulars, prior to his last expedition, presented him with a set if pipes and a pipe rack. He died at sea but his letter thanking them hung on the shelter wall until its demolition.

On 27th September 1966 The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was registered with the Charity Commission: Registered charity number 236108. The shelters are now run by tenants who pay a contribution to the Charity to maintain the shelters, and still sell hot drinks and sandwiches.

This cabmen’s shelter in 1904 London gives some idea of the modest dimensions of cabmen’s shelters. This picture is on a cab stand close to Harrod’s, about 400 yards from the present location of the Thurloe Place cab stand and shelter (see below). Since two shelters would not have been built so close together, the cab stand and shelter must have been moved to Thurloe Place sometime after 1904.

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Cabbie tea mug 1935-1945 © Museum of London.
This ¾-pint tea mug would have been used by a cab driver ‘taking a break’ in a Cabman’s Shelter. Cabbies bought their own mugs, which were kept for them at the shelter and looked after by the ‘shelter boys’.

The surviving shelters are to be found:

Chelsea Embankment
‘The Pier’

This shelter overlooking Albert Bridge has one of the most romantic locations for a greasy spoon. Nicknamed ‘The Pier’ due to its proximity to Cadogan Pier, it was, in the 1970s, also called ‘The Kremlin’ as it once had a clientele of left-wing cabbies.

Embankment Place

Grosvenor Gardens

Hanover Square

Reproduced by kind permission of the Rector of St. George’s Church, Hanover Square.

St. George’s Church in Hanover Square has for many years given out small amounts of money to the homeless who sleep under the church’s portico at night. As in many parts of London the numbers of rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people has been increasing, and often this money is spent on alcohol or drugs, rather than on food and drink.

The green Cabman’s shelter close by has had difficulties of late obscured as it is by the hoarding for ongoing construction work for Crossrail.

The solution has been that the Vestry has now started to issue “refreshment coupons” valued at £2 each, (facsimile above), which may be exchanged for food and drink at the shelter.

The proprietress of the shelter is given funds in advance, and she accepts the coupons in lieu of payment for the excellent value meals she sells.

Anyone who wishes to purchase refreshment coupons to give out themselves to local homeless and disadvantaged people on the street, (rather than giving out money directly) may do so by contacting St. George’s Church.

Kensington Park Road

Kensington Road
‘The All Nations’

Almost opposite the Albert Hall near to the site of the Great Exhibition of 1850 ‘All Nations’ refers to the diversity of visitors visiting the famous Victorian spectacle.

Pont Street

Russell Square

This shelter spent most of its life in Leicester Square, when pedestrianisation arrived in the late 1980s the shelter became obsolete. The decision was soon taken to move the shelter to Russell Square. The shelter was restored in 1987. A plaque outside attestifies that this shelter was presented by Sir Squire Bancroft [pictured] a famous actor/manager in 1901.

Now the shelter has been relocated again, this time to a different part of Russell Square to make way for the 2012 Olympics when Russell Square will be given over to the media. It is undergoing refurbishment.

St. George’s Square

Temple Place
‘The Temple’

In the 1960s developers knocked down four ancient streets running down to Temple Place to allow for a hotel to be built presumably so American tourists could see just the sort of roads they had destroyed. When the hotel reached completion the architects were amazed to find that just at the spot they’d planned to put their grand hotel entrance there was a green cabbie’s shelter.

With typical corporate stupidity they tried to use their financial might to have the shelter removed by the authorities, but they were told that the shelter had been there since 1880 and was staying put. With the image of their rich American visitors being greeted by a ramshackle old shelter they were forced to beg for its removal. For a price the shelter was duly moved a few yards down the hill away from the hotel’s lobby.

The green shelter is still there, but the hotel has since closed – awaiting redevelopment.

Thurloe Place
‘The Bell and Horns’

Opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum this shelter derives its nickname from a pub which once stood on the opposite side of the road. The Thurloe Place shelter is probably the successor to the 1904 shelter shown above and appears more substantial and slightly larger than the earlier shelter, suggesting that the standard design was gradually modified based on experience and customer feedback. The protective iron bollard at some point in its history seems to have suffered a collision hardly surprising as the shelter is positioned in the middle of one of London’s busiest roads.

Warwick Avenue

Surrounded by multi-million pound houses this newly refurbished shelter is located in Little Venice close to the Grand Union Canal. The proprietress Pat Carter featured on Ready, Steady, Cook alongside Ainsley Harriott.

Wellington Place
‘The Chapel’

Non-cabbies are normally prohibited from entering, but sometimes we make an exception. Prince Charles once popped in for a chat with the cabbies at Hanover Square.

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Flickr has the group London Cabmen’s/Taxi Shelters devoted to cab shelters containing many pictures from its members with further useful information.

A short 3 minute video on The History of the Cabmen’s Shelters can be found on YouTube:

Here is an interesting link that I have found of Hansom cabs alongside a cabmen’s shelter waiting for fares in Whitehall Place outside the recently built National Liberal Club. Taken sometime between 1887 and 1900.

The Guardian’s food writer Tim Hayward has made a video featuring cabbie Anthony Street. Together, they trundle round London, starting with a full English in a neon-lit Portakabin caff behind King’s Cross and ending with the perfect bacon roll. Hayward even manages to get inside a green shelter, which are otherwise strictly off-limits to civilians.

Between designing handbags fit for the Duchess of Cambridge, and assisting Mayor Boris in his mission to make the host city look beautiful for the Olympic games, Anya Hindmarch is taking up the cause to save the Cabmen’s Shelters from extinction. She has designed a two-way 2012 London diary/notebook which contains tips about her favourite places in London to visit, including, of course, the shelters for a great cuppa. In recognition of her love affair with London’s Cabmen’s Shelters, Anya has produced a limited edition, Cabman inspired, ‘First Edition’ collectible Diary, hand-tooled by London’s oldest book maker. The cover features intricate leather details in Cabman’s Green French Calf leather, embossed with tongue and groove detail reflecting the exterior walls of the wooden huts and features a cabbie’s menu. Turn the pages to discover special details alluding to the character and life of London’s cabbies; a tea stain from a cabbies mug, taxi receipts, a cabbies’ badge and Anya’s take on the magic tree air freshener. With a limited edition of 10 it comes in at £750 a pop. Cabbies who might not wish to spend that much on a diary can purchase the regular one starting from £125.

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