A compact shelter

The cabmens’ shelters [‘Bell and Horns’ on left] provided a welcome place for refreshment and rest in their long working day. Of the 47 originally built many have
been lost through bombing or neglect
leaving only thirteen, all of them are now listed buildings.

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, its quaint shape serves to underscore the truth that the cab trade is so ancient that it pre-existed the modern city.

But then Ginny sent me this intriguing email:

The other week, we went for a walk and walked into Westminster Abbey Precincts – Dean’s Yard. Lo and behold on the south west corner stood a green cab shelter. What was it doing there? On closer inspection, it was brand new, excellent copy of the Victorian hansom cab shelters we see scattered in London. Its purpose? Well, I leave it to you to find out more!

A pseudo shelter in of all places Dean’s Yard? The appearance of a new ’shelter’ seemed so unusual that I had to find out.

First I contacted Westminster Abbey’s press office for information, receiving no reply Ginny gave me a hint as to its purpose in an article she had found which had appeared on the Guardian’s website:

The bin challenge – or “what to do with a hideous waste compactor” – is being addressed with a delightfully surreal pavilion in the form of a green timber cabman’s shelter in Dean’s Yard.”

The last time a shelter was located in the vicinity of Westminster was one erected in Old Palace Yard 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.

That one has long since been lost.


Venturing into Dean’s Yard I received some curious glances as I photographed what looks like a large green garden shed in the shadow of the Abbey.

There are differences however, from the standard cabmens’ shelter, being slightly larger it doesn’t conform to the proviso laid down by the Metropolitan Police that, as shelters were situated on the public highway, they could be no larger than a horse and cart. The bar encompassing the ’shelter’ with which to tether your horse is missing, likewise the ornate chimney stack, but much else is identical.

Which begs the question: Was the Abbey’s press office unable to give me details of their waste compactor through lack of information, or are they afraid of being accused of copyright infringement?

Pressed for time

For a company which was once producing propaganda for Britain’s most seismic social change W. F. Arber & Co. was remarkably old fashioned, having hardly changed in over
70 years.

Much has been written about the East End’s oldest printers established in 1897 and still in the same family until its closure earlier this year, brought about by the draconian parking restrictions outside the shop.

[A]s one who once had ink coursing through his veins I felt CabbieBlog should put in its own two pennyworths for one of the few industry’s survivors until Gary Arber, the grandson of the founder retired.

The business had remained much the same as when Walter Arber began as a paper-bag maker printing his customer’s details (in the days when you weren’t charged if you needed a bag) and stationers from newly built premises in Roman Road, while his wife Emily sold toys.

Emily might have been a shopkeeper but that didn’t stop her becoming a supporter of the Suffragettes and knew the Pankhursts. On her insistence leaflets were printed at Arber & Co. for Emmeline Pankhurst for free.

Arber-Caseroom-PanoramaW. F. Arber caseroom

The company was a remarkable survivor in the 20th century. It remained open during World War I and expanded into bookbinding; somehow struggled through during the Depression mainly as a result of Walter Arber designing a new paper tea packages.

Government contracts during World War II kept the company afloat. During the Blitz an oil bomb flattened the shop’s garden, with Walter and Emily having a lucky escape, only getting out of their Anderson shelter before a wall flattened it. Walter’s brother Albert (who also worked at Arber’s alongside third brother Len) was less lucky, when he was crushed by a collapsing wall.

After the war the Krays were regular customers getting their boxing promotion material printed at Arber’s. Even as the change from hot metal to computer typesetting revolutionised the industry Arber’s continued in its quaint and trusted ways.

From its hay day when six printing presses were operating at once, Gary Arber has produced his last print run. A single notice reads:

Advance Notice – This shop will be closing at the end of May. We have been here for 117 years, printed for the Suffragettes, survived enemy bombing through two World Wars and now we are finished due to Tower Hamlets Council’s parking policy.

closing notice A property developer has bought the building from Gary and plans to convert it into flats.

Most of the presses have been taken to Catseye Press, Norfolk to form part of a private collection of vintage printing machines. London retains one, however, the 1900 Golding Press on which W. F. Arber & Co. printed leaflets for the Suffragettes. This printing press is to go on show at The Bishopsgate Institute. What will happen to the rest of the typesetting equipment, pages from past work tied with page cord, type cases and all manner of paraphernalia similar to that I once worked. It has probably been broken up and now resides as curios in those smart flats being converted in the building that once was used by a survivor of a proud industry.

Arber-Gary-in-Caseroom Gary Arber

On 12th June 2014 the Daily Mail ran the story Shop that beat Hitler but lost to the parking Nazis by Harry Mount; The Gentle Author from Spitalfield’s Life has written a series of pieces Gary Arber, printer; a post of mostly pictures Gary Arber’s Collection; Gary’s tarting up of his shop in anticipation for the 2012 Olympics Return to W. F. Arber & Co, Printing Works; a Christmas visit At W. F. Arber & Co Ltd, Printing Works; and a final farewell just before Arber’s closed Last Days At WF Arber & Co Ltd. I am indebted to Ben Brundell at the website British Letterpress permission to reproduce pictures which featured in his visit to Arber’s.

A bitter pill

Once was the time that every Londoner knew who Doctor Butler was, and the alleged restorative properties of his famous brew.

Such was his fame a number of London pubs carried his name. Alas all but one
have gone or become a generic pub/restaurant.

The last survivor to carry his name is to be found in Mason’s Avenue in The City.

[T]he surviving establishment has a good reputation according to Fancy a Pint who give it four-stars which would not be the case if the hostelry still served up the good doctor’s celebrated ’purging ale’.

’Doctor’ Butler had no medical qualifications, but that didn’t stop him selling an evil concoction of laxatives that included senna, liquorice and scurvy grass (a type of cabbage) all mixed in a strong ale and allowed to ferment for three days.

First produced in 1616 the brew laid claim to treat all manner of maladies:

An excellent stomach drink, it helps digestion and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs and is therefore good against colds, coughs, phthisical and consumptive distempers, and being drunk in the evening it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.

With medical science in its infancy King James, when suffering from sciatica reached for a jug of the doctor’s purgative concoction. Its powerful effects took the King’s mind off his original ailment, and when he emerged from his House of Ease awarded Butler a position in court as his physician.

Unfortunately the powerful laxative didn’t work on King James’s son Henry dying from typhoid.

Old Doctor Butler The success with the King’s bad back encouraged Butler to branch out offering clients the benefit of his expertise. Epilepsy was cured by firing a brace of pistols near the unsuspecting patients face – thus scaring the malady enough to leave its host.

The current incumbents practising in Harley Street might be pleased to discover that should plague return to London, plunging one’s patient into
ice cold water effects a cure.

But should that prove unsuccessful an alternative treatment is to drop the infected patient through a trapdoor on London Bridge allowing them to fall
into the Thames.

Doctor Butler’s Medicinal Ale was sold across London from taverns displaying Doctor Butler’s Head on their signs. Remarkably it was available long after his death – he presumably declined the ale’s medicinal benefits upon his own death bed.

The London Grill: Leo Hollis

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Leo Hollis

[L]eo Hollis was born in London in 1972. He is the author of two books of London history: The Phoenix: The men who made modern London and The Stones of London: A history in twelve buildings as well as Cities are good for you: The genius of the metropolis. He blogs at Cities are good for you and you can follow him on Twitter @leohollis.

What’s your secret London tip?
Its very simple: Walk! You don’t see the city on the tube. And don’t be afraid to talk to people. Londoners are surprisingly friendly, even though they like the reputation of being busy and surly.

Cities are good for you What’s your secret London place?
London has few secret places but I like the streets around St. Bartholemews Church, with names such as Cloth Fair etc. There is a strong sense of history that reaches back beyond the Great Fire of 1666 – the flames never reached this far north.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Ghost Houses – the superrich are using some of our finest historic houses as banks, leaving them empty for much of the year. The social damage is as bad as what is happening to the buildings and the community around it.

What’s your favourite building?
Greenwich Hospital – perhaps Sir Christopher Wren’s most successful building. It imposes on the landscape and is such a bold statement.

The Phoenix What’s your most hated building?
Too many emerging at the moment at such a rapid rate – the Shard strikes me as an iconic building and a failed work of architecture. what happens when it is no longer the tallest building in London; what is it’s purpose then? However the Walkie Talkie on Fenchurch Street is just bad in every way: lumpy, oversized and offers no functional reason for its peculiar ugliness.

What’s the best view in London?
For Free: from the top of One New Change. One of the best things about being on the top of this building is that you don;t have to then look at the building and how it ruins St Paul’s. The view from the top of the Gherkin is amazing if you can get in. Don’t bother with going up the Shard, you can buy a coffee for £3 at the cafe one floor below!

What’s your personal London landmark?
It is amazing to be in the grounds in Kenwood House and still feel that you are in the centre of the city.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
I am reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens at the moment – I know, I should have read it years ago. It is a wonderful story and so interesting about the city in the 1860s.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
In winter: The Hollybush in Hampstead; in summer on the South Bank amongst the crowd in front of the
Festival Hall.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
On my bike or walking. Recently I went with my son on the overground to Hackney Wick and cycled to the Olympic Park (which is a huge disappointment) then along the canal to the Thames and onwards as far as Westminster. It took about four hours with a stop off at Borough Market for lunch. I would also take in a museum if there was time and then enjoy the afternoon in a park: Regent’s Park is my favourite. Then supper in Soho.

Victorian Public Transport

A Government White Paper of 1895 entitled The Cab and Omnibus Trades stated:

“The cabman’s trade is one to which all sorts of men find their way. Many an educated man, who can do nothing else to earn a living, can drive – and if put to it, will seek his daily bread in this way.”

For this Guest Post writer and historian Michelle Higgs gives some background to the Victorian cabbie and his customers.

The Hansom Cab
[I]f I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today’s motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers’ drays through to the Broughams, Clarences and Hansom cabs. The sound of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure . . .

To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers’ compartment with the horse’s reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.

Hansom Cab ‘A Hansom Cab’ from Living London (1901)

Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.

A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:

The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers’ hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard.

The best cab-stands for the drivers were outside the railway stations and the West End theatres, but life was tough for them. They worked twelve hour shifts and had to pay for the hire of their vehicles and horses out of the fares they earned.

In a Cab Yard ‘In a Cab Yard’ from Living London (1901)

When John Hollingshead interviewed a cabman for Odd Journeys in and Out of London (1859), he was told that a Hansom cab driver had to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, in addition to ‘yard money’ which was the charges for the stables. This was before earning any money for himself. A four-wheeler could be let for slightly less at twelve shillings a day but the driver had to pay all expenses. At the time, cabmen driving licensed carriages had to pay five pound for the license plate and a shilling a day extra for the duty.

Beatrix Potter commented in her journal in 1885, that if:

Cabmen were really paid at the rate of sixpence a mile, they must go forty-two miles before they begin to make any profit. They pay sixteen shillings per day to a cab-owner for a cab and two horses, and have incidental expenses as well.

Victorian Cabmen's Shelter ‘In a Cabmen’s Shelter’ from Living London (1901)

Cab-men could enjoy a cheap midday meal at one of the cab-men’s shelters. Between two and five in the afternoon, hundreds of cabbies drove to the big yards where they changed horses and had their cabs ‘spotted’ to remove splashes of mud. It was usually around 9.30 pm before the first hansom to finish its twelve hour day arrived back at the yard.

Although they were speedy, London cabs were rather uncomfortable. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger wrote that the:

many crevices . . . let in wind and dust; the seats feel as if they were stuffed with broken stones; the check-string is always broken; the door won’t shut; or if shut, it won’t open . . . to discover the faults of a London cab is easy.

It sounds as though a ride in a Hansom cab was bearable for a tourist, but not necessarily for everyday use!

Victorians Front Cover

Michelle Higgs is a freelance writer and author specialising in history and heritage. She is the author of seven social history books, including her latest, A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England published by Pen & Sword. She is the author of Visit Victorian England and her own website gives details of her writing.