We might take them for granted nowadays, but taxis have a long and illustrious history. However, if you’re looking for a quick way to get home on a Friday night, you might struggle a bit with some of the vehicles, fares, and drivers common in previous years.
[T]he first stop on our taxi journey back in time is ancient Rome, and a funny little vehicle called the Lectica. When we say vehicle, we mean this in the loosest possible sense; the Lectica is essentially a glorified chair, and roughly translates to ‘portable couch’. How am I going to get home on a couch? we hear you ask. By slave power, that’s how! Yes, whilst the Lectica does seem like a slow way to get around, the kind of people who used them most definitely had the time and money to take the leisurely route. For a select few of the elite- or patrician-class, the Lectica was a stylish and ostentatious way to travel. For most though, especially the downtrodden subjects who were unfortunate enough to be tasked with carrying the thing, travelling like this was simply not an option.
For our next stop, we’ll fast forward a few hundred years, and head over to Norman Britain. The taxi industry was still a long way away, and if you wanted to get from A to B in a hurry you’d have to find a willing squire from which to hire a Hacquenée. A Hacquenée was essentially an unremarkable horse, specifically used for hiring out to budding travellers – for a fee, of course. Whilst this is surely faster (and more humane) than a couch with handles, the price of hiring a horse was still far too expensive for anyone but the elite.
So we travel forward to the time of Queen Elizabeth, where we see the first real signs of the foundation of the taxi industry. Here we see the introduction of the cart or Hackney Carriage and with it, the first taxi drivers. These carriages were usually the property of the ludicrously wealthy aristocracy, hired out to the less ludicrously wealthy aristocracy to maintain the costs of upkeep (horses don’t run for free, you know). However, taxi travel was still out of reach for most people. If not for the cost, this will have been due to the negative connotations associated with carriages, which were viewed as effeminate in comparison to actually riding a horse.
Over the next few hundred years, the horse and carriage was king of the emerging taxi trade. Hackney carriages went from being an effeminate luxury to a day to day way to get around. Soon, budding entrepreneurs started to purchase carriages second hand from the wealthy, and hire them out at taverns and shops; the first taxi ranks. However, as the carriages were second hand, a ride from one of these ranks wasn’t the cushy experience it is today. Instead, you might have to contend with splinters, maggot infested wood, or even the prospect of the floor dropping out beneath you.
However, that didn’t stop the popularity of the hackney. By the 1700s, there were over 1,000 carriages plying their trade across the streets of London. This would have been all very well, if it wasn’t for the lax and often unenforced regulations of the time. Whilst this period saw the introduction of standard fares, this didn’t stop crafty drivers from massively overcharging the unaware (or too drunk) punters. Coupled with the overcrowded roads, and a lack of speed limit, this earned the carriages of the time the name ‘Hackney hell carts’.
Whilst the industry was doing better than ever, stark reforms and stricter regulations needed to be introduced if a real move forward into respectability was to be made. So what did the Georgians do? Go back a good 2,000 years, of course. Yes, the mid 1750s saw the huge rise in popularity of the sedan chair, reminiscent of the Lectica used in Roman times. Georgian fashionistas and socialites shunned the horse and carriage, and moved back to the apparent ‘luxury’ of human power. However, unlike Roman times, a real viable industry was built around the Sedan Chair, with chair carriers being paid a fairly decent wage. Chair carriers had their own uniform, operated from ranks, and due to the overcrowding of the roads, were even faster than a trip in a Hackney carriage.
After the extravagant step back the Georgians took to tackle to problems of congestion, it took the industrious Victorians to put forward a real solution. In 1834, the Hackney Carriage received an overhaul, and the Hansom Cab took to the streets of London. Although quaint seeming now, the Hansom Cab was revolutionary at the time, with the vastly smaller carriage allowing drivers to manoeuvre the vehicle with a much higher degree of control. The Victorian era also saw the introduction of the meter, vastly reducing fares and restoring public faith in the taxi industry.
As we go forward in time to the turn of the 20th century, we start the long process of saying goodbye to horses as a regular mode of travel. With the introduction of the Hummingbird in 1898, the new and exciting power of electricity was harnessed as a way to provide efficient and cheap travel round London. Well, we say efficient and cheap. The novelty factor meant that the cabs were run at a premium, and the relatively new and untested electric motors were prone to malfunctioning. In fact, the Hummingbirds were so unreliable – and at times, dangerous – that they were totally withdrawn from the streets after just two years of service.
However, with the introduction of the Prunel in 1903, the Hummingbird wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway. The Prunel was just one of a whole new range of petrol powered models active on the streets of London in the early 1900s, providing travellers with a faster way to travel than ever before. The rise of petrol power would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for equine travel, although this took longer than you might have expected. In many places, you might have been still been able to hitch a ride on a horse and carriage well into the 1930s. This was especially true during the Second World War, where entire fleets of taxis were commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service as a valuable source of transportation for fire crews and equipment alike.
From here on out, the motor car ruled the taxi industry, with a range of new models, manufacturers, and vehicles hitting the streets of not just London, but the world. However, one manufacturer and model sped out in front – within the speed limit, of course – and became not just the most popular taxi vehicle in London, but also a cultural icon. With its unique shape and all black body, the Austin FX4 is instantly recognisable as the black cab. Since its introduction in 1958, the FX4 has been imitated and reproduced around the world, with countries as far flung as China, Lithuania and Singapore having vehicles reminiscent of Austin’s finest.
Whilst the look of taxis today is still largely rooted in the models of a good half century ago, innovation in the industry hasn’t halted. With the introduction of ‘green’ models like the HyTEC Black Cab, trialled for a limited period during the 2012 Olympics, we’re perhaps seeing the first signs of another big change for taxicabs. And whatever you think of them, apps like Uber and Hailo are altering not just the vehicles we use, but the entire structure of a centuries old industry.
It’s difficult to predict what the future might hold for taxis, but whatever happens, you can be assured that The Taxi Centre will be there right at the heart of it.