1 in 60

It’s not far away! Soon the London media will be crammed with stories about Christmas: will companies be putting on a bash for a job well done; what to wear; how to stay sober; and that perennial – how to get a cab home.

Transport for London have now embraced your concerns about getting home this year by issuing 1,000 private hire licences a month*, this month next month and every month this year.

[S]uch is the rise of mini-cabs and the relative ease with which to obtain a licence one Knowledge school has reported a drop of 66 per cent in the number of students willing to give up over three years of their life to studying London.

On a number of occasions this year the populace has been inconvenienced by Black Cabbies protesting at Transport for London’s inability to apply the regulations – that the London authority has imposed – evenly across the entire taxi industry. I won’t bore you with the details, much has been written in the media of the pros and cons of flooding London with mini-cabs.

The one fact, taken from official figures, you need to know as we approach the party season is this:

For every sixty inhabitants who live in the capital one now drives a taxi for a living. Yes 1 in 60 now drives a taxi in London.

It’s reassuring isn’t it? That down your street and down everybody’s street there are at least four drivers.

Now if you take London’s official population of 8,630,000 and deduct from that those unable to drive: too young; too old; unable to work; or just too lazy, you are left with a working population of about, say six million.

If you have stuck with me thus far you might question the figures as many who are employed commute daily from the Home Counties into London. That journey might be acceptable – just – if you could occasionally get a seat on the train and upon arrival at your workstation spend a little time staring into the middle distance or updating your Facebook status.

Unfortunately when driving for 8-10 hours a day in a black cab and up to 16 hours a day for Uber drivers, the last thing you want is a two hour drive home. So most cabbies will be found living within the M25 borders.

From those broad assumptions it isn’t unreasonable to extrapolate that with a working population of approximately six million in London, and with official figures of 87,600 private hire licenses and 25,000 cab licenses issued, about 100,000 drive taxis for a living and live within the M25 or about 1 in 60.

Now we can turn to drivers’ suitability. With Transport for London officially issuing 1,000 private hire licenses a month, or 250 per week, or, if you like, 50 per working day, it means that every 8½ minutes an applicant – to the exclusion of all those unsuitable – is approved.

You have to give Transport for London credit for their endeavours in ensuring everyone gets home after the office party by managing the herculean task of investigating an applicant’s possible criminal record, National Insurance, working permit, health check, valid driver’s licence, hire and reward insurance and basic knowledge of London’s topography every 8½ minutes.

At this rate of licence approvals by next year’s Mayoral elections, London will have another 8,000 drivers deemed suitable for private hire, which will give you 120,000 legal drivers and an unknown number of illegal drivers from which to choose when you need a taxi.

And that’s something to consider as you stand in the election booth with your pencil poised deciding which candidate to choose.

*The head of one of London’s largest taxi radio circuits has stated that there are between 600-700 private hire licences being issued every week far higher than the estimates I have used in this post. If those figures are correct by the end of the decade Transport for London will have issued an additional 154,000 licences to that already in force.

Blue Book run number one

It is the only Blue Book run that many Londoners know – Manor House to Gibson Square. The prospective cabbies’ itinerary the Blue Book – which had of course a pink cover – and nestled between those pink sheets were 320 routes criss-crossing the capital. But when embarking on that first journey in pursuit of The Knowledge what do we know of the roads we travel along? The following is a brief description of the beginning of a Knowledge Boy’s or Girl’s odyssey.

[M]anor House This grandly named station takes its name, not from some palatial residence once owned by the local lord, but from an inn called the Manor Tavern. This boozer had a chequered history, first opening its doors in 1820 then closed only to be resurrected before demolition. Over the years its name transmogrified into the Manor House fortuitously in time for the 1931 opening of the tube station that takes its name, much to the relief of residents setting them apart from downmarket Finsbury Park.

Manor House

Leave on left: Green Lanes As its name implied, this busy stretch of road was once a bucolic idyll. If you can divert your eyes from the road and the oncoming traffic you will see on your left Stoke Newington Pumping Station [featured picture]. Built by the Victorians in the Scottish Baronial manner, this medieval-style oddity with its crenulations and turrets is now the Castle Climbing Centre. Built between 1852 and 1856 at a cost of £81,500 in an area that then was mostly fields, its curious design is thought to be the result of assuaging local concerns in having an industrial building plonked in the middle of a field. The New River Company which owned and operated it would have been a lucrative investment at the time to any of those dissenters. In 1873 a quarter share was sold for £12; twenty years later a single share was worth £94,900.


Right: Highbury New Park This tree lined road was laid out in the 1850s and given its modern name to set the development apart from the more established Highbury Barn. This street might appear affluent now but between the wars it was very different. An example was No. 150 Highbury New Park, which in 1936 had two flats on the ground floor with a shared bathroom, one flat and two bed-sitting rooms on the first floor, and one flat with a balcony on the second floor; its detached stable block, which had been converted into a caretaker’s cottage in 1914, was a garage with a flat over it, let separately and with its own garden. Despite multi-occupation, overcrowding was not a problem in Highbury as a whole, which had few of the very poor.

Left: Highbury Grove Just 100 yards of travel along this road. If you think all this area is affluent now given that the previous description was taken 80 years ago consider this: as you turn into Highbury Grove on your right is Highbury Grove School. In 2005 Channel 4’s Dispatches sent an undercover teacher who filmed pupils clambering across desks, throwing books across the room and attacking each other. Clearly something was needed and a super-strict headmaster was appointed to this music specialist school, by giving out 300 detentions a day he has turned around, for the time, this failing school now described by Tatler as one of the best in Britain.

First page of routes Manor House to Gibson Square
First page of routes
Manor House to Gibson Square

Right: St. Pauls Road On the left at the junction with Highbury Corner is the curiously named Hen and Chickens Theatre. Seating only 54 this Victorian pub has paid a role in launching the careers of Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Rhona Cameron.

Comply: Highbury Corner The title is misleading as this junction is less a ‘corner’ and more a small gyratory system. One contributing factor for this area to have a wide open space was an event that took place at 12.46 pm on 27th June 1944 when a German V1 flying bomb flattened a wide area killing 26 and seriously injuring another 84.

Leave by: Upper Street The question that must be on your lips must be: “Where is Lower Street?” Well, it’s on your left and now renamed Essex Road, not that it goes to Essex, you have to turn right at Balls Pond Road to get there. Upper Street is the start of the Great North Road not that it resembles anything like that great highway. It could lay claim to the greatest number of unused pedestrian crossing per mile in London. As you travel down this trendy road it takes some stretch of imagination to realise that Islington was once an 18th century village and the hub of dairy farming supplying much of London’s milk.

Right: Theberton Street The old field path across these once bucolic lands form the basis of Theberton Street which is named after the Theberton estate in Suffolk the ancestral home of the Milner-Gibson family who developed these old cow pastures. As you turn into Theberton Street on the corner is was the Sir Walter Raleigh pub once the site of an ancient house – the Pied Bull with associations with the old pirate, now renamed the Bull which brings us neatly back to the area’s dairy farming roots.

Gibson Square Islington

On right: Gibson Square the first of two squares built as part of the Milner-Gibson Estate, was laid out from 1832 to 1839 by architect Francis Edwards, a pupil of Sir John Soane. The garden was originally open to residents only, but in the 1930s it had become rundown and was surrendered to Islington Council for upkeep. During World War II the garden was dug up for air raid shelters and later replanted. In 1963, a proposed ventilation shaft for the new Victoria Line, in the form of a 50-foot concrete structure, was staunchly opposed by residents. This resulted in the simulated classical temple [below] designed by Prince Charles’ favourite architect Quinlan Terry with a domed roof which stands in the garden today, designed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The work was carried out in the early 1970s, when London Transport also restored the garden and replaced its railings.


Photo: The Gibson Square Vent David McGroarty

Bandstand in the sky

I don’t know why, but I’ve always found this little enclave on the edge of the City a little sinister. The badly lit roads are narrow with the tall grimy red-brick tenements seemingly to bear down on one, the whole edifice more akin to Glasgow.

And what is the point of a bandstand 20ft above your head with hardly anywhere for an audience to sit and listen to the music?

[N]ow a fashionable, due in part to its proximity to the City the Boundary Estate was anything but for most of its existence. Built from 1890 on the site of one of London’s most notorious slums, the Old Nichol was squalid with a population density of 8.6 people to a small house with 1,400 houses in an area less than 400 square yards. Populated by thieves and prostitutes with many living in cellars, little sanitation and running water only available for 10-12 minutes each day, excepting Sundays. With a death rate four times that of London, one child in four died before their first birthday.

Henry Mayhew writing in 1850 for the Morning Chronicle described the area:

. . . roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil’ added to the filth

The Rev. Osbourne of Holy Trinity Church took up his ministry in 1886 and appalled by the conditions persuaded Arthur Morrison to visit the area, the result was the barely fictionalised account ’A Child of the Jago’ an account of the life of a child in the slum. Word spread and demolition of the rookery began before the book’s publication. As the flats were built, one of the earliest social housing schemes by a local authority, the original inhabitants were forced further East towards Bethnal Green.

Impresarios and brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont (born Winogradsky) moved to the Boundary Estate in 1914 that at that time 90 per cent of children attending their local school spoke Yiddish.


London planes now line these streets with exotic French named: Navarre, Ligonier, Montclaire, Camlet and Palissy. In Calvery Avenue is Sid’s cabbies’ tea stand, open five days a week, serving refreshments since 1919.

Hardly surprising that I find this area intimidating. In the 1990s when on The Knowledge drug use here was widespread with groups of Bangladeshi youths fighting local Indian gangs protecting their turf. Stolen dumped cars proliferated the estate that slowly were dismembered with only the cabbies’ tea shack seemingly sacrosanct. Squatters lived in the abandoned Rochelle School once attended by brothers Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont, while peacocks’ cries pieced the night, giving the area an even more sinister ambience.

Arnold Circus, the name of the mound produced from demolishing the old rookery upon which now stands the bandstand, was the subject of the BBC’s The Secret History of our Streets.

Campin’ Cabs

There’s an apocryphal story of an old cabbie that would sleep in Heathrow Airport’s feeder rank sitting in the back of his cab hunched over a primus stove cooking his full English.

A Carriage Officer who had the duty to make sure all drivers obeyed the regulations, would turn a blind eye to somebody having forty winks but a fry-up was just a dangerous step too far.

[T]his is another in the occasional series of ‘lost cabs’. When we look at the myriad of uses the iconic London cab can be put to once the powers-that-be have decided the old girl has to be retired.

Campin’ Cabs have taken the Heathrow cabbie’s idea of an overnight stay to a whole new level. ‘Jaffa’ the orange Fairway taxi [above] has been converted into warm and cosy two berth camper which will legally seat six passengers driving to your campsite. Once there the seats all fold down to create a double bed over 6ft long which can take two sleeping adults in comfort. If there are more of you the Fairway comes with an awning and four
person tent.


The luxurious ‘Ambassador’ features full leather interior and other luxuries including a DVD player and air-ride suspension. Both cabs have a small cooker and sink fitted into the front, heaters in the rear, they can play CDs, have a radio and come complete with an iPod adapter for all your musical needs.

London Grill: Nicola Baird

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.


[N]icola Baird is a journalist and author of seven books including The Estate We’re In about car culture (1998), Save Cash & Save the Planet (co-writer/2005) as well as Homemade Kids, thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children (2010). After 10 years working on publications for Friends of the Earth, Nicola went freelance so she could teach journalism and blogging at the University of the Arts; teach riding at Trent Park Equestrian Centre and work from home. As a huge Islington fan it was an obvious move to set up Islington Faces Blog, which features a new interview each week with someone who lives or works in Islington. If this is your bit of London – or you did once live there – do please consider following Islington Faces Blog or get in touch with Nicola with suggestions of people to interview. Thanks.

What’s your secret London tip?
If you can, stay with someone who lives here – a friend, old friend/colleague or maybe someone renting space on Airbnb – because they’ll show you their neighbourhood. If you’re lucky it may even be Islington, which is my favourite place.

What’s your secret London place?
Parkland Walk is an old railway line turned into an amazing footpath running from Finsbury Park up to Highgate. It has fabulous plants, trees, birds and even bats. It’s not quite New York’s High Line on the art front, though it has some amazing graffiti bridges. Instead it gives us Londoners a chance to walk, jog or cycle without any fear of being hit by traffic.

Homemade-kidsWhat’s your biggest gripe about London?
Why is Oxford Street filled with buses and taxis? It’s so noisy and grimy. I like to imagine it traffic free with perhaps a travelator (like they have at airports) shifting people who don’t want to (or can’t) walk from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch and back. Now just add sunshine, perfect. Bet that would tackle the air pollution in central London a little too.

What’s your favourite building?
I’m lucky to love my home. But if we are talking big show-off projects then anything with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)–certified timber, for example, the Olympic Park aquatics centre. And if it’s more about visitor attractions or practical commuter hotspots then I love the curved, clear roof of both the British Museum Central Court and King’s Cross train station.

What’s your most hated building?
I’m no fan of the dark tower at Archway but it’s all change and perhaps refurbished, and with the planned road changes below to Archway Island, it will look less sinister.

What’s the best view in London?
I love looking out of tower block widows on the south of the river back towards north London. What great views you get without having to go very high – including all the iconic architectural stars (from Tower Bridge to the Gherkin) plus green clusters from London’s many trees (although I’d love even more) plus pocket parks and even football grounds (or is that just Arsenal’s Emirates stadium?)

What’s your personal London landmark?
I love the way most of the people I interview on Islington Faces Blog always say they love Highbury Fields. No one away from London knows this green space, but it’s such a lovely spot for Londoners, especially if you are living in a flat, have young children or just want to escape the rat-race for a few moments.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
I have been homesick for London and then any film with the London skyline makes you feel you’re wasting time until you get back here. One great film is A Fish Called Wanda. I also really liked Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, which has loads of Finsbury Park scenes. Islington has tonnes of writers – we are well documented by Nick Hornby and I have to also give a shout out to my West Ham loving husband, Pete May, whose book There’s A Hippo In My Cistern shows how you can try to live a green life in the city, even when you are fighting against it . . .

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
I wish I had the cash and energy to go out more, and more often. The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park does nice coffee and welcomes dogs, so sometimes me and the mutt take time out from a rainy dog walk to enjoy theatre life.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Breakfast at Blighty on Blackstock Road near Finsbury Park; followed by a walk on Hampstead Heath talking about art, climate change and novels with a friend. Or maybe a long cycle ride with my teenagers and husband which takes in the wonderful bakery, Spence, in Stoke Newington and a short section of the New River Walk (which is neither new nor a river) down to Sadler’s Wells at the Angel. After that there’s always somewhere to explore in London.