The end of the road

This week could mark the beginning of the end for the black cab. This unique London icon, loved and loathed in equal measure, started its journey during the Commonwealth when Oliver Cromwell licensed cabbies. The modern cabbie can be traced to the dying days of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Victorian showpiece attended by over six million visitors, when it was realised that the local cabbies had no idea where they were going.

[I]t was then that a rudimentary test was introduced which transmogrified into The Knowledge we know today. This test of patience, perseverance and yes, knowledge can take up to five years to accomplish and thereby lies the rub. Years of lacklustre enforcement by authorities, Transport for London being the latest, has undermined the value of The Knowledge.

So what paradigm shift has occurred this week to mark the beginning of the end? This week the largest and most respected Knowledge school closes. In 1989 Malcolm Linskey started Knowledge Point the best known and by far the biggest of the Knowledge schools welcoming up to 350 students a year. Now demand has dropped to 200 and with the site due for redevelopment into – yes, you’ve guessed it – luxury flats, on Saturday the school closes its doors.

With a dropout rate of 70 per cent learning The Knowledge has always been for the committed individual, just the type who might enrol in a school. With an attribution rate that high and pupil numbers declining by nearly 50 per cent coupled with the statistic that there are three times as many cabbies over 70 as there are under 30 year of age, it’s no wonder that black cab applications are drying up. In addition with Transport for London issuing 150 private hire licences a day it is easy to see that the London cabbie is a dying breed.

Who would in their right mind study for 30 hours a week for up to 5 years and then invest in an expensive vehicle when a job – admittedly inferior – is there for the asking?

With the additional bonus that you don’t need to take a driving test; wake to find an enforcement officer checking your vehicle parked outside your house as you try to sleep; or face carriage officers patrolling the taxi rank making sure your vehicle is clean and roadworthy.

The inconvenience of manoeuvring a wheelchair into your vehicle, whilst anticipating a parking fine from an overzealous meter maid is negated as minicabs are not wheelchair accessible, and should you be adverse to animals, assistance dogs alongside you as you drive are a thing of the past.

With the number of black cabs plying for hire at its lowest for years it’s only a matter of time before they become a curious London anachronism, much like the red telephone box.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill – Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning for seeing a quality taxi service in London.

Listed London Loos

In an age of ever more automated – and expensive – public toilets a few early examples of late Victorian and Edwardian conveniences remain in London.

The Regency Place urinal is one of the few ’open air’ pissoirs and much used by cabbies.

Now unused and recently sold as storage for the refurbished adjacent £4.4 million house is a Grade II Listed urinal in Star Yard.

[A]n archive photo from Historic England shows the toilet open for use in 1986, with what looks like the remains of a gas lamp bracket mid-way along the back wall.


This green rectangle of cast iron with open lattice for ventilation proudly displays the manufacturer’s logo (McDowall Steven & Co – Milton Iron Works). Once common on London’s streets, this example with its attractive panel designs was featured in a episode of Rumpole of the Bailey when the late Leo McKern is seen to enter its portal.

Another listed early loo is South End Green which had a pop idol connection. The toilets also appear in the comedy film Make Mine Mink from about 1960, Terry Thomas is being chased by the Police after a robbery, enters the toilets at one end and exits at the other in a different outfit to effect his getaway.


The Jewel Tower must be one of the least known royal buildings in London. The ‘Privy Palace’ as it was dubbed is a precious survival from the medieval Palace of Westminster, the residence of the medieval kings and their families from 11th to 16th century. It was well supplied with garderobes [toilets], with one on each of the three floors. But its main function was not as an elevated khazi but as the tower that securely housed the royal treasure.

. . . and so to bed

It’s the time of the year when, for many, they start to put their thoughts and experiences down on paper, or nowadays digitally.

On 1st January 1660 a 27-year-old clerk by the name of Samuel Pepys picked up his quill and started what has become the defining account of living in 17th century London. The meticulous narrative of his life was maintained for nearly 10-years when, possible failing eyesight stopped his daily account.

[B]y the end of his writing he had put an estimated one million words to paper chronicling the return of King Charles from exile and noting the Monarch’s King Charles spaniel defecated on the deck “Just like any commoner’s dog”; or his remaining in London during the plague years writing he suspected his new wig might have been made from the hair of a plague victim and sensibly declining to put it on his head; and during the Great Fire of London expressing his desire to save his parmesan cheese (he buried it in his garden) and noting how dead pigeons plopped down from their perches as if they had been shot.

His record of tumultuous times in London might have been a treasure trove for historians, for the rest of us it’s his pungent wit, gossipy nature and vivid accounts of his wild indiscretions that we want to read.

Written in a mixture of shorthand, English, Latin, French and Italian, the six 500-page notebooks record his amorous desires as he pursued an estimated 20 women during the 10-year period, having nulla puella negat as he euphemistically recorded not being refused with only three.

Samuel_PepysReading like the script of a Carry on Film with characters as whimsical as Mrs Bagwell whose carpenter husband pushed her into Pepys’ arms in the hope of getting work in the naval dockyards or delectable Deborah a new live-in lady’s companion he was caught inflagranti by his wife one afternoon. After banishing 17-year-old Debbo his wife came at him with “a pair of red-hot pincers”, one can speculate which part of Pepys’ anatomy they were destined.

Although written over 350 years ago much of the more salacious gossip we, today, wish to read, much of it is subject to copyright having only been transcribed during the 1970s by Robert Latham and William Mathews.

The original task of translating the huge body of work was given to a poor clergyman the Rev. Mynors Bright, MA who struggled for seven years unearthing its secrets as some of the text is written in Tachygraphy (Greek for ‘speedy writing’) a form of shorthand devised by Thomas Shelton in 1626.

Reverend Bright’s employer Lord Braybrooke who published an abridged version of the Diary in 1825 had failed to tell the hapless translator a copy of Shelton’s could be found on a shelf close to where the Dairy volumes were kept.

On receiving the translation Lord Braybrooke considered parts of it too obscene to publish, which has meant Pepys’ amorous exploits have only become available in the last 40-years. Many of the entries conclude with the words
“. . . and so to bed”, something he wished to do with every eligible female with which he came into contact.

The definitive account of Samuel Pepys is The Unequalled Self by Clare Tomalin, while the BBC has produced for Radio 4 an audio version performed by Kris Marshall and National Maritime Museum is staging Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire & Revolution. Until 28th March 2016.

Site Unseen: Admiral House

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

Painted many times by John Constable who incidentally is buried in nearby St. John’s Churchyard Admiral House off Hampstead Grove is a building made famous by none other than Walt Disney.

[B]uilt around 1700 its roof which resembles a ship’s quarterdeck was adapted in 1791 by the then occupant Lieutenant Fountain North who would fire a canon from his roof to celebrate naval victories or the King’s birthday.

Other occupants have been Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect of St. Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament (he would go on to complain that Hampstead was rather too cold for his taste); and the actor Russell Crowe. Next door at Grove Lodge lived John Galsworthy, he of Forsyte Saga fame. The wall of Grove Lodge is visible on the left of the picture.

But to return to Disney, A neighbour of Admiral’s House was Australian writer P. L. Travers, recently featured in the film Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. In 1934 P. L. Travers published the novel Mary Poppins, it would take Walt Disney 20-years to obtain the movie rights to her novel, and it was only when book sales tailed off the uncompromising curmudgeonly author reluctantly agreed to Disney’s proposal.

In the book and film Admiral Boom perpetually unleashed his cannon to the discomfort of his neighbours.

You can’t help but think that the irascible Travers would have had sympathy with these objections had she lived in Hampstead at the same time and also she would have seen many dads flying kites upon Hampstead Heath. Cue for a song.

Featured photo: Admiral House by Peter O’Connor (CC BY-SA 2.0)