The first London cab

Where did the first cabs come from?

A good question and Robert from leading UK insurance broker insuremytaxicab has put quill to paper to help uncover the true origins of the ubiquitous London cab.

Original cabs, whether they had two, or four wheels, were, of course, horse-drawn vehicles. The coaches that were used, were quite often unwanted and thus discarded by aristocratic families.

[T]here were numerous instances where they were tossed aside, still bearing their coat of arms. Operated out of inn yards, they were used to transport people on short journeys.

In early 1823, a two-wheeled carriage, with two seats first appeared in London. This carriage was introduced from France and was called a cabriolet. Its popularity quickly grew, due to not only its speed, but its comfort. It is from this vehicle, that the term cab derived.

Beginning in the latter half of the 1830s, two types of cabs dominate. There was the two-wheeled hansom which was a fast and elegant carriage. The other was a four-wheeler, which was often referred to by the nickname ‘growler’. The latter, in part due to its luggage carrying ability, was most often found at railway stations.

Shortly after cabs making their appearance in London, an entrepreneur named Captain Billy had the idea of parking these vehicles at stands in the street. Bailey, at that time, owned four carriages and decided he would place them at Maypole in the Strand. He then moved forward to establish a fare schedule that addressed trips to different parts of London. In addition, he had his drivers dress in livery. This made them easy to recognise by potential customers.

The cabriolet de place, which was invented by Nicholaus Sauvage, was introduced into London at the beginning of the century. The first licensed cabs, which stood for hire were on Portland Street. They numbered twelve in all and were painted yellow.

In 1897, the first motor cabs appeared in London. They were electrically powered and called Berseys, after the manager of the London Electrical Cab  Company, Walter C. Bersey who had designed them. They adopted the nickname ‘Hummingbirds’, due to the sound that they made. Twenty-five Berseys were introduced in August of 1897, and another fifty of them were put to work in 1898.

Due to a number of accidents, including one fatality, in addition to being proved costly and unreliable, the public’s confidence in them dwindled and evaporated. By 1900 they were withdrawn from service.

Introduced into London in 1903 was the first petrol powered cab. It was a Prunel, and it was French-built. Early on, there were other British makes such as Herald, Simplex, and Rational. These, however, only appeared in small numbers. There was an attempt to introduce the American Ford Model B, but this failed due to lack of finance. Rover, along with several other makes, suffered the same fate. Some one-off oddities that appeared, and subsequently disappeared almost as fast, were the Vauxhall hansom cab, which perched its driver behind the body, and the Pullcar, which was front wheel drive. By the end of 1906, London had less than 100 motor cabs. In the same year, General Cab Company introduced 500 Renault cabs into London. This revolutionised the trade.

Robert A. Jaen

Picture: An original black London cab by Panhard-Levassor from 1910 which sold at auction at Chippenham for £25,000. The 102-year-old motor still had its original taxi meter and included switches in the back so passengers could tell the driver which way to go. It was made by French firm who exported 800 of them to Britain at the start of the last century. It was vehicles like this that signalled the beginning of the end for the horse-drawn carriage in the capital, and the rise of motorised taxis.


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