Killed by a cab

Accidents by Uber drivers today seem to be de rigueur, although it is not a new trend. It was not until 1838 that a cabbie needed a licence to make a living on London’s streets, and not until the end of that century that a test of driving skill was implemented.

No surprise that just giving a licence to anyone who: ‘shall produce such a Certificate of his Ability to drive’, was a recipe for disaster.

[W]ith this rather ambiguous definition, those allowed to ply the capital’s streets killed 54 between 1830 and 1913 according to the records of the Old Bailey. In 1909 alone police officers took 8,715 to hospital as a result of street accidents from Hansom cabs, as well as cars, trams and bicycles. Eighteen deaths were caused by ‘horse traffic’.

In addition between 1850 and 1910, a further 11 passengers committed suicide while sitting in a horse-drawn cab. One of which, on 14th April 1886, was The Earl of Shaftesbury, so the reason for their demise cannot have been solely upon hearing the cost of their fare.

Enough of these statistics, the victims of two of these accidents by Hansom cab make for interesting reading.

Colonel Pierpoint
In 1864 London’s first traffic island was built in St James’s Street. It was designed and funded by one Colonel Pierpoint who was afraid of being knocked down on his way to (and more likely inebriated from) the Carlton, his Pall Mall club. When it was finished, the good colonel dashed across the road to admire his creation, tripped and was bowled over by a cab.

Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates
Son of a wealthy sugar-plantation owner, Romeo Coates would proclaim himself to be the finest actor of his generation. His wealth allowed him to fund his own performances, fortuitously as he couldn’t remember his lines or, indeed whole scenes. He would repeat his favourite parts of the play at random places during the performance, these would often feature multiple melodramatic deaths.

Reprising the role of Shakespeare’s Romeo he added touches the Bard had somehow missed when penning his masterpieces: prising Capulet’s tomb open with a crowbar; taking snuff during the balcony scene and proceeding to offer it round to the audience; and upon Romeo’s death laying down his hat to rest his head, but after ensuring the stage was clean by dusting it with a handkerchief. Eventually, no actress would appear opposite him as Juliet.

Alas by 1816 his popularity had waned and his theatrical career ended. The thespian died in February 1848 whilst exiting a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, when he was knocked down by a Hansom cab.

2 thoughts on “Killed by a cab”

  1. Hello again. Another super post! I love ‘Romeo’ Coates. He reminds me of the film last year with Meryl Streep as the dreadful/wonderful singer Florence Foster Jenkins. I thought you might like to read of a couple of road accidents, one featuring a cab, that I wrote about in the biog I wrote of my great grandparents, Marie and Squire Bancroft (of the Russell Square cab shelter). I got both stories from their own (joint) autobiography. I never knew till reading the first story for the first time that some pavements were wooden. And I put the ‘area’ in quotes as it wasn’t till talking about this story that I realised how few people know what an ‘area’ means to Londoners! I have known all my life as we had one in front of my childhood home. Even my husband – not a Londoner, but a very knowlegeable historian – had never come across the word in that sense.

    Around Christmas the Bancrofts were involved in a nasty street accident one morning on their way to the Haymarket, the kind of street accident that was commonplace all over London in the heavy, horsedrawn traffic that thronged the streets. Their coachman was having trouble controlling the pair of young and rather nervous horses drawing their brougham. Snow was falling heavily but, deeply absorbed in discussing the play, Squire and Marie had not noticed that they were travelling at an alarming speed. One of the horses somehow got a leg entangled in its harness and panicked, along with its partner. Squire held Marie tightly as the two terrified horses struggled to free themselves and the driver fought to control them. They collided with a passing coal-cart, severely injuring the horse that was drawing it, and the brougham’s entangled horses staggered across the road, mounted the slippery, wet wooden pavement, and crashed into the railings surrounding a corner house. The railings broke and they were only saved from crashing down into the open ‘area’ in front of the basement by an iron grating that covered it. The brougham turned over onto its side, and Marie and Squire were dragged to safety through a window. Fortunately neither they nor the coachman, nor the driver of the coal-cart, were badly hurt, but all three horses were injured, so although there were no doctors’ bills to pay, the vets’ bills were huge. Marie, in describing the accident, wrote, ‘I was dragged through the carriage-window by a kindly navvy, whose black face almost frightened me out of the poor senses I had left. Mr Bancroft, whose hat resembled a concertina, took me into the chemist’s close by, where they were most kind, and gave me a restorative.’ But ‘the show must go on’ and Marie ended her account: ‘With difficulty I got through my work that night, for my nerves were completely unstrung.’

    Unfortunately, on 11 July, a few days before the end of the season, Marie was involved in a street accident when the cab in which she was riding was involved a collision in Jermyn Street and she was thrown out. Her head was badly cut and a wheel ran over her leg, an injury from which she never entirely recovered, suffering pain in the knee for the rest of her life. The accident was reported in The Times and other papers and Marie received many letters and messages of sympathy from friends and also from many total strangers. She even received a message from Queen Victoria, who expressed her sympathy and asked to be kept informed of her progress. The Bancrofts’ plans for a holiday on the continent that summer had to be abandoned and instead, after lengthy treatment, they spent a few weeks in Norfolk once Marie was fit to travel.


    1. Yes I think travelling in London at the end of the 19th century was very hazardous, just your biography of the Bancrofts shows. As for that wonderful film: Florence Foster Jenkins who knew that Hugh Grant could actually act. What a revelation.


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