The Curious Case of the Growler

For many of us, our introduction to the Hansom Cab came as we first read the works of Dr John Watson about his sometime companion Sherlock Holmes, the greatest fictional detective of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, who would have many ‘curious’ cases to solve.

During Victoria’s reign, two types of ‘hired’ transport dominated the streets of London.

[T]he first of these was a four-wheeled vehicle, the Clarence or the ‘Growler’, [below] which acquired its nickname as a result of the noise it made when driven over the cobblestoned streets. A closed, four-wheeled carriage, it was glass-fronted and seated four passengers in relative comfort.


Clarence or Growler Cab

It was a popular vehicle holding more passengers and baggage than the Hansom Cab and for this reason, was often found at railway stations. Indeed, so popular was it that as Mrs Beeton notes in 1861:

. . . but the Hackney Cab or Clarence seems most in request for light cariages; the family carriage of the day being a modified form of the Clarence adapted for family use

It was the two-wheeled Hansom Cab [featured image], however, that was the most popular public vehicle of the century. Although named for its inventor, the coachbuilder Joseph Hansom, the design of the cab which dominated the London streets was that of John Chapman.

In many ways, it was the ideal vehicle for moving through the crowded London streets quickly. The body was light enough to be pulled by a single horse and with only two wheels and a low centre of gravity could safely turn on a sixpence. Speed, coupled with manoeuvrability meant that the Hansom Cab could steer through the traffic jams so common in later Victorian London.

The driver of the Hansom Cab sat on a raised seat above and behind the passenger’s compartment. Two passengers could ride with reasonable comfort in the cab and a third might be squeezed in if necessary.

Passengers spoke to and paid the driver through a trap-door in the roof which also provided a degree of security for the driver who had control of a lever used to release the doors once the fare had been paid. The reins used to control the horse at the front of the cab ran over the roof of the vehicle which meant that the only part of the horse visible to the driver was its head.

It is not surprising that our image of the Hansom Cab is somewhat fogged by time. Comfortable, they were not, nor were they particularly clean. In the early days, with their open fronts, the passengers were likely to get wet if it rained or have to deal with whatever the horse’s hooves threw up from the road, and in Victorian London’s streets horse excreta was commonplace. Later, they had folding half doors which protected the passengers’ legs.

Mr Udny Yule, in proposing a vote of thanks to a speaker at the Royal Statistical Society in 1936, took the occasion to comment on London as he had known it as a boy. Among his observations was a comment on “giving unintended hospitality to a hungry flea picked up on some Growler or Hansom Cab,” which he went on to note “was not exceedingly rare.” It was certainly a case for Keating’s Powder, a well-known product advertised in the ’80s with the lines: “Keating’s Powder does the trick/Kills all Bugs and Fleas off quick”.

Drivers of Hansom cabs were often before the courts for drunkenness and abusing or injuring their passengers or pedestrians. To cite only one example, from The Times of 12th April 1882:

At Marylebone, Robert Coomber, 38, Hansom Cab driver, was charged with being drunk and furiously driving his cab, thereby causing damage to the extent of £4 to another cab and seriously injuring Mrs Elizabeth Griffin . . . On Monday night about half-past 11, the prisoner, who was intoxicated, was seen driving his cab at a very fast rate . . . on the wrong side of the way. He was shouted to but took no notice, and after going some 600 yards he came into collision with another cab, and the shaft of his cab struck Mrs Griffin who, with her husband, was in the damaged vehicle. She was picked up senseless and was taken to a doctor’s where it was found that she was seriously injured. During the night she only recovered consciousness for a few minutes. Her husband also received a severe shock.

Small children playing in the streets were particularly vulnerable. Only six weeks later two little boys, one sixteen months old and the other four-and-a-half years were killed by horse-drawn vehicles; the latter by a Hansom Cab.

Although the Hansom Cab continued in use until well into the Twentieth Century (the last horse-drawn cab was withdrawn from London’s streets in 1946), its popularity waned and within the first decade of the new century it was being reported that “‘London’s gondola,’ the Hansom Cab, has had its day, and the future is with the taxi-motor.”

What amounts to an official recognition of the fact is to be found in a new police regulation on the subject of cab whistles. Hitherto one blast has signified a call for a Hansom, two blasts meant a four-wheeler, or ‘Growler,’ and three were required to summon a taxi-motor.

Now this is all changed by a regulation issued by the Chief Commissioner of Police and the ‘taxi’ takes the place of honour, the Hansom going down, and the ‘Growler’ being last in order. Henceforward one whistle summons a ‘taxi.’

But there are still those of us who believe, as the yellow fog settles over London, that we can hear the footsteps of Holmes and Watson as they race towards a Hansom and in the ghostly stillness, we can still hear Holmes’ strident voice, “Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot.”

There are numerous tales which involve Hansom Cabs. Here are two you might find of interest.

The Adventure of the Hansom Cab, by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the stories in the compilation New Arabian Nights which can be downloaded by clicking here.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an Australian Novel (1886) by Fergus Hume can be downloaded by clicking here.

And of course, there are all those Sherlock Holmes stories!

London Trivia: Gold standard

On 26 November 1983 Britain’s most successful robbery took place at Heathrow. £26 million sterling in gold, diamonds and cash was stolen from the Brink’s Matt security warehouse. The investigation lasted nearly 10 years and a large percentage of the gold bars were never recovered and few convicted. Several murders have been linked to the case, plus links established to the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary over 30 years later in April 2015.

On 26 November 1964 The Stones described in court as not a long-haired idiots but highly intelligent university men Mick was still fined £10

In 1736 gravedigger Thomas Jenkins received 100 lashes for selling dead bodies from St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney High Street

Underneath the MI6 building is the overflow pipe for the River Effra, it’s just big enough to launch a mini-submarine from the orifice

Nell Gywnn, orange seller and mistress to Charles II was born in the Coal Yard, now Stukeley Street off Drury Lane in 1650

After his victory over England Hitler had a plan to dismantle Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and display it in Berlin

Only one house where Charles Dickens lived still stands 48 Doughty Street from 1837 to 1839 here he wrote Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers

The upper span of Tower Bridge was originally a walkway but it was closed in 1910 as it had become a haunt of prostitutes

One of the Scotland fans who invaded the pitch at Wembley in 1977 was Rod Stewart. In the commotion someone nicked his Cartier watch

In 1910 the London and North Western Railway offered its business passengers the on-board services of Miss Tarrant. (Typist)

In 2013 one ton of dust was removed from the attics at Kensington Palace, the first time since 1719 they had been cleaned

In the 1950s three members of the Attkins family were Highgate’s fishmonger, butcher and dentist – known as Fishkins, Porkins and Toothkins

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Down Your Alley: Adam and Eve Court

As everyone is rushing to do their Christmas Shopping, the little alley of Adam and Eve Court, about 320 yards east of Oxford Circus, on the north side of Oxford Street, is often passed by unnoticed. The Adam and Eve tavern stood here, from about the 17th century, occupying a rural setting just to the north of the ‘Tyburn Way’ or ‘the way to Uxbridge’ which we now know as Oxford Street.

[I]ts actual location was about 50 yards north of the main road which on today’s layout would be about two-thirds of the way into the Court. At that time, the Court itself was a rough track forming the only convenient access to the tavern. This was, of course, before Edward Harley, William Berners, and sundry small-time land owners commenced developments in the 1720’s. The Adam and Eve tavern survived until about 1746 when the new competitive environment overtook it and survival became impossible. In the same year, houses began to spring up along the dusty access road, heralding the transformation from rural to urban, and Adam and Eve Court was hatched into life.


Adam and Eve Court

Nearby, on the north side of the tavern, was the ‘Boarded House’, an amphitheatre style building run by a celebrated swordsman, James Figg. At this venue, he staged contests between a variety of local masters of the art, among whom he was the central and most popular attraction. Along with cockfighting, fencing and bare-fist boxing were the most popular crowd-drawing sporting event of the period and the Oxford Street area had some of the top ranking venues.

In 1725 Figg had a dispute with his landlord; it happened late one night when, against all odds, Figg had beaten off the unquestionable favourite. Seats were thrown into the arena and the riotous crowd lurched forward as Figg waved his sword in triumph; he could have decapitated his opponent but left that to the mob. As the victor made his exit, the stillness of the outside air became alive with uncontrollable brawling.

By the time James Figg was back in his billet, a matter of yards away, the noise had reached a deafening rate of decibels and as he sipped the dregs of his cocoa, a thundering rap caused him to nervously pitch the cup in the air and jump to his feet. Thinking it to be a gang of rioters he took up his sword and poised himself as he flung open the door. To his astonishment, he was confronted by his landlord, clad in winceyette shirt and night-cap. At the risk of being lynched, the man hailed forth his command to quit the ‘Boarded House’ without further ado. ‘Enough is enough’, he raged, tightly clenching his fists.

Of course, this was no hardship to Figg; he had already been contemplating opening a hall at the rear of his house, just to the east of the Adam and Eve tavern. Within weeks the new venue was in operation and from these premises, James Figg boldly advertised himself as ‘Master of ye Noble Science of Defence’ and taught the skills of swordsmanship to wealthy clients.

Those wealthy clients no longer come for instruction in sabre rattling, although – perhaps not quite so well endowed – they still pass across the entrance to Adam and Eve Court in daily droves; the shopkeepers of Oxford Street certainly prosper from the seemingly endless queues eager to dispense with the contents of their wallets. Adam and Eve Court share none of these generous contributions although it is one of the Oxford Street courts that has everything going for it; there is the potential here for creating another Gee’s Court or even St Christopher’s Place. Beyond this, a narrow covered entrance leads onward, where the back-drop is a scene of – not exactly neglect, but rather of being over-looked. Whilst the summer hanging baskets suspended from the gas-style standard lamps are a step in the right direction, it is like adding the seasoning before the meat. At the northern end of the Court, as though strictly for the use of those who pass along Eastcastle Street, are four telephone kiosks.


CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.


At the southern end of London Bridge is a curious piece of sculpture rising up out of the debris that was once Tooley Street before they decided to build an even bigger station.

The ‘spike’ looks as if it could fall on someone’s head at any moment, and designed to add to London’s pointless architecture alongside Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth and the Trinity Buoy Lighthouse.

[T]hus proving that in the 21st century we can still add to the London landscape some pretty useless pieces of street furniture. Speculation about the purpose of a 52ft high Portland stone leaning tower dubbed ‘The Spike’ abound, for no plaque indicates its purpose.

It could serve as a giant sundial except at 19.5 degrees pointing south-west it’s likely to get the time wrong.

It could be a prototype for the Shard close by if it leaned at a precarious angle.

As everybody knows London Bridge once served the useful purpose of not only conveying the public across the river but to display the heads of traitors which had been liberally dipped in tar to aid preservation. The first to try out this novel way of deporting one’s cranium was William Wallace, who it is thought was also the guinea pig for being hung, drawn and quartered. A useful plaque serves to show the spot of his dismemberment in Smithfield.

Could The Spike be the furthest south the plague advanced?

Or the maximum distance your London cabbie is prepared to go ‘Sarf of The River.

Unfortunately, The Spike’s purpose seems to be far more prosaic.

Southwark Council intended for it to be part of a gateway to the borough incorporating a visitor and information centre. The official title is ‘The Southwark Gateway Needle’ and it tilts at 19.5 degrees pointing down to an exact location.

Following that trajectory downwards, it arrives at the riverside’s opposite bank and the church of St. Magus The Martyr. This was where the medieval London Bridge crossed the river.

I can’t see it. There are lots of angles on the thing but the only one that could be 19.5 degrees is that from the vertical. Surely if the needle is pointing anywhere it’s into the sky? But if you follow its front face down you surely would be a long way underground before you reached the riverside.

Photo: Southwark Needle, London SE1 by Christine Matthews (CC BY-SA 2.0)

London Trivia: Hitting the jackpot

On 19 November 1994 defying the odds of 1-in-14-million seven lucky lottery winners won Britain’s first national lottery aired live from a London studio. 35 million tickets were purchased and the winning numbers as drawn were 30, 3, 5, 44, 14 and 22. The bonus ball was 10. A lottery took place in 1566 for a jackpot of £5,000 according to a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, giving instructions for collecting money, commanding that persons of ‘good trust’ be entrusted with the prizes.

At the Royal Albert Hall on 19 November 1987 a rare 1931 Bugatti Royal was sold for £5.5 million at the time a semi-detached house cost £50,000

For some crimes the guilty were locked in the pillory then had their ears nailed to the frame, upon release were forced to leave them behind

King Street, St James’s is named after Charles II, King Street, Covent Garden is named after Charles I and Kingsway after Edward VII

The American talk show host Jerry Springer was born at Highgate during the Second World War: his mother had taken shelter in the station from an air raid

Trafalgar Square was to have been called ‘King William the Fourth’s Square’; however, George Ledwell Taylor suggested Trafalgar Square

It was at 9A Denmark Street (Tin Pan Alley), then La Gioconda, where David Jones (Bowie) and his first backing band – Lower Third – met

The Sanderson Hotel, Berners Street was a showroom for Sandersons wallpaper, the listed sign meant the hotel could have no other name

The oldest (and possibly most bizarre) medal winner was John Copley who won Silver in the London 1948 Olympics for an etching he was 73 at the time, drawing was in the Olympics until 1948

Charles Pearson, MP and Solicitor to the City of London, is credited with successfully campaigning for the introduction of the Underground. He died in 1862 shortly before the first train ran

During the war, some stations (now mostly disused) were converted into government offices: a station called Down Street was used for meetings of the Railway Executive Committee

Brydges Place named after Catherine Brydges daughter of 3rd Baron Chandos at 15 inches at its narrowest point is London’s tightest alley

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.