With descriptions of austere and deprivation being regularly used in the media to describe working in London, here is an excerpt from Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, 1862 unearthed by Lee Jackson in his Dictionary of Victorian London a huge repository of source material including extracts from Victorian newspapers, diaries, journalism, memoirs, maps and the full text of several dozen books.
[A]T NO TIME were cabman a popular class in London. Since the opening of the International Exhibition, they have become more unpopular than ever. Their life is a hard one; they constantly incline to take over-liberal views of distance; and when a fare is refractory, they are anything but nice about the choice of language in enforcing extortionate demands. We know from the experience of ‘strikes’ that mechanics go to great lengths occasionally on a question of wages; but when once the price at which they are to be paid is fixed, and they assent to it, they never think of demanding more so long as the particular rate of payment remains in force. It is not so with the cabman. He has his ostensible strike now and then; but, in point of fact, he indulges in one continual, though covert resistance to his employers – the public. He considers himself an ill-used man if he is paid only his fare. The person is an impostor who tenders it – ‘a cove as ought to walk, and not be bilking cabman.’ This system of abuse succeeds, or the public are more generous in their dealings with cabmen than with any other class of the working community, or there is a general feeling that the scale of fares is an insufficient one; for the Jehus themselves admit that in nineteen cases out of twenty they receive more than their legal due. They go further, and tell you that if such were not the case, the occupation ‘would not be worth a follorin’ on.’
As the riding population know little more about the matter than what they gather from the payment of fares, the strong language of those to whom the money is paid, and the reports of cases in the police courts, it may not be out of place to state a few facts connected with the working of the cab-system. Of ‘four-wheelers’ and ‘Hansoms,’ there are nearly five thousand in London. Each cab is obliged to have a number for which the owner pays one shilling a day. Thus, if the cab is licensed to ply on Sundays as well as week-days, seven shillings a week are paid for the licence; but if only a week-day licence is required, six shillings is the amount. The licensed owner of a cab is liable for any infraction of the law committed by means of the vehicle. The licence-duty is paid at Somerset House. Any person applying for permission to drive a cab plying for hire must get a certain form filled up. On presenting this at Scotland Yard, a badge and a book of fares are given to him. For the former, he pays five shillings; for the latter, half-a-crown. In addition, he is taxed to the amount of five shillings annually, so long as he remains a driver. A driver may not lend his badge to any other person. It is clear that if he were permitted to do so, there would be an end of responsibility in case of misconduct.
A new four-wheel cab costs about forty pounds; a second-hand one may be had for ten or twelve pounds; but any owner who can afford it, thinks it the better economy to purchase a new article. A new Hansom may be had for about thirty-five pounds; but if it be a ‘spicey’ one, and made to order, it will cost as much as a four-wheeler. A well-made cab will run for about twelve months without requiring any repair, except in case of an accident. At the end of that time, probably it will want new tyres on the wheels. The tyres on the front wheels wear out sooner than those on the hind wheels. A set of four tyres costs about four-and-twenty shillings. When the London season is over, an aged or ‘stale’ horse, that will do very well for a four-wheel cab, maybe got in London for ten or twelve pounds. Those cab-owners who have a little capital generally purchase young horses in Ireland or at fairs in this country.
For a Hansom, quite a different style of horse is required. If he has no height, ‘blood,’ and action, the whole concern will look worse than the shabbiest of four-wheel cabs. Hence the owners of Hansoms go to a different market. Tattersall’s is their ground. They purchase racers and hunters who have done their work, and who, though still showy, are sold without a warranty. Such animals would not do for four-wheelers. The class of work done by each description of cab is different. The four-wheelers go in for long distance, and more than two passengers; the Hansoms for short fares and one or two riders. There is to some extent an impression – arising, no doubt, from the ‘large’ manner of the men and the mettlesome appearance of their animals – that the drivers of Hansom receive higher fares than those of their more humble-looking competitors on four wheels. Experienced men in the trade say that this is not the case. For town work, the Hansom has the advantage. In the city and at the west end, they receive three fares for every one picked up by a four-wheeler; but at the railways and in general family hire, the latter ‘beat them to bits’. The relative advantages may be summed up thus: The cabs on four wheels get fewer jobs, but larger fares; the Hansoms do shorter distances, but are hired more frequently. A cab of either kind cannot be well worked without a couple of horses. There are men who have only a single horse, but they are obliged to work at a great disadvantage. They must be very economical of their horse-power, and the system on which they act is to pull up on the nearest ‘rank’ after discharging their fare, so that they may go over as little ground as possible when no earning money. Those who have two horses, usually take out one in the morning, and work it up to three or four o’clock in the afternoon; put it up then, and take out the other for the evening; or give each horse a rest every alternate date. Owners of a single cab are, in nearly every instance, their own drivers; and they are the most steady and civil men connected with the occupation. If they are not sober and careful of their horses and cab, they cannot make a living out of the business. It is your mere driver, generally, who is reckless and a rogue; but it is right to say that there are very many exceptions.
The system on which these men work is a bad one and goes far to account for the numerous police-court cases in which cabmen figure as defendants. They are like the unfortunate organ-grinders; they do not receive wages from their masters, but pay them so much a day. In order that this sum and the driver’s own profit may be secured, horses and the public are made victims. A careful owner, driving his own cab and keeping a pair of horses, calculates on earning fifteen or sixteen shillings a day throughout the whole year, except during the autumn vacation and the two or three weeks after Christmas. These are his dull times. The same amount is about the sum paid by a driver for the hire of a cab and two horses. This pays the large cab-owner very well, even though the horses be overworked. The driver has no interest in easing the animals or obtaining a good character for the owner: his object is to get as many fares as he can in the day and bully his riders out of as much money as possible. These men drink a good deal, at their own expense and are frequently ‘treated’ by their customers. They go through much hardship in the way of exposure to wet and cold, and long waits on the ranks. To these causes may be ascribed the habits of dissipation into which too many of them sink. It is to be hoped that the efforts of Lord Shaftesbury and other philanthropists, who have turned their attention to the establishment of cabmen’s clubs, may work a reformation.
Cab-horses are fed well on good oats and chopped clover. If they were not, they would very soon be unfit for work. To keep one, costs about fifteen shillings a week; and a cab-owner who is his own driver and who receives five or six pounds a week, calculates his profits – allowing for wear and tear of cab and horse, and stable expenses – at from two pounds ten shillings to ten pounds, for the six days: no an inordinate profit surely, considering how hard he works, and the capital which he has embarked in his horse and rolling stock. A great proportion of the small cab-owners do not work their cabs on Sunday, concurring as they do with Mr Bianconi, the extensive Irish cab-proprietor, that giving horses one day’s rest in the week is a saving of money in the long-run, to those who have purchased the animals, and will have to replace them when used up. The night-cabs are worked by the worst description of horses: there is scarcely one of them that is no spavine* or partially blind or both. To see one whose fore-legs are not looped and palsied from falling down and breaking his knees is an exceptional curiosity. No cab-horses are worked day and night. Many cabs are. Seven shillings a night is considered a sufficient payment by a driver for the hire of a horse and cab. In some cities, Dublin, for instance, the fares between twelve at night and six in the morning are double. In London, this is not the case; and it seems a hardship on a cabman that he should be obliged to take a rider at sixpence a mile, within the four-mile radius, in the middle of a cold and wet winter’s night, when he has not the least chance of a return fare.
At all the great railway stations there are what are called ‘privileged cabs’. The railway companies admit a certain number of cabs to take up their position on the rank outside the platform and await the arrival of the trains. For this privilege, each cab pays a sum, varying at the different stations, of from one-and-sixpence to three shillings a week. The company keep an inspector of cabs, a policeman to take down the number of each privileged vehicle as it leaves the station with its fare and a book in which the numbers of all the cabs and the names of their owners and drivers are recorded. The number kept in this book is not that issued with the licence at Somerset House, but one painted on the side of the cab in proximity with the initials of the company. Passengers arriving by trains are afforded protection for their luggage and a precaution against imposition by the regulations in respect of the privileged cabs. As has just been observed, a policeman at the exit-gate takes down the number of each cab as it passes out; and in addition, the driver must every evening fill up a return of the number of fares he has had during the day, and the places to which he has conveyed them. When the privileged cabs have all been hired up, the cabs on the rank nearest to the station are admitted to the railway on the a la queue principle.
I have found no cabman to deny that the Exhibition enormously increased his profits. Owners charged drivers as much as one pound a day and more for the hire of a cab; but the latter at that time were taking their two pounds ten shillings and three pounds a day, and only for what they call the tyranny and worry of the police-constables at South Kensington, they would have made a great deal more. They state that as soon as the police observed an argument as to the amount of the fare, they would step forward, ask the distance travelled, tell the rider the proper amount, and order the cabman off. No higher testimony can be paid to the efficiency of the officers whom the commissioners of police stationed at the Exhibition. Men who drive their own horses have no reaped quite so large a harvest, but their profits have been proportionally increased. Cabmen do not like lady-fares; they have a horror of an ‘unprotected female;’ because, if any dispute arises, a sympathetic crowd assembles, and imposition is stopped. The theory of cab-management in the metropolis on the part of the authorities is admirable – in the regulations regarding the deposit in the police-stations of left property, for example – but in practice, it is found to be very defective. A cabman may give you all sorts of insolence, and make off before you have had time to take his number, or you may not have a pencil about you. In Paris, the driver must hand you a ticket on which his number is inscribed, when he takes you up. The introduction of that plan would be a great improvement here. On the other hand, something may be said for the cabbies. For instance, is sixpence sufficient payment for the carriage of two passengers, and as much luggage as they can stow inside, for a full mile from a railway station, at which man, horse, and cab have been standing for an hour or two awaiting the arrival of a train?
*Spavine being of or marked by a decrepit or broken-down condition.
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