Heaven’s Rank

One of the joys of writing CabbieBlog is that you discover people who have amassed some remarkable knowledge about London and its people. This post is no exception.

In Search of a Cab Driver or Two
Ever wondered about the hackney coachman or the hansom cab driver of yesteryear? Who was he? Where did he come from? How old was he? How long did he work as a cabman?

[A]MAZINGLY, and frustratingly for anyone looking into the history of the trade, we do not know the answers to these simple questions.

Shortly after I got my badge, just over 30 years ago, I was told that there were no records of cab drivers. I found such a claim hard to believe at first. Were not London cab drivers the most regulated in history – a history that extends back 400 years?

The earliest list of names regarding the trade is that of ‘The 400 Hackney Coaches’ published in 1662. The figure ‘400’ refers to the number of plates that were issued. Incidentally, the plate number, or Mark, as it was called then, was introduced to prevent excessive numbers of coaches given a licence and prevent corruption by the Commissioners in charge of overseeing the trade. One of the reasons the Fellowship of Master Hackney Coachmen was disbanded after just three years in 1657 was because they interpreted the law in their own way and saw a method of creating extra licences, in return for a suitable financial payment. Oh, and by the way, it didn’t stop the corruption!

The list of ‘The 400’ contains the names of the masters, or owners of the hackney coaches. They may have been what we would now call a musher, an owner-driver, and most of them probably were. But if they hired their coach out, as many of the female owners would have done (they were all widows of hackney coach masters), then there are no records of who was actually driving for them.

Incredibly, a master did not have to keep any records of who was driving a coach. If there was a complaint, of say, lost property, overcharging, or dangerous driving, it would be the master who would have to attend court. It was then the responsibility of the master to produce the driver or face the consequences as if the crime was committed by himself. Often enough, if the offence was serious, the driver would abscond, perhaps taking a hackney coach from another yard and using a different name, leaving the master to face the punishment of the judiciary.

By 1800 the names of drivers had to be registered at, of all places, the Office of Sewers. After driving on the streets of London for close to 200 years, the driver finally gets tied down by bureaucracy. Or did he? Not many masters bothered registering their drivers, despite calling for such a system. There was a cost to registering, which the Office of Sewers would allocate to road repairs, hence why that department was the receiving office. None of these records appeared to have survived.

In 1838, under the guidance of Daniel Whittle Harvey, the driver finally found himself, badged and billed. The driver had to wear the badge all the time whilst he was working; his licence, the Bill, was held by the master throughout the employment – 200 years later the reverse of the Bill has not changed much.

The names of the drivers were entered into ledgers and onto card index files – none of which survives today. When the Metropolitan Police took over the running of the cab trade they created the Public Carriage Office. Like the Stamp Office before them, The Metropolitan Police were sticklers for bureaucracy, but today, none of their MEPO files at the Public Record Office at Kew, contain any details en masse, of who was driving a cab.

The London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell has only a single paying-in book for the Hackney Carriage Proprietors Benevolent Institution. Again, this is a list of masters, though some of them would have been owner-drivers.

And that is it. There are no official records of drivers, period.

All is not lost, however. Just over ten years ago I was doing some research looking for somebody in the 1881 census. This census was online and free to use, courtesy of the Latter Day Saints, a branch of the Mormon Church. Fortunately, the census was searchable by name, which was handy as there were millions of names in London alone, and each family unit represented one page. Each page was numbered and you could look at the other residents in the same building or street by clicking on the ‘previous household’ or ‘next household’ buttons. As I have said, each of the households were numbered, and that number was usually as long as a telephone number. One day I noticed that the number was in the low one-hundreds. Curiosity got the better of me and by clicking the ‘previous household’ button, I clicked my way back to page number one.

On line one, page one, book one, the very first house in England and Wales, the very place where, for some obscure reason, the UK census begins is the Stafford Hotel. Unlike the St James’s hotel, this Stafford Hotel was a pub that stood opposite the Royal Oak underground station on the corner of Lord Hill’s Bridge and Harrow Road. I then wondered who was the first cab driver in Britain at least according to the census? A hundred or so clicks later, I found him: 25-year-old, Charles Nicholls, who was married with one child and lived at 2 Hampden Street [W2] (now demolished). My curiosity was not completely sated, I looked for the second cab driver, then the third, then the fourth…

It took me a few years but I eventually arrived at George Earl, age 35 of 209 Maxey Road, Woolwich – the 9486th name on my list, (and unofficially, the last cab driver in London). These 9486 names represented not only drivers but also included proprietors and ancillary workers, cab washers and cab inspectors etc.

The online census is what a historian would describe as ‘secondary source material’ errors could be made by whoever transcribed the data from the original files – and there were a few. As such, the information is pretty useless. To combat this, I purchased the 1881 London Census on CD, primary source material, and double checked all my input and corrected any errors.

So, what does the 1881 census tell us about the Victorian cabman of that period? Officially there were 12,630 drivers registered at the time but I found only [sic] 7,755 drivers, which included 42 mushers – so, despite all my efforts, I only found 61 per cent of them. There are several reasons for this; Firstly, a number of drivers may have been working at another occupation at the time of the census – there have always been more drivers registered than drivers actually working. Secondly, the enumerators who collected the original information door to door may have recorded the occupation as ‘coachman’ – I only collected cabmen, cab drivers and the various forms that included the word ‘hackney’ in the job description. Not every driver lived in London, and, of course, given the tedium of the search, I could have missed a few. There is also at least one bogus cabman included – Dick Turpin, of 4 North east Passage, a Wapping lodging house. Perhaps somebody had a grudge against cab drivers committing highway robbery on their fares. How do I know it was a bogus name? – at the same address is a barber, by the name of Sweeney Todd!

The number of owner drivers is low, whilst the number of proprietors was higher than expected – 1,419. Many owner-drivers would rather class themselves as a proprietor. ‘Cab Proprietor’ denoted a man of business whilst ‘Cab driver’ still carried tones of servitudes and untrustworthiness. The law did not require proprietors to wear a badge, just the drivers.

Around 56 per cent of the drivers were born in London, whilst from outside of the area covered by the London census, more were Suffolk-born than from any other county in England (including Essex and Middlesex). The trade was pretty cosmopolitan at the time, 22 drivers were from Europe, six from North America, three from Australia/New Zealand and five were born at sea. The average age of a driver in 1881 was 39 years and three months (the oldest driver was 87 years old) and 75 per cent of drivers were married. Sixty-six per cent of drivers shared their address with another household whilst 15 were in prison or being held in police cells, 43 drivers were patients in a hospital and 107 were in the workhouse.

Just under 80 per cent of drivers lived north of the river whilst 28.5 per cent lived in the area defined today by the Congestion Charge Zone (and down from 69 per cent in 1841).

Numerical postcodes did not exist in 1881 but as these are more identifiable today than parish boundaries, I looked up every street where the cabdrivers lived, noting whether the street still survived, had changed its name or had been completely removed following urban redevelopment. Postcode-wise, N1 was the most populated with 909 drivers, followed by NW1 with 759. The much smaller WC1 was more densely packed than any other postcode with 726 drivers; Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell probably had more cab yards per square mile than any other part of London.

The street with the most people in the trade – drivers, proprietors and ancillaries – was Harrison St, WC1 with 40. This was followed by Great Ormond Yard (now just Ormond Yard) WC1 with 36, and Elnathan Mews, W9, with 31. How times change. A House in Elnathan Mews would cost over a million pounds today, back in 1881, it was nothing more than a cab yard.

Now, the above may not be Earth-shattering historiography – but it is unique. This information has never been published and, if anything, gives us a completely new glimpse into the world of cab driving, at least on one day in 1881.

There is only one question remaining from the several I posed at the beginning – what was the average length of service by a cab driver? This question cannot be answered by just one census. So I didn’t just stop at 1881. Since then, I have trawled through the London Census for 1841-1891 inclusive and have amassed over 37,000 names. At the moment I am collating the data which, by the end of the year, I will be able to have a rough estimate of the length of service. Given that the census is once every ten years there can be a large margin of error; for instance, a driver who got his badge in 1862 and worked until 1880, will only be recorded in one census, the 1871. There is no way of telling, from the census alone, exactly how long a particular driver had a badge.

Fortunately, I have a further 13,000 names in my database. Whilst I should have been studying for a Physics degree with the OU, I began spending more time trawling through the OU’s newspaper archive. From a historian’s point of view, the Victorian court reports printed in the national press were filled with trivia that would not get a show in a free local newspaper today. Details about the driver’s life were published, also his badge number or plate number, even his earnings, were deemed of interest. Sadly, such editorial interest in the cab trade waned just after the First World War and has declined to a virtual non-existence today – unless something or someone bad happens. By combining as many original sources that have survived, it may be possible to get some idea of just who our forefathers in the trade actually were.

So, there you have it. There are no files on cab drivers as a whole. You just have to find them one by one. It’s kept me busy for the past few years, and I dare say I will be busy for a few more!

Is there a cab driver, now consigned to history that you know about, perhaps a family member discovered from a birth, marriage or death certificate? Let me know what you have and I will add him or her (proprietresses and, much later, drivers) to my database and let you know what information I have if any on that individual.
© Sean Farrell 2018

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The author has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog. If you want information about ex-London cabbies, or have some to share, Sean may be reached via our Contact page. Links conform with guidelines set out in Write a Post.

Featured image by QT Luong/terragalleria.com all rights reserved

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