Britain’s last outpost part 2

The Knowledge, of course, is a test of the applicant’s knowledge of London’s 22,000 streets and what is to be found upon those streets . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is the second part of The last outpost of the British Empire from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.

Thank You again for your support.

The last outpost of the British Empire

Sitting facing the Carriage Officer you are asked two Points, the Knowledge Boy is expected to know the location of each, if, and only if, they are answered correctly, the shortest route between the two Points has to be described in detail. The Blue Book, which is pink remember, has some useful guidance.

Example: Public Carriage Office to British Museum

Leave on right Penton Street, forward Claremont Square, forward Amwell Street, right Margery Street, forward Calthorpe Street, forward Guildford Street, left and right Russell Square, left Montague Street, right Great Russell Street, set down on right.

Sometimes the chair was positioned at the back of the room, or not even facing the examiner, this gave him the opportunity of speaking sotto voce, increasing the tension as the applicant strained to hear the questions. I was once reprimanded for moving the chair closer to his desk when finding it positioned in the opposite corner of the room and asked if I worked for Pickfords.

The long journey along the corridor of fear gave the examiners the opportunity of slowing down unexpectantly so one would clip his heels, or speeding up and letting the doors slam in the applicant’s face.

A favourite ploy to test the mettle of candidates was to adopt the old practice of good cop/bad cop – well, they were ex-police. Mr Lippit would be civility itself: “Is your father in the trade?”/”Have you come far?” before giving you some apparently easy questions. Mr Ormes, his nemesis, would say on a subsequent Appearance that your previous answers, with the implication that the questions were easy, were not up to his high standard.

Dean Warrington who runs the WizAnn Knowledge School remembers one examiner who decided the start and end Points of his questions by throwing darts into a map. Should the student feel this was unfair he would offer to let them throw the darts instead.

Robert Lordon recalls on his blog View from the Mirror being asked a question in the corridor before even entering his office. Another constructive piece of intimidation was invented by Mr Price who one student recalls the examiner putting his feet on the desk and proceeding to read a copy of the Sun.

A BBC documentary, Modern Times, focused on the climate of fear created by the examiners. And the most feared of all examiners was the aforementioned Mr Ormes who had a life-size toy parrot sitting on its perch in his office. It was the stuff of legend that if the parrot was facing you Mr Ormes was in a bad mood. In the television documentary, he was seen asking one nervous candidate with a criminal record how to get to the Penal Reform Society.

When a Knowledge Boy left his office he wouldn’t even remember his own name – a truly terrifying experience. “You can smell if people have what is needed”, Mr Ormes would say.

The difficulty of the questions was said to be directly linked to the length a pigtail, or size of the earring. Questions asked often referred to one’s ethnicity, the Points on Black Boy Lane in Tottenham were to be studied in detail, and for the vertically challenged, like myself, we were given Shorts Gardens, WC2 to Shorter Street, E1.

Mr Ormes, the greatest exponent of this test of patience, was a lugubrious fellow with a dry delivery, the ex-policeman gave the impression that he had seen it all before and heard the excuses. Get to pass his incisive questions and you were well on the way to start driving a cab. On one Appearance he asked me The Royal Society of Arts to the Adelphi Building. After a little nervous thought, I admitted that in my view they were both located on the not very long John Adam Street. Mr Ormes, without a hint of irony, replied: “That’s right. It’s raining, I’m pregnant, and I’ve got a wooden leg”.

When I left Mr Ormes that day I couldn’t recall which way the parrot was facing either. Now the parrot has retired it now resides at another cabbie seat of learning the Knowledge Point School.

You were rarely told how well you were doing unless they were going to be relegated, you also didn’t know how you were scored (many years later I learned the examiners used a marking system consisting of smiley faces). All you understood was that once the examiners felt you knew enough, they’d put you up a stage, and that is why you had spent hours riding around London in all weathers and spending an interminable time calling-over.

Many years later, now qualified, I had to ring the Carriage Office about something relating to my cab. After a couple of rings, a familiar lugubrious voice answered, I swear that I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising.

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