London books review: Abstracts of Black Cab Lore

It is hard to categorise Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver by Sean Farrell.

Is it a detailed history of the London cabbie; a guide to the rules and regulations that any cabbie has to adhere; or a comprehensive dissertation on the legal aspects of driving in London for the black cabbie? The author, after all, has been awarded a BA in history with honours, which certainly shows with the book’s meticulous research.

[T]O ANSWER THE PURPOSE of the book Sean Farrell poses the question, taken from an episode of BBC TV’s Sherlock, A Study in Pink: “Who is it that hunts in a pack but is unseen by all?” It is, of course, the London cabbie.

A Cabbie’s Bill of Health

What could have been a series of dry court judgments has been broken down into everything that a modern London cabbie is expected to know and adhere to, with each section devoted to just one of those rules.

The author has trawled through court records, many from the Victorian era, trade papers, and the Census to produce this comprehensive work, in so doing many gems we take for granted have been unearthed. Who would guess that a cab driver’s licence, referred to as his ‘bill’, is actually short for ‘bill of health’? This is ironic considering that most Victorian cabbies worked until they died, or ended in the workhouse if they couldn’t continue working, despite the efforts of the Cabmen’s Benevolent Association. The health of the horses certainly also wasn’t a consideration, proprietors who rented out the vehicles and animals would use the most distressed horse for night work as there was less chance of being detected by the nascent Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (‘RSPCA’).

The drivers working out in the open, whatever the weather, resorted to finding shelter in the local hostelry, with predictable results. Numerous court appearances are catalogued between these covers, but curiously the driver who could have laid claim for inventing the familiar ‘For Hire’ sign, found himself in court for using a rudimentary board to indicate whether he was available, was also charged with drinking on duty, thus becoming the first cabbie charged with being drunk.

Child exploitation

Unearthed here are child exploitation on a substantial scale, Census records of 1881 cataloguing London’s 12,000 London, four were recorded to be aged 16 and at least 150 under 21 years of age. A cabbies 12-year-old son crashed his father’s cab injuring four including an 18-month baby and incurring a substantial fine and one month’s hard labour for the father.

In the past cabbies could be prosecuted for driving too slowly whilst looking for work, causing, as described on numerous occasions in magistrate’s courts, traffic jams. One wonders what Victorians would say about today’s gridlock.

This 200,000-word resource telling the lives of past cabbies, and giving information as to rules that still appertain today, is essential reading for today’s drivers, and costing less than two coffees for the Kindle version, worth the price for any student of social history.

My only reservation is that I would have liked a more comprehensive index, but for a self-published work without the editorial resources of a large publisher, this is a piece of astoundingly researched work.

Sean Farrell concludes with asking for more information and promising a further book, including tales of today’s drivers, so as they say “Mind how you go”, you could be featured in the next edition.

Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver by Sean Farrell is available through Amazon

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