Back to Black for Cabs

It now has been 24 years since I started pushing a cab around London looking for fares and in that time I’ve probably driven most post-war taxis. Even before I had qualified going to a trade exhibition at Islington’s Business Design Centre got me a test drive in one of those boxy Metros. They always had trouble shifting those utilitarian boring beasts.

When I was first let loose on the streets of London my baptism of fire was an old – no very old – FX4. Registered in 1982 at a time when air conditioning was something an East Ender massaged into their hair, and without power steering, your arms would ache negotiating its two tonnes of steel around London with a penchant for swinging left unannounced when squeezing between tight gaps.

When the old girl gasped its last (well the drive to the meter broke) it was saying just let me die in peace, I’ve taken my last paying passenger.

A succession of Fairways followed some you couldn’t lock the doors, others that the only means of exiting the driver’s compartment was via the window and opening the door from the outside. One vehicle accumulated rainwater beneath the for-hire sign to ensure the driver had a shower whenever he had occasion to brake heavily.

I’ve owned a more modern TX1, its shape unfairly likened to a blancmange, as with most of its siblings it had the ability to track down top-secret transmissions. Perplexedly at certain ‘hot spots’ (outside the Langham Hotel is one of them), the central locking on the fob key would fail to work, occasioning a complicated procedure punching in PIN numbers to get the vehicle started again.

I should have headed this post ‘Tickled Pink’ but some enterprising cabbie has beaten me to that for recently I’ve been driving what must be the most photographed cab in London.

A neighbour, also a cabbie, declared that it matched my eyes, while I’ve received opprobrium from Aussies standing outside a local hostelry, “strewth mate!” I think was the refrain at the time.

My postman just had to knock to deliver a parcel which clearly fitted the letterbox, so he could voice his mirth at seeing ‘Pinky’ parked outside.

Ladies would choose my distinctive livery over my more conservative colleagues while many will strike up a conversation, rather a novelty for decades the fair sex have ignored my presence.

Henry Ford might have generated the quip ‘any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it’s black’ after he realized that drying paint took the longest of any step in the assembly line and had his factory switch to the fastest drying paint they could find, which, of course, was black. But I think old HF would be speachless at the sight of Pinky.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 9th August 2013

London Trivia: A big bang

On 27 October 1986 the London Stock Exchange rules changed. Dubbed the ‘Big Bang’, open-outcry, the system which had dominated the buying-and-selling of shares was ditched. Traders no longer had to bark their orders across trading pits or catch the attention of market makers with hand signals. Electronic trading was in, stocks could be bought and sold from upstairs, from the comfort of a leather-back chair with a coffee.

On 27 October 1997 the river dredger, MV Sand Kite, sailing in thick fog, collided with one of the Thames Barrier’s piers

Burlington Arcade was built to remove an alleyway beside Lord Burlington’s mansion from which dead cats were thrown into his back garden

The two golden pineapples over main entrance of St. Paul’s Cathedral – a very expensive insisted by Wren – are a symbol of hospitality

Great Ormond Street was the first hospital in England exclusively for children when it opened in 1851 42 per cent of deaths were children under 10

On 27 October 1968 over 6,000 marchers faced up to police in Grosvenor Square, they had broken away from an anti-Vietnam march facing up to police for 3 hours

London’s largest collection of Buddhas can be found in Soho’s Fo Guang Temple Margaret Street formerly All Saints’ Church

The top 50 tourist attractions in the world 6 are in London Trafalgar Square is 4th with 15 million visitors a year 44th is the London Eye

Wimbledon 1992 Mens Singles Final Goran Ivaniševic was warned for swearing in Croatian, the umpire realised as TV viewers rung in complaining

The custom of standing right on escalators started with a diagonal end to early ones and a sign saying “Step off: right foot first”

When St Pauls Cathedral neared completion its elderly architect Sir Christopher Wren was hauled to the roof by bucket and rope to inspect it

In the cloisters of Westminster Abbey is Britain’s the oldest door, in good nick, considering it was made in 1050 before the Norman Conquest

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.

London Trivia: Dirty Gertie

On 20 October 1927 in celebration of the Battle of the Marne, when the German army was stopped before capturing Paris in August 1914, Emile Guillaume’s 16ft statue of a naked woman holding a sword aloft – ‘La Déliverance’ – was unveiled at Henly’s Corner on the North Circular Road. A gift from press baron Lord Rothermere, the statue has had a number of local names including ‘Dirty Gertie’, and due to corrosion ‘Gangrene Gertie’.

On 20 October 1862 serial killer Catherine Wilson was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London, was thought to have poisoned six victims

The narrowest house in London lies next door to Tyburn Convent and was built to block a passage used by grave robbers, it is one metre wide

The 15th Century Crosby Hall once home to Thomas More was moved from Bishopsgate to current Chelsea riverside location in 1910

Lionel Logue who cured King George of his stammer had his practice at 146 Harley Street from 1926 to 1952 in the film Portman Place was used

The first bomb to be dropped on London by Zeppelins is commemorated by a plaque at 31 Nevill Road, N16

The Trafalgar Square lions were sculpted from life Landseer used dead lions supplied by London Zoo until neighbours complained of the smell

On Tower Hill is an entrance to the 1870 Tower Subway. You could ride under the river in a carriage pulled by cable

On 5 March 1870 the first ever International Football match was held at The Oval – England vs Scotland – the first of many England draws 1-1

London Bridge became so congested that in 1722 it became the first place in Britain where it was made compulsory to drive on the left

The weathervane on the Royal Exchange in the City is a grasshopper not a cock, the former being the crest of its founder Sir Thomas Gresham

The Queen’s jewellery collection is so extensive it has to be stored in a room the size of an ice rink, 40ft below Buckingham Palace

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.

London Trivia: The meridian line

On 13 October 1884 despite opposition from the French, Greenwich was finally adopted as the meridian of Longitude from which standard times throughout the world are calibrated. Because the Earth is not perfectly round, and because different locations on Earth have different terrain features affecting gravitational pull, traditional ways to measure longitude have proved inaccurate, it’s now 334 feet east off the original.

On 13 October 1905 Emmeline Pankhurst and Anne Kenney we’re arrested and charged with assault when protesting for women’s suffrage at a meeting in London

On 13 October 1660 Major-General Thomas Harrison, one of the commissioners to sign King Charles I’s death warrant was the first person to be found guilty of regicide, was hanged, drawn and quartered

On or around the site occupied by 61-63 Kings Cross Road was once Bagnigge House the home of Nell Gwynne, mistress of Charles II

Winsor Castle had a trapdoor cut in the floor of Queen Anne’s rooms to hoist by means of pulleys her obese frame into the state rooms below

Churchill called the Thames “the golden thread of our nation’s history”, MP John Burns described it as, “The St. Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”

At St Pancras Church the caryatids supporting the roof didn’t fit the space and had to have several inches removed from their midriffs

Fortnum and Mason was started by Queen Anne’s footman having sold part-used candles from St James’s Palace to fund the store with Hugh Mason

In 1926 Kitty and Leslie Godfree from 55 York Avenue, East Sheen became the only married couple to win the mixed doubles at Wimbledon

There are 412 escalators on the Underground, Waterloo has 25; the longest at 197ft is at the Angel; Chancery Lane the shortest at just 30ft

Horseferry Road commemorates a 16th century ferry which took men and animals across the Thames until 1750 when Lambeth Bridge was built

Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, the 23rd Lord Shrewsbury is the only earl to have a car named after him they were manufactured in Ladbroke Grove

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.

Aquatic cabbies of old

Unlike today’s cabbies, the London watermen were not averse to going ’South of The River’.

In fact, many were residents of the South Bank, Bermondsey or Wapping.

[I]N THEIR OPEN BLACK BOATS exposed to the elements, working on the turbulent river they were a hardy breed who ferried people across the Thames in all weathers.

As with Licensed London cabbies today they were regulated and required to wear a badge to denote their qualifications. Restricted in number and proud of their ancestry they formed a guild near Garlickhythe.

Starlings were a grave hazard

Working upstream of London Bridge it was a decent option for someone with little capital who had substantial physical strength. The rapids between the starlings of London Bridge were a particular hazard; one waterman freezing to death in 1771 after his boat became caught in ice forming under the bridge.

The papers reported:

A waterman . . . had his boat jammed in between the ice and could not get on shore, and no waterman dare venture to his assistance. He was almost speechless last night and it is thought he cannot survive long.

A week later, the papers reported:

The Body of Jacob Urwin the Waterman who was unfortunately drowned last week at London Bridge was driven up with the Tide on a shoal of Ice and brought ashore at Monsoon Dock.

Much like today watermen would queue – or rank in today’s parlance – at various river stairs, often fighting with unlicensed boatmen, and like today questioning the safety of the interlopers.

Broil’d red herring for lunch

Known for being rowdy and hurling abuse at passing craft they had curious culinary taste of ‘broil’d red herring’ and ‘bread and cheese and onions’. Presumably, their customers would spend as little time in their company.

This manner of travel, particularly in summer, was the least bad alternative. Portuguese merchant Don Manuel Gonzales was quoted:

The pleasantest way of moving from one end of the town to the other in summertime, is by water, in that spacious gentle stream, the Thames, in which you travel two miles for six-pence, if you have two watermen, and for three-pence if you have but one: and to any village up or down the river, you go with company for a trifle.

After a 7 year apprenticeship, the waterman obtained their ’freedom’ allowing him to work for his own account. But apart from the River’s hazards, a further peril awaited them.

P39524Because of their familiarity with life on water they were a target of the press gang to be taken to serve in the King’s Navy.

In 1716 the world’s earliest surviving competitive race was started which had the added bonus of immunity from the press-gang for the winner.

Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Every year the new journeymen would race the Doggetts Coat & Badge from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, it was to be the beginning of rowing races on the Thames.

A pub on the South Bank at Blackfriars Bridge – Doggetts – commemorates the race and the watermen.

Picture: When ferrying passengers across the river became obsolete as more bridges spanned the Thames Georgian watermen became lighterman, above is one taken in the 1950. Picture by Organized Rage.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 29th April 2014