Dickens and Christmas cabbies

The following text is what purports to be an interview with a London cabby in 1860. It was published in All the Year Round, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. The article has the ring of authenticity and is probably based on fact even if it comes across as a bit literary. It is unusual for the time in presenting a cab driver as speaking in his own words.

Some cabbies may find that some things haven’t changed much in over 150 years. It is the sort of conversation you could hear in green cabbie huts all over London.

25th February 1860, pp. 414-416.

From my earliest youth, I was taught to regard cabmen as birds of prey. I was led to consider that their hands were against every man, and every man’s hand ought to be against them in self-defence. I was forbidden to attribute their husky voices to anything but unlimited indulgence in common spirituous liquors. The red noses that I saw peeping from under broad-brimmed hats, and over bee-hive-looking caped greatcoats, were never said in my hearing to arise from exposure to the weather. When I was sent on a solitary journey – perhaps to school – in a four-wheeled hackney coach or cab, I always heard a stern voice bargaining with the driver before I was placed inside; and I looked upon him, through the small window in front, during the short intervals when I was not being jerked from corner to corner of the far too spacious vehicle, as a dangerous ogre who might leap down and devour me at any moment.

When I grew up to attain the gay, thoughtless position of a young man about town, I lost my fear of the wild cab-driver and found no amusement so agreeable as that of playing upon his weaknesses. My favourite plan at night was to affect the appearance of the most idiotic intoxication, and, when I had drawn half a dozen eager charioteers around me, to select one, in such a manner that he might suppose he had got a helpless productive fare. On arriving at my destination, of course, I left the vehicle with the steadiest of steps and the soberest of aspects, to present him with his exact charge, as regulated by Act of Parliament.

In due time I became a married man; and discarded forever these youthful freaks of fancy. My early teaching with regard to the utter badness of all cabmen had not disappeared, and I still treated them with moderate severity. I never pampered them with bonuses over their legal fares, and I learned every distance as if I had been an Ordnance Surveyor. I still looked upon them as untamed, devouring creatures, who hung upon the skirts of society, and I prepared to impress this view upon my children, as my guardians had impressed it upon me. Before however, I had an opportunity of doing this, my sentiments underwent a marked change.

My wife, accompanied by a servant, and our first-born, an infant, aged three months, had started, one November afternoon, to visit a relative at the other side of London. The day was misty, but when the evening came, the whole town was filled with a dense fog, as thick as soup. I gave them up at an early hour, never supposing that they would attempt to break through the black smoky barrier and accomplish a journey of nearly nine miles. In this, I was mistaken, for towards eleven o’clock the door-bell rang, and they presented themselves muffled up like stage-coachmen. The account I received was, that a four-wheeled cab had been found, that they had been three hours and a half upon the road, that the cabman had walked nearly the whole way with a lamp at the head of his horse, and that he was now outside awaiting payment.

I felt a power struggle going on within me. The legislature had fixed the price of cab-work at two shillings an hour, or sixpence a mile, but it had said nothing about snowstorms, fluctuations in the price of provender, or November fogs. There was no contract between my wife and the cabman, and she had not engaged him by the hour, so that, protected by the Act of Parliament, I might have sent out four-and-sixpence for the nine miles’ ride by the servant, and have closed the door securely against the driver. Actuated, perhaps, as much by curiosity, as a sense of justice, I did not do this, but ordered the man in, and gave him the dangerous permission to name his own price. He was a middle-aged driver, with a sharp nose, and when he entered the room, he placed his hat upon the floor and seemed a little bewildered by the novelty of his situation.

“If I am too, I am,” he said,” but I’d my rather leave it to you, sir.”

“This is a journey,” I replied, “hardly within the meaning of the act, and whatever you charge, I will cheerfully pay.”

“Well,” he said, with much deliberation, “I don’t think five shillin’s ought to hurt you?”

“I don’t think it ought,” I returned, astonished at this moderate demand,* (*This is a fact within the experience of the writer.) “nor yet seven-and-sixpence or eight shillings. You can’t be a regular cabman?”

My visitor pulled his badge from under his great-coat at this remark, not quite understanding the drift of it.

“I mean,” I said, explaining the remark, “that you’ve not driven a cab long.”

“Only thirty years, that’s all.”

“You must know something about the business then?”

“Had ought to, by this time,” he replied.

“Take a glass of something warm,” I said, “and tell me all about it.”

My visitor was very willing to accept my invitation, and I soon saw him seated comfortably before me.

“Cabmen,” he began, “are neither worse than anybody else, nor yet better. There’s good and bad amongst ’em, like in a basket of eggs; and there must be nearly eleven thousand of them according to the badges issued. The first thing cabmen have got to do is to find a cab, and here they’ve got a pick of about ten thousand. P’raps three thousand of these cabs are ‘Hansoms’ and all the rest four-wheelers; but as some of the men work at night, and others in the day, all the cabs are not on the road, and only six thousand perhaps, are paying duty as licensed carriages. Some of these have got what we call the six-day plate – and they only run for six days. Others have got the seven-day plate, and they’re Sunday cabs. The plate costs a sovereign, which we call the ‘one pound racket,’ aud the duty is a shilling a day extra. We used to pay five pounds for the plate, and two-pound duty, in one lump. All this money goes to gover’ment. Well, as I said before, the first thing cabmen have got to do is to find a cab, and they haven’t got to look amongst many proprietors. All the cabs are in very few hands — I needn’t mention names – and the owners do pretty well what they like with the drivers. Of course, a man needn’t drive a cab unless he likes, but lots of them do like, and something must be done to get a living. The young fellows take a great fancy to the ‘Hansoms,’ because they look smart, and run easy. Their high wheels push ’em on, while the low four-wheeler always drags. As to their earnings, that depends. A Hansom is very good in fine weather; and during April, May, and June, before the people begin to go out of town they do very well at road work. They’re of no use for families and heavy railway work, and the regular Hansom cabman hardly understands ladies and children. They make money at what we call ‘mouching’ and ‘putting on,’ which means loitering along the roads and playing about a clubhouse, or some large building. Some of the police are very sharp upon this game, and the driver gets summoned before he knows where he is. The driver of a Hansom has to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, besides paying his ‘yard-money'” (stable charges), “about four shillings, before he begins to pick up anything for himself.

“A four-wheeler is let to a driver for about twelve shillings a day, and he has to pay all expenses. The best work these get is at theatres and railways, and they go on for the day at nine in the morning to run till eleven at night, being allowed two horses. Their best day is one with a fine morning and a wet afternoon. The people come out and are caught. If the day begins wet, it’s bad for the cabs. The night cabs go on at seven or eight at night, working till seven or eight in the morning, and they’re allowed only one horse – or what the owner makes do for one. Of course, it’s often only a bellows on four legs, and those not very substantial. The owner seldom makes any allowance for the difference in horses – you take ’em as they come and he knows pretty well how much work can be got out of them.

“When we go to the yard to begin work in the morning, we deposit our licenses as security for the cabs and horses. Some of the men who’re very anxious to start as drivers, or who want work, are compelled to sign contracts, and when they do this, they bind themselves to pay all damages that may be done to their horses or cabs. They either pay these by instalments or thirty or forty men in a yard will make a fund amongst themselves for accidents, which they call ‘box-money.’

“We drive out, and choose our stand from fancy, providing it’s not full. A stand mustn’t have more than twenty cabs on it at one time and it’s watched over by a police Waterman, who gets fifteen shillings a week and his clothes. If a cabman takes a place on a stand after it’s full we say he’s ‘fouled’ it, and he’s liable to be summoned. The worst court they can take him to is Bow-street. If a month’s imprisonment can be given, he gets it there, or he has to pay a heavier fine.”

“He can always avoid this,” I said, observing that my visitor had come to a pause, “if he conducts himself properly.”

“So he can,” returned my visitor, “but the public often appears at the same place. If a cabman sometimes overcharges a passenger, a passenger quite as often underpays a cabman. We’ve started protection clubs amongst us, with measuring wheels, and we sometimes make the secretaries measure and sue for the balance of fares. We find ladies, the worst passengers. They’re timid and obstinate, and run into houses and send out servants. When the passenger is summoned he is said to have made a mistake, but the cabman is always pulled up for fraud. He earns his pound or five-and-twenty shillings every week, and is quite as likely to be as respectable and honest as any other workman who gets the same money. He’s all right enough if people wouldn’t regulate him so much. There’s the street police regulating him, the police watermen regulating him; and the gover’ment regulating him by saying what price he’s to charge for his work. This sets everybody a thinking he must he awful bad, and a benevolent society of gentlemen has just started up, who want to regulate him still more by giving him what they call ‘Cabmen’s Clubs.’ There’s one club at Paddington, one at Millbank, another at Newington Butts, and another at King’s Cross. They talk of others at Chelsea and Whitechapel. The one I’ve been to most is at King’s Cross, and I don’t like it, because it’s too far away from my stand. They’ve taken an old public-house in a back street, and they’ve scooped it out until hardly anything else is left but the pillars that hold up the roof. A lot of forms are placed along the bare floor, making the place look like a school; and the library seems to me to have very few what I call amusing books. I didn’t like to see handbills lying about, at the top of which was printed ‘The Cabman’s Dying Cry;’ and the whole place seemed to be cold and uncomfortable. The rules may be very good, and the people that started these ‘clubs’ may be very good, but it strikes me they don’t quite understand cabmen. We’ve got a deal to put up with and try our tempers. The owners pull at us on one side, and the public’s always shaking the Act of Parli’ment at us on the other. Sometimes we’re dragged off the very front of the stand -þ a place that’s worth money and all for what? Sixpence! Someone wants to go round the muddy corner in thin boots, and so off we come, according to regulations. If we try to do the best we can for ourselves, and lookout for a long fare with two extra passengers, people shout after us as if we’d picked somebody’s pocket.”

“If you accept a cab,” I interrupted, “you accept it with all its rules and conditions.”

“So we do,” returned my visitor; “and pretty close we keep to ’em. Take us all together, the bad and the good, we don’t often kick over the traces. Because we’ve got to loiter about for hours near our stand, in all weathers, we’re none the worse for smoking a pipe, drinking a pint of beer and sometimes slinking in to warm our hands at a tap-room fire. The gentlemen who start these ‘cabmen’s clubs’ think we are, but while they try to improve us, they never interfere with the tradesmen in the public-house parlour. The ‘clubs’ provide us with tea, coffee, chops, and steaks at the usual charges, but beer is not openly allowed on the premises. This may be all very well for men who’re not at work, but, unless there was one ‘club’ close upon every stand, it can’t be used by the cabmen on duty. Besides – a man wants a beer, and it’s wronging him, in my opinion, to say he don’t. We go to the public-house, or coffee-house, if one happens to be near, for cabmen are quite as fond of coffee as decent mechanics. We use a good many comfortable coffee-shops that are like clubs, in different parts of London, and one especially, near Regent-street, filled with all kinds of books and papers. The books and papers at the ‘cabmen’s clubs’ are not admitted until they’ve passed the committee, because the whole thing is supported by charity. Tills is I another reason why I don’t like it, although they tell me that seven hundred men have become I members at the different stations. The ‘penny bank’ and the ‘sick fund’ may be all very well, because the member pays for all he gets, but the ‘free tea’ provided every Sunday afternoon always sticks in my throat. While I’m able to do my work and pay my way, I don’t want anything given to me. I ain’t a child. If the seven hundred members are not able to do this, they’d better say so, and either throw up driving or get the sixpence a mile altered to eightpence.”

At the close of this speech, as the hour was getting late, my visitor took his departure, having succeeded in making me take a more charitable view of the business and trials of cab-driving.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th December 2012

The 12 drunk passengers of Christmas

Christmas is a time for coming together. Whether it’s for a family meal, a night out with friends, or a work party, you can guarantee most revellers will be enjoying an alcoholic beverage or two over the festive season. In fact, the average Brit has their first drink at 9:05 am on Christmas Day! As well as individuals, businesses take part too in this Festival of Alcohol. It is estimated that UK companies spent an astounding £1 billion on Christmas parties last year.

With so many people under the influence, who’s driving them all home? Well, those sober people at icarinsurance celebrate the unsung heroes of Christmas – the designated drivers who have to deal with the friends, family and colleagues who’ve had one too many drinks, and the cabbies who just want you out of their vehicle.

What better way to honour them than to share some of the situations they bravely battle, with the 12 types of drunk passengers that designated drivers may be faced with this year?

The one who doesn’t want the party to stop
The one who puts the world to rights

The one who wants you to know how much you mean to them
The one with a bone to pick
The one who zonks out and leaves you lonely
The one who treats your cab like a takeaway
The one with an urgent pit stop request
The one who shows you what they had for dinner
The one who always knows the best route home
The one proudly wearing their themed onesie
The one you just want to get home in one piece
The one who reveals things you just didn’t want to know

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 16th December 2016

London Trivia: Carpenter opens theatre

On 15 December 1720 John Potter, a carpenter advertised that: ‘At the New Theatre in the Haymarket, between Suffolk Street and James Street, which is now completely finished, will be acted French Comedies, as soon as the actors arrive from Paris . . .’ Musket. It was the third public theatre opened in the West End. The theatre cost £1,000 to build, with a further £500 expended on decorations, scenery and costumes.

On 15 December 1906 the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, later known as the Piccadilly Line opened

Abingdon Street is named after Mary Abingdon who wrote the letter which led to uncovering the gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament in 1605

Bartholomew The Great nicknamed the ‘weeping church’ when cold/wet the stones become porous, an inscription reads unsluice your briny floods

George II was the last English king to be born abroad, the last to lead his troops into battle but died ingloriously sitting on the loo

When George IV first clapped eyes on Caroline of Brunswick, the woman he was expected to marry, he called his man to pour him a large brandy

In 1848 the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood was founded at 7 Gower Street WC2 in 1848

Opening in 1956 at Old Compton Street Soho’s 2i’s Coffee Bar was Europe’s first rock’n’roll venue it featured Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele

In 1875 the first tennis match took place at Worple Road, two years later it was renamed the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club

The world’s longest continuous railway tunnel is the Northern Line: Morden to East Finchley totalling 17.3 miles, 24 stations and 3 junctions

Maxwell Knight head of MI5 from 1931 to 1961 and the original ‘M’ lived in a London flat with a brown bear called Bessie

According to the London Wildlife Trust there are 125 types of fish to be found in the Tidal Thames (the estuary mouth to Teddington Lock)

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.

The London Grill: Boris Johnson

In view of Thursday’s seismic results, I am republishing Boris Johnson’s London Grill written for CabbieBlog when he was challenging for the London Mayoral election. It is now a little dated, but I hope still worthy of rereading.

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.


Boris Johnson was born in 1964. He was a trainee reporter for The Times, subsequently working at The Daily Telegraph, where he became an assistant editor. He was editor of The Spectator for six years up to 2005. He has also published a number of works of fiction and non-fiction, most recently The Life of London. In 2001 Boris Johnson was elected MP for Henley-on-Thames. He was been Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and held shadow government posts for the arts and higher education. He resigned as an MP shortly after becoming Mayor of London in May 2008. During his first term, he banned alcohol on public transport and oversaw the 2012 London Olympic Games, in 2012, he was re-elected as Mayor. On 12th September 2014, Johnson was adopted as the Conservative Party candidate for MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the 2015 general election.

What’s your secret London tip?

I would urge Londoners and tourists alike to seek out and enjoy a full English breakfast at one of the amazing family run so-called ‘greasy spoon’ cafes that have existed in this city for generations.

What’s your secret London place?

A trove of attractions is one of our less well-known gems. Across the river from City Hall, is the most wonderfully preserved stretch of Roman wall. Dating back to around 200 AD, it is a fantastic opportunity to marvel at the ingenuity of our Roman forebears, who built Londinium and helped shape the city we see today.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

It is a modern tragedy that so many of our young people are struggling to get a foothold in the jobs market and are drifting into crime. We need more youth opportunities and improved literacy levels in our schools so that they are equipped to compete in the global market, which will help them to succeed in life and aspire to a better future.

What’s your favourite building?


What’s your most hated building?

Standing derelict for more than 20 years, the Granary Building threatened to be a blight on an area in central London that is amidst an amazing transformation. It has now undergone a spectacular reincarnation from a barren building to a university for the arts. It has become a fantastic focus on the regeneration of the King Cross area, matching my own vision for the city.

What’s the best view in London?

The view from my office window. The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the City, Canary Wharf and the giant treble clef that is the Orbit visitor attraction in the Olympic Park. There’s no better view in the world.

What’s your personal London landmark?

The most iconic new landmark of modern times is the Shard of Glass. This huge engineering feat, rising confidently up to the heavens, is a symbol of how London is powering its way out of the global recession.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?

Johnson’s Life of London, it contains a number of historical characters whom I greatly admire.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

London is a fabulous destination for gourmands, with more than 50 Michelin-starred chefs working at some of the best restaurants in the world. It is quite literally a cornucopia, with delicious food from across the globe to tantalise all taste buds.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

A bracing walk in the winter cold or an early morning jog in Highbury Fields is a perfect way to start your day. Followed by a visit to the British Museum, it’s a wonderful Mecca offering an unparalleled collection of historic artefacts and gems.

A modern Debrett’s for Cabbies

Bertie Wooster awoke with a start from his afternoon nap. The copy of Horse and Hound which previously had been covering his eyes gravitated down his nose to land painfully in his lap. “Yes, Jeeves, what is it?”

Jeeves removed the pain inflicting magazine from his employer’s lap and replaced it with a cutting from that morning’s copy of The Times “I’m sorry to break into your afternoon labours, but one feels that Sir’s attention should be drawn to a recent publication which might provide some assistance to Square”.

“Who the duce is this Square fellow when he’s at home?” Bertie exclaimed.

“Square, you might recall is your chauffeur of some 20 years standing”, replied Jeeves and left His Master to read the following article:

Debrett’s that manual of all things appertaining to manners have tacked the subject of drivers and have come to the conclusion that white van man and cabbies when put behind a steering wheel are, how can I put it politely, downright rude.

It is hard to believe now, but once upon a time going for a drive was seen as something of a treat and in those days motorists would wave to each other and politely nod as other cars gently overtook them.

With road rage on the increase Debrett’s, the authority on etiquette, has published a new 48-page guide to courteous in-car behaviour, entitled Thoroughly Modern Motoring Manners it aims to re-acquaint drivers with the “right and proper way to behave behind the wheel”.

Among the advice for men is to not make clichéd jokes about female drivers (I’ll remember that when a lady is in the back) and respect all women behind the wheel, while both sexes are also advised to avoid too much perfume or cologne.

Debrett’s etiquette adviser Jo Bryant said: “We felt driving is an area where people forget their manners and display aggressive behaviour they wouldn’t show in their everyday lives.”

Among its pearls of wisdom are:

The chivalrous male driver will open the door for a female passenger and close it behind her. ‘He should offer to take her coat, check her seat is adjusted and be sure the temperature’s to her liking.’

Women should not apply make-up or preen themselves in the mirror, but should keep a pair of flats for driving instead of high heels. There’s also a step-by-step guide on how women should exit a vehicle and retain their dignity in a ‘ladylike’ fashion.

Clearly laying down ground rules all too often ignored by today’s celebrities, it advises: ‘Smooth down your skirt. Keeping your knees together, swivel your body and swing your legs outwards. Place one foot down, keeping your knees together. Dip your head and shoulders forward and slide and glide out of the car.’

Debrett’s insist that a true gentleman is never a backseat driver. The guide states: ‘She’s in the driving seat. A chivalrous passenger is as well-behaved and polite in the car as he is when he’s out and about.’

Transporting dogs is another area where etiquette is crucial and Debrett’s lays down strict guidelines for ensuring one’s pets do not impinge on other passengers. The book suggests dogs should be carried on blankets, in the foot wells or in the boot of an estate car. But if a dog is kept on the back seat the book warns: ‘Forcing a non-animal lover into close proximity with a drooling dog is the height of bad manners.’

One piece of advice appertaining to cabbies has to be: In order to be ‘the perfect host’; drivers are encouraged to choose only music that meets their passengers’ approval and are advised to ‘keep conversation light and refreshing’.

The book also makes it clear that courteous drivers will refrain from singing along to their favourite tunes unless they are a ‘karaoke pro.’

And the book warns: ‘“Blowing your horn is just rude. Remember the white van man whose inner gentleman has lost his way.’

The new guide offers advice on a range of topics as diverse as ‘chivalry’; ‘fragrance fundamentals’; ‘forecourt manners’; ‘passenger etiquette’; and finally teaching drivers the ‘right and proper way to behave behind the wheel’.

It encourages a return to the days when chivalry among male drivers was commonplace and provides advice on how to avoid a litany of embarrassing faux pas.

Priced at £5.99 I’ll have to keep a copy in my glove compartment.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 7th May 2010