Close your eyes. Have you got them closed? Now, imagine you’re standing at the side of the road hailing a cab.
The cab pulls up, it’s black obviously. But what of the driver? In BBC TV’s Sherlock: A Study in Pink, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes poses the question: “Who do we trust, even if we don’t know him?”
Do you have an image of the cabbie in your mind? In all probability the driver is white, a man over fifty wearing a flat cap and a scarf around his neck.
You get in and commence your journey, the conversation soon turns to football. Yes, he follows a London team, possibly Arsenal, lives in Essex, and is not the biggest fan of the London Mayor.
You can open your eyes now because you are right. The person imagined by Sherlock Holmes and yourself is your atypical cabbie, for women make up fewer than 2.5 per cent of London cab driving fraternity.
Surprisingly in today’s world, according to Transport for London, in 2019 there was only 519 women amongst 23,301 drivers with licences to cover All London and Suburban areas, even though today’s applications to attain The Knowledge are not reliant on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Women have always played a part in the London cab trade. At one time a widow could inherit her husband’s Hackney Carriage (but not drive it, just hire it out). A list from 1664 reveals that 19 widows had inherited licences.
Much later during the Great War, with many drivers away on the Western Front, who had had the understanding that their licence was protected at the cessation of hostilities, women’s role was questioned. Although the ability to ply for hire rested upon successful completion of The Knowledge, Sir Henry Norman MP asked the Home Secretary, if a refusal to license women was based on “statutory disqualification of a woman or in a decision of the Home Office”. The Home Secretary passed the buck stating “the Commissioner of Police informs me that he cannot in the present circumstances recommend the grant of a licence to a woman”. Sean Farrell writing in Abstracts of Black Cab Lore opines: “With thousands of men dying daily, the women filling the manpower gap up and down the country, it’s hard to imagine just what extra circumstances the Commissioner of Police envisaged.
Eventually, the authorities were forced to license women to drive buses, trams and taxis, although a union official stated driving a taxi was “not a moral occupation for a woman to follow”.
By 1917 four women held taxi licences, although they could hardly be described as your average Londoner. Susan Dudley Ryder (Badge 1366) was the cousin to The Earl of Harrowby and sister of champion women’s golfer Mrs Gavin.
After the Great War, a Select Committee looked into transport problems within London. Much of the evidence submitted for excluding women from driving cabs was the practice by prostitutes of using the passenger compartment to conduct their business, something the upper-class witnesses to the committee seemed to be very knowledgeable. Not so the cabbie, as at the time the driver had no rear-view mirror.
In 1922 the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers balloted its members in strike action should a woman appear on the road working as a cab driver.
Even after World War II, despite their valiant work in keeping Britain’s factories and farms in production, they were unlikely to attain a licence, let alone a vehicle to drive.
Remarkably the first woman to have completed the modern Knowledge of London to become an All London Green Badge driver was not until 1977 when Marie White (badge 25292) passed. She would regularly be seen on the St. Pancras rank with her little dog in the luggage compartment.
Featured image: Stella Wood who has been a black cab driver for 20 years.
Much of the research into this post has been gleaned from Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver by Sean Farrell and From Manor House Station to Gibson Square and back again: Secrets from the London Taxi Trade by Chris Ackrill.