125 Years of the Black Cab

(Even if it was yellow at the time)

It’s 10.30 on a winter’s evening, stopping at a set of traffic lights, I can just recognise a familiar face approaching through the falling snow. It is Jeremy Clarkson making his way towards my cab’s warm interior. “Sorry Jeremy, I’m booked”, I have to inform him. Pulling away to pick up my fare which was actor Bill Nighy who took great delight at being given priority over the scion of right-wing opinion.

Once, the inside of a cab didn’t offer a warm refuge, far from it, Hansom carriages, pulled by a horse were open to the elements for the cabbie who sat unprotected from the wind and rain and gave scant protection for his passenger. Surprisingly horse-drawn cabs were still to be found in London after the Second World War, in fact, the last Hackney carriage licence was surrendered on 3rd April 1947.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago in August 1897, Walter Bersey introduced to London’s roads twenty-five of his eponymous electric cabs. Affectionately known by cockney cabbies as ‘The ‘Umming Bird’ because of the sound they made, they had 40 batteries strapped under the body, and weighing ¾ ton could travel for 40 miles at a maximum speed of 9mph! The Bersey was almost certainly the first mechanically propelled cab in the world, and curiously like its famous predecessor, today’s latest cabs are now also propelled by electricity.

My first cab, now some 26 years ago, also had very little protection from the elements, it was the ‘classic’ that could have been featured in a post-war Hollywood film with Cary Grant waving it down on a rain-swept London street.

The designers of this Austin FX4 taxi had incorporated some rather novel features. Naturally, it wasn’t blessed with power steering, but to compensate, it had a steering wheel so large it wouldn’t have looked out of place on an ocean liner. The vehicle also had the rather startling habit of swerving wildly just as you approached a narrow road restriction. The rise in summer temperatures, due to global warming, has necessitated the need for air conditioning, which was, of course, absent in the post-war engineering of the FX4. However, another novel feature was included: heating that was continually activated. A clever piece of British technology ensured that hot water from the engine could by-pass a valve meant to arrest the flow, and couldn’t be turned off. Not only were the windscreen wipers ineffective, but careful positioning of the dashboard vent also ensured the driver’s portion of the glass wasn’t troubled by any de-misting air. All these features might have been engineering at its zenith when it was designed, but the problem was the vehicles were still in production nearly half-a-century later. Which made them considerably more enduring than Walter Bersey’s prodigy, his electric vehicles stayed in service for only six years before being overtaken, literally, by the first internal combustion petrol-driven cab, the Prunel.

Another concession for the FX4 to 20th-century motoring was a radio. I suppose passengers were forever complaining to the Public Carriage Office about cabbies talking too much. Today 24-hour Talk Sport radio broadcasting has relieved many passengers from listening to their driver’s opinion of the shortcomings of England’s manager being now replaced by hearing some bloke’s opinion on the same topic blaring out of the radio instead.

The London cab trade is far older than the ‘Umming Bird’, or even some of today’s elderly cabbies. In 1634 the first recognised cab rank was established at the Maypole in the Strand, where St. Mary-le-Strand church is today, by Captain Bailey, a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions. Twenty years later Oliver Cromwell, ever anxious to control every aspect of English lives, brought in an Act of Parliament, which set up The Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages licensing 200 cabbies. That original Act some 368 years ago makes the London cab the oldest regulated public transport system in the world.

It might not come as a surprise to a lot of people that regulation of London’s cabs and its drivers would later be the responsibility of the Sewers Office. Maintaining the city’s pipes and gullies, as well as the paving of the streets, was originally funded from the licence fees of public vehicles, carts, drays and cabs. Today London’s cabs are licensed by the catchily named ‘Transport for London (London Taxis and Private Hire)’, or TFLTPH, formerly known as the Public Carriage Office.

Taken from my contribution to This England Annual 2022.
Featured image: An 1897 Bersey Electrical Cab Rear at the British Motor Museum, Gaydon © Vauxford (CC BY-SA 4.0).

2 thoughts on “125 Years of the Black Cab”

    1. They were probably the reasons they didn’t endure, and the last horse drawn cab licence wasn’t surrendered until 1947.

      Liked by 1 person

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