All posts by Gibson Square

A Licensed Black London Cab Driver I share my London with you . . . The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Waterborne Cabbies

In the 16th Century the Company of Watermen were the equivalent to today’s cabbies. Created by an Act of Parliament in 1556 and given a grant of a Royal Patient in 1585, their trade like ours today was carefully licensed. They would ply for hire from designated locations along the Thames, with the cry of “Oars! Oars!” which later was forbidden as the cry could be confused by tourists with “Whores! Whores!”

[W]hen the watermen were not transporting people they would turn their hand to salvage and found a brisk trade in finding bodies, either suicides or those who’d accidentally drowned or been murdered. By a curious quirk of history, the origins of which are now lost, bodies were almost always landed on the south side of the river because the authorities would pay a shilling for a body landed in Southwark but only sixpence for one landed on the north bank. Clearly waterborne cabbies were not averse to “going south of the river” in those days.

A nice little earner would be from the City to as far up river as Hampton Court, and by 1700 over 10,000 watermen plied for hire.

The trade was not without its dangers; if you wanted to travel downstream below London Bridge you risked life and limb. A major feature of London Bridge was the effect it had on the Thames. The location of the bridge’s 19 timber pier supports (called starlings) was determined by riverbed conditions and this meant that they were varied in spacing across the river. Consequently, the arch spans varied in size too and boats navigating the arches encountered different currents and river conditions at each one. Some were more dangerous than others. Over the years, boatmen christened the arches with various names, such as Gut, Lock and Long Entry.

Navigating through these arches in a boat could be very dangerous because the closeness and number of starlings backed up the river water, creating rapids. In some places the drop in water height from one side of the bridge to the other was more than the height of a man. Many people lost their lives “shooting” the bridge and “Drowned at the bridge” became a common entry in the registers at nearby graveyards.

Most Londoners took Cardinal Wolsey example. On his frequent visits to Greenwich to see Henry VIII, he would have his barge stopped above the bridge and get out and travel to Billingsgate by mule, where he would rejoin his barge, providing it had successfully negotiated the rapids.

The illustration is a detail from an artistic reconstruction of Old London Bridge based on an engraving from approximately 1600 by John Norden available from Old London Reconstructed. As you can see the bridge was entirely built up; there were houses, businesses, even a chapel, perched on the bridge clear across the Thames. Additional information from Engineering Timelines and Scribalterror.Blogs.

Cabbie’s aide-memoiré

London’s licensed black taxis have been voted by a very large margin, the best cabbies in the world, according to a poll published recently. We are famed for our knowledge of the city and our ability to recall a large amount of information.

At this time of the year when cramming for exams is on the agenda, I give you CabbieBlog’s tricks of the trade when learning The Knowledge.

[A]cronyms: By taking the first letters we have created: WASP – the four streets that go from St. Leonard’s Terrace to South Kensington Junction; Walpole Street, Anderson Street, Sloane Avenue and Pelham Street; CAB – Chelsea, Albert and Battersea Bridges and COB- the three respective roads they lead into said bridges: Chelsea Bridge Road, Oakley Street and Beaufort Street.

It was fortuitous that when they renamed the old Globe Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue to the Gielguid it didn’t spoil the mnemonic: Little Apples Grow Quickly Please; five theatres on the north side of Shaftesbury Avenue: Lyric, Apollo, Gielguid, Queens, Palace, and if you prefer, with a greengrocer’s apostrophe ‘s at the end you get the Shaftsbury Theatre.

The Dirty Dozen the twelve streets from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road that get you across Soho.

Our brain would seem to be the opposite of a computer, we have trouble storing large amounts of data, but an inexhaustible capacity for storing images. Therefore when trying to remember the location of Frankie Howard’s blue plaque (27 Edwardes Square, Kensington, London W8 6HH, if you’re interested), just visualise Up Pompeii in that square.

The Human Lavatory

Gentle reader one day you will come, as I have now, to a time in your life when finding a toilet becomes not a distraction but a necessity.

London loos, until the 1950s, were famous the world over, but now according to the British Toilet Association (yes, there is a pro-toilet lobby group), a third of the lavatories run by city councils have closed in the last three years.

[W]hile London with a decline of 40 per cent since  1999 is the largest drop in the country. They claim there is now only one public toilet for every 10,000 people in England but only one for every 18,000 Londoners.

London’s magnificent Victorian public toilets were built after The Public Health Act of 1848, called for ‘Public Necessaries to be provided to improve sanitation’. The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 had toilets for visitors. These were installed by George Jennings, a plumber from Brighton. He felt strongly that there should be decent public facilities. To offset the cost, visitors were charged 1d for using the toilets, giving Mr Jennings a net profit of £1,790 in only 23 weeks and so the phase was coined (sorry for the pun), to spend a penny.

London’s first public on-street convenience was a gents at 95 Fleet Street; it was opened on 2 February 1852. Another, for ladies, was opened on 11 February at 51 Bedford Street. As well as being a public service these ‘Public Waiting Rooms’ had water closets in wooden surrounds. The charge was 2d entrance fee and extra for washing or clothes brushes. They advertised the facilities in The Times and distributed handbills. But unfortunately they had very few users and they were abandoned.

William Haywood started the first municipal underground public toilets in 1855. These were outside the Royal Exchange. The contractors were George Jennings; yes it’s that man again. These toilets charged 1d, a price which remained standard for nearly all public conveniences until decimal currency was introduced in 1971.

George Jennings became a notable campaigner for public toilets, which he called ‘Halting Stations’, hardly surprising after the tidy profit he made at the Great Exhibition. At first he found it hard to convince authorities to adopt them. It was thought a topic which should not be mentioned. Nearly all public conveniences were for men with few provided for women. The logic was that far more men were away from home than women, either for work or leisure.

These limited facilities were far better than in the Middle Ages where people simply used a bucket or pot and then threw the contents into the gutter or the Thames. With the projecting first floors of medieval  London the pot’s contents would be thrown out with gay abandon to the warning of ‘gardyloo’ (a corruption of the French phrase gardez l’eau hence the nickname for a toilet.

In the 12th century if you happened to be walking in London and needed to spend a penny, you could employ the services of, I kid you not, a human lavatory. These were men and women who wore voluminous black capes and carried a bucket. I think you might be ahead of me here, but I will go on. For a farthing you sat on the bucket while they stood above you and enveloped you with their cape, thus protecting your modesty.

In London an Act was passed which allowed cabbies to urinate over the rear nearside wheel of their vehicle, but only if a policeman shielded you from view with his cape. The law has not been revoked, but I have no intention of asking a female police officer if she would help me to relieve myself.

Now over 150 years after those pioneering Victorians built public “Halting Stations” your choice is now limited, do you:
(a)    go to McDonald’s
(b)    illegally use a suitable wall or hedge
(c)    brazen it out, and use a hotel’s facilities; or
(d)    go back to the tried and tested method of a bucket.

Just don’t expect to find a caped crusader.

Photo Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/timniblett/

Bunker Mentality

10 Kensington Palace Gardens
[A]fter convincing the gullible that house prices could only go upwards, and changing the look of upmarket estate agents by putting in plasma screens, bars serving fizzy water and getting spotty youths to drive around London in pseudo-rally cars, Jon Hunt sold his Foxtons estate agency at the peak of the housing market, to an equally gullible investor for £370 million.

Now he wants a small extension to his Kensington Palace Gardens house. A tennis court would be nice and somewhere to store his impressive collection of Ferraris. The problem is that, while he might have told potential buyers in his estate agency days that ‘there was potential to extend’, Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council beg to differ. So he was left with only one alternative, build down.

The multi-millionaire is to build a massive underground extension, effectively giving him five extra storeys. The expansion comprises a tennis court, housed in a two-storey sports hall that meets Lawn Tennis Association guidelines on size. Below it will be a car museum, with a special lift to move in his treasured machines. The structure some 80ft deep and stretches 180ft into the garden. The plans also include an extension under the house and also the front garden.

It all rather puts you in mind of a certain Mr. A. Hitler under the Reichstag in 1945.

Gordon’s a Post Turtle

Have you looked at Gordon Brown lately? He has the haunted look of a hunted animal, with his authority ebbing away and the Palace of Westminster’s standing with the voters at its lowest point for many years, he reminds me of finding a turtle balancing on a post. You wonder how he got up there, he didn’t get up there by himself; he doesn’t belong up there; and you wonder what dumb ass put him up there to begin with.

[A]fter 12 years of corruption at the Mother of Parliaments the chickens are coming home to roost. They have removed hereditary peers and replaced them with Labour’s yes men, only to find, surprise, they have been taking bribes; top civil servants are now just clerks; and they put a Speaker in the House just to comply with their bidding. Now their little empire is coming to an end.

If they were serious about stopping corruption in the expenses scandal that has engulfed Parliament this week, they would:

  • Reduce the number of MPs to 400, by getting the Boundary Commission to redraw the constituencies;
  • As 70 per cent of legislation is now done by Europe, devise a way to get them to work longer for their constituency, instead of having 13 weeks holiday this summer;
  • Increase their salaries to comparable rates of other professionals (say £100,000 a year);
  • Provide a quality Hall of Residence in London to give them secure accommodation when away from home. The American embassy in Grosvenor Square is to be vacated soon, a perfect location; and
  • Finally, provide them with an Oyster card to get about London during the week, and a first class return ticket from their home.

They won’t amend their ways, it’s been a nice little earner for them for years, and of course what else could they do, most of them have never had a job outside of politics.

Well, CabbieBlog just doesn’t trust them; I think I’ll ask for the fare up front if any politician hails me!