Death in a Taxi

The hansom cab has been a mainstay of the London streets since the 17th century.[1] The black horse-drawn carriages were largely replaced by motorised vehicles by the end of the First World War. The designs of the motorcar taxis were based on the hansom cab that preceded it, which meant that the driver was seated in the open air, or under a canvas roof, and was physically separated from the passengers. This design ensured that the passenger(s) continued to enjoy privacy during their trip and did not have to share it in close proximity to a stranger. It also assuaged any class anxieties about wealthier passengers having to share a space with a driver from a lower socio-economic background.

Taxis occupy a unique position in the transport landscape: they are open to all users who can afford them but provide a private transport experience; they are also essentially urban and predominantly found in big cities. Both these features as well as the separation of passenger and driver all stress the anonymity of the taxi experience. There were no records of who used taxis beyond what a driver could remember of his customers.

It was presumably for these reasons that for some people, the London taxi was the chosen site for murder or suicide. Tabloids reported on several such cases in the first half of the 1920s. In November 1923 the Daily Mirror printed the headline ‘Dead Woman in Cab’.[2] The article described that at the end of the afternoon the previous day, a young man had come into a police station in Knightsbridge and said to the officer on duty ‘the woman is in the cab outside’. In the taxi, the police found the body of Ethel Howard, with a wound to the throat and a razor lying next to the body.

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2.

At first glance, this could be a case of either suicide or murder. The man who reported the death remained unnamed in the article but was described as a ‘portrait painter’. This immediately sought to evoke images of bohemia in the newspaper reader’s mind. The romance and mystery of the case were brought crashing down to earth in the follow-up article printed the next day, which reported on the magistrate’s inquest on the case.[3]

The ‘portrait painter’ was in fact the 24-year-old butcher’s assistant George William Iggulden. Iggulden and Ethel Howard had been engaged to be married on 16 November. Instead, Iggulden murdered his fiancée the night before the wedding. The Mirror called this ‘the irony of fate’, although the reader may conclude that this was not so much fate as George Iggulden using desperate measures to get out of his commitment. In the taxi, he found a confined space where Ethel would not be able to escape from, and where he was sure not to be interrupted. In this second newspaper article, Iggulden is reported not just to have said ‘the woman is in the cab outside’ but also ‘I did it with a razor’. He was duly remanded to stand trial for murder.

The party who is curiously absent in all this is the taxi driver. The only oblique reference to their presence is in the second article, which described that Iggulden ‘asked to be driven to the nearest police station’ rather than to Chelsea, halfway through the drive. The police are not reported to have spoken to the driver or gotten their statement, and there is no consideration as to what the impact of a murder being committed several feet away from them may have had.

A taxi driver did have a more active role in proceedings in a case in 1925. On 23 April of that year, the Daily Express reported on a ‘Mystery of A Taxicab’.[4] On 21 April, a Sunday, Major Frank Montague Noel Newton had engaged a cab to take him from his club to his hotel. Immediately it is clear to the reader that this passenger is a man of substance, who comfortably moves around the West End. Upon passing the Hotel Metropole (now known as the Corinthia Hotel) just off Trafalgar Square, the driver heard a noise ‘as though someone was knocking on the window with a stick’. The driver was evidentially located outside the cab, with a window separating him and his passenger.

Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9.

The driver didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when he turned to look through the window, so he drove on to Major Newton’s hotel. Once he arrived there, he engaged the help of the hotel porter to try and rouse Major Newton, who appeared to be asleep. Then the men realised that there was a revolver on the floor of the cab and that the noise the driver had heard was Major Newton shooting himself.

One must make allowances for the noise cars in the 1920s generated, but it still seems extraordinary that a driver would not identify a shot fired within such close proximity. However, the story repeated itself a year later:

On arriving at Charing Cross Station about midnight on Monday the driver of a taxicab found his fare shot dead. The man hailed the driver on Cromwell Road and nothing occurred during the journey to attract attention. When he did not alight at Charing Cross, the driver got down from his seat and found the man lying dead. A revolver was on the floor.[5]

Evidently, for these men, the mobile and anonymous nature of the taxi provided a suitable space for them to commit suicide. They knew they would not be disturbed for the duration of the trip, and that they would be found by a stranger. The man who was driving to Charing Cross was reported to be a Swede visiting London. Like Major Newton, he did not have a fixed address in the city; the locations of their deaths underscore this sense of fluidity and lack of permanency.

For the drivers, finding a dead body in their vehicle appears to have been something they were expected to handle in the course of their employment. They remain anonymous in the reports, their taxis indistinguishable from the rest of the fleet that swarmed London’s streets. It is this anonymity that made their taxis such appealing sites for illicit and illegal behaviour in interwar London.

[1] George N Georgano, A History of the London Taxicab (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 110
[2] ‘Dead Woman in Cab’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2
[3] ‘Dead Girl in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 17 November 1923, p. 2
[4] ‘Mystery of a Taxicab’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9
[5] ‘Shot Dead in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 3 November 1926, p. 2

This post was written by Mara Arts and originally appeared on http://www.interwarlondon.com. You can also find Mara on Twitter – @interwarlondon

London in Quotations: George Gissing

Down in Farringdon Street the carts, wagons, vans, cabs, omnibuses crossed and intermingled in a steaming splash-bath of mud; human beings, reduced to their due paltriness, seemed to toil in exasperation along the strips of pavement, bound on errands, which were a mockery, driven automaton-like by forces they neither understood nor could resist.

George Gissing (1857-1903), The Nether World

London Trivia: Piltdown Man

On 21 November 1953, the Natural History Museum announced that the Piltdown Man skull, initially thought to be one of the most important archaeological finds, was actually a hoax.

On 21 November 1989 the House of Commons proceedings were televised for the first time

In the 1940s and 1950s Metropolitan Police Officers using their own bicycles to cover police beats were paid an allowance of threepence

The New Exchange was a kind of early shopping mall which was built on the south side of the Strand in 1608 and stood there until 1737

All but one of the ravens at the Tower of London died from stress during the Blitz, fortuitously as legend has it that should they leave the Tower England will fall

London was once the capital of six countries in World War II it was safe haven for the governments of Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, France

Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of band Pulp, wrote a song called 59 Lyndhurst Grove after being thrown out of a party at that address in Peckham

The first London Eye was erected in Earls Court in 1894 for an Empire of India exhibition, 300ft high, as opposed to 442 for the London Eye

The foppish son and heir apparent of King George II died in Leicester House as a result of being struck in the throat with a cricket ball

Cockfosters Underground station was originally going to be called Trent Park or ‘Cock Fosters’ (an early spelling of the area’s name), the original site hoarding displayed the name as a single word

In 1981 Soho had 184 sex establishments today only Brewer Street the upstairs windows of Old Compton Street and alleys near Berwick Street belie its past

At 135ft Candover Street off Riding House Street is London’s shortest street, Rotherhithe Street the longest named street at 1.5 miles

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 Thames’ silent H

The writers and printers of the 1500s didn’t have access to etymology dictionaries, so they sometimes mixed up Latin and Greek words. That’s what happened with the Latin name Thames.

Of course, it’s spelled ‘T-h-a-m-e-s,’ even though it’s pronounced with a simple ‘t’ sound. The word has Celtic roots, and it has been around since Old English. It had always been pronounced with a simple ‘t’ sound at the front, but in late Middle English, it started to pick up the modern TH spelling, presumably because it resembled some of the Greeks words that were coming into English at the time like the Greek word teme which became theme after the spelling was changed. So the Thames got a TH as well, but the pronunciation didn’t change to reflect the new spelling. The name was probably too common and too familiar to English speakers for the pronunciation to be altered by a spelling change.

Taken from The History of English Podcast by Kevin W. Stroud.

Johnson’s London Dictionary: Portcullis House

PORTCULLIS HOUSE (n.) Edifice doth pleased its arkitects whereas being London’s most expensive and least attractive much like its inhabitants

Dr. Johnson’s London Dictionary for publick consumption in the twenty-first century avail yourself on Twitter @JohnsonsLondon

Taxi Talk Without Tipping

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