Tag Archives: London cabbies

Women in the workplace

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.

Anorak Alert

Today I came across Transport for London’s licensing information. The website promises to keep me informed about ‘How licences fees are invested, weekly licence issues, vehicles inspections and licence checks’. With a heading like that, I could hardly resist checking it out, and for me if nobody else, it makes for interesting reading.

But first the data:

Public Hire
Public Hire
Transport for London: For the week ending 1 November 2020

Unfortunately I could not find any licensing figures before 2010.

Commendably, even during these testing times, this information is updated every week, informing me that 28 cabbies, for various reasons, surrendered their Bill (licence), while only 4 gained their driver’s licence. This means that seven times more cabbies are leaving than joining the ranks.

More significantly taxi vehicle licences (ie the number of cabs that could be driven around London plying for hire) decreased by 280 on the previous week, probably due to the 15-year rule, while there were only 9 new licences issued for cabs.

Conversely, private hire vehicle licences decreased by 819, but 199 decided their car could become a ‘cab’, far less of a reduction in the number of black cab vehicles.

Unfortunately, I could not find any statistics earlier than 2010, and I couldn’t be bothered to raise a Freedom of Information Request.

Looking at the decade’s figures you find that in 2010 there were 1,111 more vehicles than cabbies to drive them around London. By 2020 this has been reversed with more cabbies than there were vehicles by almost the same number at 1,138. Now, this could be drivers ‘doubling up’ to share a vehicle, this can be discounted as 10 years ago renting a cab at ‘half flat’ was a common practice. My unscientific conclusion is that the Mayor’s scrapping of older vehicles has left many retaining their Bill, but not working or wishing to rent or buy.

Another obvious comparison is with the rise of private hire drivers compared with a decline in cabbies. Twenty-fifteen saw an explosion in private hire licenses being issued from 78,690 to 101,434. That same period witnessed the first decline in cabbies, from a high of 25,232, just short of the all-time high the previous year, to 24,870.

This decline in the number of cabbies plying for hire in London coincided with Sadiq Khan becoming the Mayor of London four months later on 9th May 2016. From that, you cannot prove causation, but his appointment does coincide with what could prove to be the start of the Black Cabbie’s terminal decline.

Cuban Tony

Many when returning from a holiday like to have a glass of wine from the region of their vacation. Others might try the odd meal reminiscent of still being there. The more adventurous have a go at learning the language.

But nobody could have embraced the culture of a region as Tony Caccavone. Born during the war in working-class Somers Town, he moved at an early age to Clerkenwell, known at the time as ‘Little Italy’, a poor district of London populated by Italians, a place where I served my apprenticeship. Here he would have experienced the disparity between those with healthy bank balances and the many residents of this area with very little.

On his 1996 holiday, recommended by a Canadian passenger, to Cuba, he experienced a more egalitarian brand of communism and found it very appealing. So determined to educate the public (at the time the purchase of Cuban produce was banned by America), Tony decided to paint his cab with the Cuban flag, the first-ever cab with any national colours.

Determined to extol the island’s successes in health and education, and the country’s struggle to stay independent despite the United States blockage he contributed to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign participating in vigils, protests and events.

His cab would be seen all over London with Tony at the wheel wearing a Cuban straw canotier hat, telling his passenger about his love of the communist island. Not content with expressing his views, admittedly a trait of London’s cabbies, he shipped his cab to Canada to take part in a blockade-busting convoy taking aid across the border, through the United States and on to Cuba to raise awareness. He claimed the cab helped get the aid to Cuba intact, such is the power of the London vehicle.

The cab has now been taken off the road, one less interesting vehicle to spot while working, and has been donated to a motor museum in Havana.

London’s Number One Cabbie

James ‘Jimmy’ Michael Howe entered his profession in 1884, driving horse-drawn vehicles, better known as Hansom Cabs, around London. He had the distinction of being the regular driver for Leopold Rothschild, whose home in west London is now the Gunnersbury Park Museum.

He was been very successful, this could have resulted from his association with Lord Rothschild. Howe had been one of the first proprietors (someone who owned a vehicle and not just rented) to engage with petrol vehicles, in addition at one time he owned a fleet of 13 Hansom cabs and 33 horses.

In 1904, the Metropolitan Police licensed the first motor cab, a French-built Prunel, this vehicle was driven by 34-year-old James Howe. In 1933, now in failing health, in recognition of becoming London’s first motor cab driver, he was given badge number 1, presented to him by police commissioner Lord Trenchard at the end of his illustrious career.

Following his death on Christmas Day at his home in Hammersmith, aged 64 his obituary in the Daily Mirror erroneously stated that he was London’s first taxicab driver, but as his Prunel had no taximeter installed, this clearly was not the case. The taximeter, installed today in all of London’s legal cabs, had been successful in Berlin. It would be a recession, caused in part by the Boer War, and the advent of the petrol-driven vehicle, that it was felt, could give customers greater confidence in using a vehicle that had the fare metered.

Although electric cabs had been trialled a few years earlier, these proved impractical. Howe’s cab was the first to be powered by petrol, and the only one in London for several months. Soon the London Cab Driver’s Trade Union were embracing the new technology and running classes for horse cabmen and teaching them the basics of motor car driving from their premises in Gerrard Street. Two years later Jimmy had been joined by 18 others.

Today, all 24,000 licensed cab drivers carry a green badge with a unique number.

Apart from his success, Jimmy Howe seems to have led an eventful life. His wife left him in 1913, taking all the furniture, after falling for a man who had placed a ‘wife wanted’ advert in the local newspaper. Jimmy did not see his wife again until 1920 when Mrs Howe appeared in court on bigamy charges.

Three years later, Howe was sued for damages after his taxi cab plummeted into a hole on the Uxbridge Road.

Dozens of fellow cabbies drove to the funeral to pay their respects. “We called him ‘Up-Hendon’,” one of them told the press, “because if you asked him where he was off to, he’d answer ‘just going up Hendon-way'”.

Taken from London’s First Taxi Driver published by the Londonist with additional information from Abstracts of Black Cab Lore by Sean Farrell.

Aquatic cabbies of old

Unlike today’s cabbies, the London watermen were not averse to going ’South of The River’.

In fact, many were residents of the South Bank, Bermondsey or Wapping.

[I]N THEIR OPEN BLACK BOATS exposed to the elements, working on the turbulent river they were a hardy breed who ferried people across the Thames in all weathers.

As with Licensed London cabbies today they were regulated and required to wear a badge to denote their qualifications. Restricted in number and proud of their ancestry they formed a guild near Garlickhythe.

Starlings were a grave hazard

Working upstream of London Bridge it was a decent option for someone with little capital who had substantial physical strength. The rapids between the starlings of London Bridge were a particular hazard; one waterman freezing to death in 1771 after his boat became caught in ice forming under the bridge.

The papers reported:

A waterman . . . had his boat jammed in between the ice and could not get on shore, and no waterman dare venture to his assistance. He was almost speechless last night and it is thought he cannot survive long.

A week later, the papers reported:

The Body of Jacob Urwin the Waterman who was unfortunately drowned last week at London Bridge was driven up with the Tide on a shoal of Ice and brought ashore at Monsoon Dock.

Much like today watermen would queue – or rank in today’s parlance – at various river stairs, often fighting with unlicensed boatmen, and like today questioning the safety of the interlopers.

Broil’d red herring for lunch

Known for being rowdy and hurling abuse at passing craft they had curious culinary taste of ‘broil’d red herring’ and ‘bread and cheese and onions’. Presumably, their customers would spend as little time in their company.

This manner of travel, particularly in summer, was the least bad alternative. Portuguese merchant Don Manuel Gonzales was quoted:

The pleasantest way of moving from one end of the town to the other in summertime, is by water, in that spacious gentle stream, the Thames, in which you travel two miles for six-pence, if you have two watermen, and for three-pence if you have but one: and to any village up or down the river, you go with company for a trifle.

After a 7 year apprenticeship, the waterman obtained their ’freedom’ allowing him to work for his own account. But apart from the River’s hazards, a further peril awaited them.

P39524Because of their familiarity with life on water they were a target of the press gang to be taken to serve in the King’s Navy.

In 1716 the world’s earliest surviving competitive race was started which had the added bonus of immunity from the press-gang for the winner.

Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Every year the new journeymen would race the Doggetts Coat & Badge from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, it was to be the beginning of rowing races on the Thames.

A pub on the South Bank at Blackfriars Bridge – Doggetts – commemorates the race and the watermen.

Picture: When ferrying passengers across the river became obsolete as more bridges spanned the Thames Georgian watermen became lighterman, above is one taken in the 1950. Picture by Organized Rage.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 29th April 2014