Tag Archives: London cabbies

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

Victorian cab life

In Victorian days, the cab driver’s vehicle of choice was a Hansom Cab, a horse-drawn carriage which was open to the elements for the cabbie. He was expected to ‘sit on the box’ in rain, snow, cold and wind waiting for a fare, consequently the only place of sustenance being the comfort of a public house.

[D]RINKING AND DRIVING and driving a hackney carriage was seen as part of the job. Cabbies used a tap room to keep warm and dry, the value of a pub was said to be greatly enhanced by its proximity to a cab stand.

Skinks all round

A passenger would often insist on being stopped off along the way to partake in a drink, and sometimes, the passenger would suggest he was joined by the cabbie known by cab drivers as ‘skinks’.

Ladies would sometimes remain in the cab sending the driver to the beerhouse to get himself a drink, by way of a tip.

To use a hostelry meant paying someone to watch the cab and the horse, due to it being illegal to leave them unattended. For this, most cabbies would have a lad who was employed for this purpose, as well as for the carrying of cases and general menial jobs.

Registered at the Sewers Office

From about 1800 drivers had to be registered, of all places, the Sewers Office; the Hackney Carriages Act 1838 licensed cabmen for the first time. The first offender, whose badge number 1763 was recorded, appearing in court within weeks, charged with displaying a board with ‘Not Hired`, possibly the first example of an early version of the familiar ‘For Hire’ sign. He was also charged with drunkenness.

Before the 1838 Act, an owner could rent out his cab to anyone. The Act stipulated that a licensed driver had to be: ‘well acquainted with the streets, in and around London’ and at least 16-years-old.

Cabbies could only pick up at ranks, unfortunately, there were six vehicles for every place on the stands. Cabbies would travel slowly hoping to get on a rank and were accused of causing traffic jams. To give an idea of the number of vehicles, in 1865 2,934 were deemed unfit for purpose.

There are a huge number of cases of cabbies having accidents as a result of drinking. For example, in 1854 Mark Horlock was fined 30/- or 15 days imprisonment for attempting to drive his cab down the Duke of York Steps into The Mall. He was picked up beneath his overturned vehicle.

If you want to read the definitive work about London’s cabbies Sean Farrell’s Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver cannot be matched, available on Amazon.

The Cab Driver Who Saved the World!

Travel too fast down the southern reaches of Fulham Road and you can miss it.

At number 757 is the European headquarters of the Aetherius Society – their only other office is in California. In the window of 757 Fulham Road is a display proclaiming all the benefits, through yoga and transcendental meditation, of becoming a member of the said Aetherius Society.

[T]O THE SIDE OF THE DISPLAY is a picture of the society’s founder – His Eminence Dr Sir George King or to give him his official title George King. Oh, and I almost forgot – he drove a taxi for a living!

Plain old George King was born in Wellington, Shropshire, in January 1919 and it seems that this tiny market town has neglected to mention one of its more famous sons from the tourism website. King Charles I declared war on Parliament from here, thus sparking the Civil Wars – and Philip Larkin once worked in the library. No mention of His Eminence Dr Sir George King, but give them time. Give them time.

King’s parents were devout Christian but they both had strong interests in the occult. King himself say’s that even as a small child he had a deep interest in spirituality.

When the Second World War broke out, King, who would have been 19, declared himself a Quaker and as such, would not go to war as he was a Conscientious Objector. Not willing to fight, King was employed as a fireman with the National Fire Service. It’s quite possible that during his tenure as a fireman he met numerous taxi drivers who had been conscripted into the fledgeling fire brigade. Over two thousand taxis and their drivers had been drafted into the NFS by the London County Council. It was widely believed and borne out by the evidence, that a London taxi driver, in a taxi converted into a fire and rescue appliance, would use his skill not only to drive round blacked-out London but circumnavigate around streets blocked by collapsed buildings.

London Taxis at War by Alf Townsend

There is little doubt that after the war, King was driving a taxi. ODRTS/Dial-a-Cab historian, Alan Fisher, believes George King was one of the original members who signed up at the initial meeting of the ODRTS, at the Albany Tavern at the top of Great Portland Street on 7th June 1953. To become a member of the Owner-Driver Radio Taxi Service, one had to be an owner-driver – a musher. King evidently was and so fulfilled the eligibility criteria – probably for the last time in his life given the numerous titles and decorations he would later receive! He would not be a member for very long – it seems he would be pre-occupied elsewhere.

For a number of years previous to the founding of the ODRTS, King would submerge himself fully into his yoga and meditations, often practising for ‘8 to 10 hours every day . . . at the same time as living in London holding down a full-time job.’ For some obscure reason, the website of the Aetherius Society fails to mention that he was a cab driver at the time. Perhaps having ladies of the night paying for a quick ‘bob-a-job’ with a punter or taking drunks home is not felt to be keeping up with the legend that is His Eminence Dr Sir George King!

One ‘sunny morning’ in May 1954, whilst King was all alone in his Maida Vale flat, he was washing up at the time. he heard a voice. According to him the voice was real, not in his head, and it gave him an instruction that was to be so profound, at least according to him, that the message became known ever after as The Command:

“Prepare yourself! You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament.”

Shortly after, according to the Aetherius Society website, the newly (unelected) member of the Interplanetary Parliament had a visitor – whose name was never revealed:

“A few days later, he was visited by a world-renowned yoga Master whom he knew to be alive and active in India at that time. This Master appeared to him in physical form but was able to enter and leave by passing right through a locked door that he did not open” – in other words, by using some advanced yogic technique which would seem like magic to the uninitiated. During the meeting, Dr King was given detailed instructions in certain spiritual practices.

This is probably why some people insist on double-locking their doors in Maida Vale! Anyway, the Master enlightened ‘Dr’ King as to the source of the voice – it was from the Aetherians who lived on Venus (they lived on other planets as well, but Venus is closer!)

Remember, this is the mid-1950’s, Hollywood is churning out dozens of science-fiction movies that has everyone (well almost everyone) looking to the skies. Flying saucers were seen everywhere, at least in America but they always remained tantalisingly aloof. Have you ever wondered why, if the creatures on a flying saucer did not want to make contact, and land in Parliament or Times Square – why did they always have lights on? ‘Dr’ King rather magnanimously confessed to not knowing anything about flying saucers – which is probably a wise thing given that they don’t exist.

Venus itself was rather a good choice to be the local abode of your intelligent extraterrestrial as all the talk was of Martians. Large telescopes could see details on Mars quite clearly, no large cities lit up at night, and definitely no canals. Venus was a different prospect. Shrouded in a thick cloud, it was always described as Earth’s sister planet due to its size. The thick cloud prevented us from seeing anything on the surface, though British scientist, James Clerk Maxwell said he saw a range of mountains. Apparently, he’s the only person to have seen the mountains but when US and Russian spacecraft mapped the planet using radar, there they were – exactly where Maxwell said they would be. The Maxwell Mountains remain the only physical feature on the planet named after a man, every other feature is nominally female. Perhaps James Clerk Maxwell should have been nominated voice of the Interplanetary Parliament instead.

I said earlier that Venus was a good choice to have as ET’s home – that was until we had a better understanding of the planet. In 1967 the Russian spacecraft Venera 4 entered the Venusian atmosphere. It found conditions were much harsher than earlier, flyby craft had predicted. The surface temperature was around 500 degrees centigrade (making it the hottest planet in the solar system), its atmosphere was so dense that Venera 4 and subsequent landers were soon crushed by the incredible pressure, and when it rained, it rained sulphuric acid.

Unperturbed, ‘Dr’ King had an answer to those who asked how anything could possibly survive in such conditions. According to a quote from the Aetherius Society website;

If, for example, an Earth spacecraft were to take an astronaut to Venus tomorrow, that astronaut may well find no indication of the existence of Venusian culture. However, if a genuine Master of yoga, like Dr King, were to project from the physical body to a higher plane of Venus, he would find a highly advanced spiritual civilization, existing at a frequency of vibration higher than that with which we are familiar on Earth.

Ah, that explains everything. Shame on you for doubting, it’s all to do with those vibrations you’ve been experiencing.

A year after he heard ‘The Command’ and the visitation of the Master, ‘Dr’ King founded the Aetherius Society as ‘an international spiritual organization dedicated to spreading, and acting upon, the teachings of advanced extra-terrestrial intelligences.’

In June 1959, ‘Dr’ King packed his bags and emigrated to California (no surprise). It is believed he took conventional transport to cross the Atlantic though this has never been substantiated. Was he committed enough to hand in his badge and bill at Lambeth Road? That we don’t know. Though as it only cost a shilling (5p) a year at the time, he may well have held onto it for a little time – just in case.

He never did return to cabbing but actually managed to eke out a living as head of the Aetherius Society, we are not talking L Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists here, but he did have something of a large following. His Eminence Dr Sir George King died at Santa Barbara, California in 1997 at the age of 78. He was the only member of the Aetherius Society ever to have claimed to have been in direct contact with the Aetherians. Today, with no contact with those rapidly vibrating Venusians, the Aetherius Society, they number about 1000, can only carry on eulogising on ‘Dr’ King and his teachings.

What about ‘Saving the world’ I hear you ask? Well, you doubting Thomases, he did it more than once. On 5th February 1962, the Daily Mirror reported that:

Bessie Tapsell and her husband Eric came down from a prayer meeting on a mountain and said: “We have helped to stop the end of the world coming.”

The Tapsells were among eight members of the Aetherius Society, which believes in communication with other planets, who preyed 2000ft up a mountain in the Lake District in rain and snow.

They said they were trying to stop a weekend of disasters forecast by astrologers because of a rare ‘line up’ in Space of five planets.

The Aetherius members says eleven mountains in Britain are charged with ‘cosmic energy’ which aided by prayer can prevent war, famine flood and fire.

So parties of members set out for the mountains yesterday.

Mrs Tapsell, 54, a handicrafts expert from Burton in Lonsdale, Yorkshire said: “We are still afraid of nuclear wars, of the Earth tilting because of atomic energy, and of the ice caps melting. But we have done our best, and we think the world will survive.”

Well, thanks to Betsie and Eric, and no doubt George, the world did survive – only to run into trouble again . . . several times.

In July 1976, ‘Dr’ King announced that the world was about to end on 23rd October of that year. According to the Daily Express of the 19th July:

The unruffled prophet of gloom is a Shropshire-born former London taxi-driver who lives in Los Angeles.

Thanks to messages from a ‘cosmic master’, Dr King has hit upon the means to stave off catastrophe and save the world.

Next Saturday he will lead members of his AS to the top of Holdstone Down in Devon, overlooking the North Devon coast.

A spokesman for the sect in London said yesterday: ‘Dr King has designed a physical battery into which several hundred hours of prayer energy can be placed.

This energy can be released when it is desperately needed, such as in an emergency.’

The battery held here will be absolutely filled with high-frequency spiritual energy before the emergency starts in October.

Well thankfully his ‘physical battery’ did enough and the world continued regardless. The Nobel Prize Committee never thought to reward ‘Dr’ King but as far as I am aware, he remains the only London taxi driver to have saved the world not once, not twice but numerous times, and he gets my vote any day.

For further information (and membership details) go to https://www.aetherius.org/
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CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. Sean Farrell has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog. Sean collects information about the history of the London cabbie and its ancient trade. Should you have or require information, Sean can be contacted via the Contact Page