Tag Archives: London cabbies

Victorian Public Transport

A Government White Paper of 1895 entitled The Cab and Omnibus Trades stated:

“The cabman’s trade is one to which all sorts of men find their way. Many an educated man, who can do nothing else to earn a living, can drive – and if put to it, will seek his daily bread in this way.”

For this Guest Post writer and historian Michelle Higgs gives some background to the Victorian cabbie and his customers.

The Hansom Cab
[I]f I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today’s motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers’ drays through to the Broughams, Clarences and Hansom cabs. The sound of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure . . .

To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers’ compartment with the horse’s reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.

Hansom Cab ‘A Hansom Cab’ from Living London (1901)

Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.

A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:

The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers’ hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard.

The best cab-stands for the drivers were outside the railway stations and the West End theatres, but life was tough for them. They worked twelve hour shifts and had to pay for the hire of their vehicles and horses out of the fares they earned.

In a Cab Yard ‘In a Cab Yard’ from Living London (1901)

When John Hollingshead interviewed a cabman for Odd Journeys in and Out of London (1859), he was told that a Hansom cab driver had to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, in addition to ‘yard money’ which was the charges for the stables. This was before earning any money for himself. A four-wheeler could be let for slightly less at twelve shillings a day but the driver had to pay all expenses. At the time, cabmen driving licensed carriages had to pay five pound for the license plate and a shilling a day extra for the duty.

Beatrix Potter commented in her journal in 1885, that if:

Cabmen were really paid at the rate of sixpence a mile, they must go forty-two miles before they begin to make any profit. They pay sixteen shillings per day to a cab-owner for a cab and two horses, and have incidental expenses as well.

Victorian Cabmen's Shelter ‘In a Cabmen’s Shelter’ from Living London (1901)

Cab-men could enjoy a cheap midday meal at one of the cab-men’s shelters. Between two and five in the afternoon, hundreds of cabbies drove to the big yards where they changed horses and had their cabs ‘spotted’ to remove splashes of mud. It was usually around 9.30 pm before the first hansom to finish its twelve hour day arrived back at the yard.

Although they were speedy, London cabs were rather uncomfortable. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger wrote that the:

many crevices . . . let in wind and dust; the seats feel as if they were stuffed with broken stones; the check-string is always broken; the door won’t shut; or if shut, it won’t open . . . to discover the faults of a London cab is easy.

It sounds as though a ride in a Hansom cab was bearable for a tourist, but not necessarily for everyday use!

Victorians Front Cover

Michelle Higgs is a freelance writer and author specialising in history and heritage. She is the author of seven social history books, including her latest, A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England published by Pen & Sword. She is the author of Visit Victorian England and her own website gives details of her writing.

1000 Londoners

1000 Londoners claims to be the most
in­depth and expansive documentary series ever produced about the city and the people who live here.

Produced by South London based, film production company and social enterprise, Chocolate Films and part funded by City Bridge Trust, it launched at Bafta’s 195 Piccadilly venue on 23rd April 2014,
its first films are now available.

[E]ach week viewers will be able to watch a 3-­minute film about a new Londoner. The range of stories will be as diverse as the city itself.

Documentaries that can currently be viewed include Londoners such as Griff, a former soldier who now sells replica guns; Marawa, the United Kingdom’s best hula­hooper; and Frank, a 14-year-old boy who is overcoming ADHD with sleight ­of ­hand magic.

The filmmakers will be both producing the films and providing opportunities to young people and community groups to make their own short documentaries, which will contribute to the 1,000 films.

1000 Londoners Brixton based film production company, Chocolate Films, specialises in documentary film production and learning programmes. Set up 11 years ago, by directors Mark Currie and Rachel Wang, it has a team on 10 filmmakers providing full production services to charities, museums, galleries and heritage organisations, as well as cinema documentaries.

Engaging with over 2,500 young people a year their learning and outreach programmes use digital media in innovative ways, inspiring young people to voice their opinions and reach their full potential.

Telling human stories and endeavouring to make films that can actively assist people to change the world for the better, either through direct campaigning or awareness­ raising.

One recent film is Paul, the London cabbie who has had in his cab: Roger Moore, Michael Caine (’not a lot of people know that’), and Mrs. Right.

Typically of 1000 Londoners Paul talks of his City:

“I love London through that little bit of haze. When you’re bringing tourists in from the airport, you see their whole world light up . . . but that’s it, you never lose your memories of London”.

All of Chocolate Films workshops are structured appropriately to create a supportive working environment to enable the young people to reach their full potential.

Directed by Reece Lipman for Chocolate Films, Paul’s story is told from the back seat of a traditional London cab as it drives through the streets of central London telling stories about the people who’ve been in the back of Paul’s cab.

Aquatic cabbies

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

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

In 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.

[A]s 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.

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 drive 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.

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 worst alternative. Portuguese merchant Don Manuel Gonzales was quoted:

The pleasantest way of moving from one end of the town to the other in summer time, 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.

Shut it! Gabby cabbies told

London’s cab drivers like to chat, this is probably due to being cooped up all day behind the wheel, and are only too happy to pass on their reserved wisdom on England’s manager, immigration or some obscure fact about Jack the Ripper. All this flies in the face of what the punter prefers, German and Koreans are most easily annoyed by small talk and are unimpressed by London cabbies’ knowledge of the capital and wish to travel in silence.

[R]ealising this flaw in the drivers Transport for London are currently looking to give additional training on etiquette; welcoming passengers, dealing with stressful situations and knowing when the passenger doesn’t need to discuss last night’s game.

Most Londoners are a pretty diffident lot preferring to apologise than complaint particularly to a driver who might take to you to Queensway instead of Queens Gate.

According to an ICM Survey 70 per cent of Londoners apologise if someone bumps into them and 74 per cent believe Britain is still a reserved nation, remarkably only 9 per cent of passengers in a taxi would feel confident asking the driver to keep stum.

Private hire operator Green Tomato Cars – crazy name, but at least they don’t call themselves minicabs – commissioned a survey which revealed that one third of Londoners have taken a journey where they didn’t want the driver to talk, 40 per cent said they felt obliged to join in the conversation; and only 10 per cent would summon up the courage to ask for silence.

Green Tomato Cars have now introduced, on a trial basis, a talk/mute button to state their preference when travelling in their vehicles. Presumably if you feel the need to chat and require a verbose driver, Green Tomato Cars will direct you to a black cab so you may enjoy their level of loquaciousness.