Tag Archives: London cabs

Back to Black for Cabs

It now has been 24 years since I started pushing a cab around London looking for fares and in that time I’ve probably driven most post-war taxis. Even before I had qualified going to a trade exhibition at Islington’s Business Design Centre got me a test drive in one of those boxy Metros. They always had trouble shifting those utilitarian boring beasts.

When I was first let loose on the streets of London my baptism of fire was an old – no very old – FX4. Registered in 1982 at a time when air conditioning was something an East Ender massaged into their hair, and without power steering, your arms would ache negotiating its two tonnes of steel around London with a penchant for swinging left unannounced when squeezing between tight gaps.

When the old girl gasped its last (well the drive to the meter broke) it was saying just let me die in peace, I’ve taken my last paying passenger.

A succession of Fairways followed some you couldn’t lock the doors, others that the only means of exiting the driver’s compartment was via the window and opening the door from the outside. One vehicle accumulated rainwater beneath the for-hire sign to ensure the driver had a shower whenever he had occasion to brake heavily.

I’ve owned a more modern TX1, its shape unfairly likened to a blancmange, as with most of its siblings it had the ability to track down top-secret transmissions. Perplexedly at certain ‘hot spots’ (outside the Langham Hotel is one of them), the central locking on the fob key would fail to work, occasioning a complicated procedure punching in PIN numbers to get the vehicle started again.

I should have headed this post ‘Tickled Pink’ but some enterprising cabbie has beaten me to that for recently I’ve been driving what must be the most photographed cab in London.

A neighbour, also a cabbie, declared that it matched my eyes, while I’ve received opprobrium from Aussies standing outside a local hostelry, “strewth mate!” I think was the refrain at the time.

My postman just had to knock to deliver a parcel which clearly fitted the letterbox, so he could voice his mirth at seeing ‘Pinky’ parked outside.

Ladies would choose my distinctive livery over my more conservative colleagues while many will strike up a conversation, rather a novelty for decades the fair sex have ignored my presence.

Henry Ford might have generated the quip ‘any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it’s black’ after he realized that drying paint took the longest of any step in the assembly line and had his factory switch to the fastest drying paint they could find, which, of course, was black. But I think old HF would be speachless at the sight of Pinky.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 9th August 2013

The Cabman’s Nemesis

Today we have a guest post from Heather Tweed which first appeared on the Public Domain Review site, under the title Mrs Giacometti Prodgers, the Cabman’s Nemesis.

Here Heather Tweed explores the story of Mrs Giacometti Prodgers a woman whose obsessive penchant for the lawsuit struck fear into the magistrates and cabmen of Victorian London alike.

[I]MAGINE, IF YOU WILL, strolling towards a Hackney cabstand in late 19th century London. Suddenly the cry ‘Mother Prodgers!’ echoes around the streets. The cab drivers scarper, leaving the stand empty but for a seemingly innocuous, overdressed woman: Mrs Caroline Giacometti Prodgers, nemesis of cabmen, zealous litigant and infamous music hall conversation topic.

Over the course of two decades she was to lead a one woman campaign against the notorioulsy truculent cabmen of London. She took to court the publisher of a major newspaper and even her own cook. Her stubbornness was caricatured in print and sung about in music halls. One desperate cab driver went so far as to burn her effigy on bonfire night.

Her first taste of life in the courts came in 1871, when she began proceedings to divorce her husband of ten years, an Austrian naval captain called Giovanni Battista Giacometti. The case set a precedent for divorces in which the wife was wealthier than the husband (the Prodgers family found itself with a considerable fortune through her mother, a wealthy heiress whom her father, the Reverand Prodgers, had married after rescuing her from drowning). The details of Giacometti v Prodgers would regularly make the papers, including such oddities as Mrs Prodgers questioning the legitimacy of her own children, presumably in an attempt to try and disinherit Giovanni from her family fortune. Following the actual divorce there were other legal wranglings. It was reported that her husband Giovanni had given up his whole career at Mrs Prodgers’’ request and that, after the divorce, he had taken her to court over non payment of a yearly settlement. The Prodgers family, taking his side, agreed on an additional several hundred pounds per year. Mrs Prodgers found herself again in court after failing to pay a shorthand writer she had, debatably, hired during the divorce proceedings.

It was soon after the divorce and its various spin off cases that Mrs Prodgers began her infamous crusade against London cab drivers. Her modus operandi was to catch a cab to a specific destination to which she knew the exact distance (she had familiarised herself with the cost charts), then ask the cabman to stop just at the point where the fare would change. Invariably the cabman would attempt to charge her for the next part of the fare, which she would dispute. One or other party would then threaten a lawsuit and she would continue to goad the often irate cabman into verbal abuse and swearing whereupon she’d immediately threaten another writ.

Cab fares from Waterloo Station

Chart of cab fares by distance from Waterloo Station: (Source)

She was remarkably successful and ended up bringing over 50 cases to court – many of which descended into farce. Reports on the various cases are packed with amusing incidents. There is extended banter over the use of her full name (which she always insisted upon). One judge suggests that it might be cheaper for her to purchase a carriage than keep returning to court.

In addition to cab related litigations she was involved in a string of court cases regarding other matters. She sued her dismissed cook for refusing to leave her house (and continuing ‘to sing about the place’). She sued a newspaper publisher for accidentally tearing her dress during an altercation after she refused to pay the full penny for a paper (which she thought she might be mentioned in). She sued a watchmaker for returning the wrong watch to her house. Her obsessive and sometimes bizarre activity in the courts did not go unnoticed.

In 1875 she had the dubious honour of having an effigy of her burnt on bonfire night, a ‘gigantic figure’ paraded around on a cab. The police intervened and arrested the cab driver – rather bizarrely on the charge of ‘begging’ (the accounts don’t report if Mrs Prodgers had any influence over the arrest). The judge dismissed the case saying that the cabbie was ‘acting as a showman for the amusement of the public’ and that it was merely meant as a joke.

Mrs Giacometti Prodgers appeared several times in Punch magazine. A satirical piece in 1890, the year of her death, coincided with controversial plans to fit each Hackney cab with a mechanical device to measure distances and calculate the cost of each journey:

A Autumn-attic happaratus
For measuring off our blooming fares!
Oh, hang it all! They slang and slate us;
They say we crawls, and cheats, and swears.
And we surwives the sneering slaters,
Wot tries our games to circumvent,
But treating us like Try-yer-weighters,
Or chockerlate, or stamps, or scent!
Upon my soul the stingy dodgers
Did ought to be shut up. They’re wuss
Who earned the ‘onest Cabman’s cuss.
It’s sickening! Ah, I tell yer wot, Sir,
Next they’ll stick hup―oh, you may smile―
This:―”Drop a shilling in the slot. Sir,
And the Cab goes for just two mile!”
Beastly! I ain’t no blessed babby,
Thus to be measured off like tape.
Yah! Make a autumn-attic Cabby,
With clock-work whip and a tin cape.
May as well, while you’re on the job, Sir.
And then―may rust upset yer works!
The poor man of his beer they’d rob, Sir,
Who’d rob poor Cabby of his perks!

Such was her notoriety that the reverse of her name, Sregdorpittemmocaig, was used for a character in The Sunless City, a novel by J.E. Preston and Punch punnily suggested that she had penned her own book after the Hansom cab: ‘Hansom Is As Hansom Does’. She also made it onto the pantomime circuit when comedian Herbert Campbell performed a verse about her:

‘All great men have their statues and it’s but their due,
But I wonder why the ladies don’t have them too;
If they did, to the Academy I’d like to send,
A bust of Mrs Prodgers the Cabman’s friend.
Of all the strong-minded females she’s the worst I ever saw,
Oh, wouldn’t she be lovely as a mother-in-law?
At the corner of every cab-rank her flag should be unfurled
As a horrible example to this wicked world.’

The press painted a picture of a formidable if eccentric woman who should be avoided at all costs if one did not wish to encounter her wrath. One might speculate that a certain amount of misogyny and sexism fuelled by the women’s suffrage movement may have played its part in the press coverage and urban mythology. Had she been a man might she have been hailed as a champion of consumer rights, rather than dismissed as a caricature?

Cabbie cartoon

Illustration of a funeral cab passing outside the Old Bailey, from Omnibuses and Cabs: their origin and history (1902), by Henry Charles Moore: (Source)

One person who seemed to take her seriously was the explorer and Victorian polymath Sir Richard Burton, who entertained her in his house, and reportedly supported her campaign. According to Burton’s biographer Thomas Wright two of Burton’s cousins had a running family joke about the relationship between Mrs Giacometti Prodgers and Sir Richard:

At the (Athenæum) club he was never at home to anybody except a certain Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers… according to rumour, there was a flavour of romance about her marriage. It was said that while the laws of certain countries regarded her as married, those of other countries insisted that she was still single. However, married or not, she concentrated all her spleen on cab-drivers,…and having a profound respect for Burton’s judgment, she often went to him about these cab disputes, and, oddly enough, though nobody else could get at him, he was always at the service of Mrs. Prodgers, and good-naturedly gave her the benefit of his wisdom. To the London magistrates the good lady was a perpetual terror, and Frederick Burton, a diligent newspaper reader, took a pleasure in following her experiences. “St. George,” he would call across the breakfast table, “Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers again: She’s had another cab-man up”.

Sadly first hand anecdotal evidence does nothing to alleviate the true awfulness of her character. She appears to have been as rude to fellow members of the public as she was to porters and cab drivers. Upon being offered a cup of tea by another passenger on a ship she was travelling on, she allegedly replied “I have only had afternoon tea once in my life, and that was with the Duke of Sutherland”. Her arrival in various ports around the world was often reported upon in the local press – followed by a sigh of relief when she departed. Unfortunately one has the impression the same might be said about her departure from life in 1890. Her obituary as reported in foreign papers was blunt and concise:

Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers, the terror of London cabmen, is dead. Her habit was to drive the fullest possible distance for the money, pay the exact legal fare, and then cause the arrest of the cabman for expressing his feelings.

Heather Tweed is a multimedia artist and educator based in the UK. She has exhibited pieces widely throughout the UK as well as in New York, Tokyo and the Library Of Congress in Washington. She has worked with organizations including The British Council Cairo, Bristol City Council and Arts & Business. The ever expanding installation ‘Anubis Other World Tour’ has been visiting art galleries, caves and other interesting venues scaring, delighting and perplexing in equal measure since 1997. Her website: www.heathertweed.co.uk

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th January 2013

A car crash of an idea

Bridget Driscoll isn’t a name on everyone lips these days, her death at Crystal Palace in 1896, she would achieve pre-eminence as the first pedestrian in England to be killed by a motor car, a taxi-cab driver at the inquest claimed that the vehicle was incapable of travelling in excess of 4½ miles-an-hour and the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. The coroner optimistically opining that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again”.

[E]LAINE HERZBERG has joined the pantheon of pedestrian fatalities, this time as the first in the world to be killed by a ‘driverless car’.

Anyone who has driven n London will have been confronted by a confused Uber driver travelling against the traffic flow or just veering whilst trying to establish the correct direction their journey should take.

The Holy Grail of the transport ‘digital disruptors’ is to remove the human from the equation when providing private hire vehicles, hardly surprising then that billions are being spent on ‘driverless’ cars. We are being promised that within twelve years 95 percent of city car journeys will be made in self-driving vehicles.

This utopian world would have us believe that private hire vehicles could effortlessly whisk us to our destination, without the inconvenience of having to converse with the cabbie. The problem is that driving around London is unpredictable, even the most inept Uber driver can avoid potholes, detritus in the road and identify the odd drunk about to fall off the edge of the pavement.

Not so for automation. Take, for example, two driverless private hire vehicles meeting down a road with cars parked on both sides with no gaps, which one will give way first and reverse? Could your robot cabbie distinguish between a large puddle and an unnavigable ford after heavy rain?

Would passengers be vulnerable should a gang member stand in the road, stopping the vehicle allowing his accomplices to force open the doors and rob the passengers, a modern-day highwayman if you like? And, if two driverless private hire vehicles collide, where do you lay the blame, and who would pay the compensation – Uber? They claim to provide the technology, not the vehicles or the quasi-drivers.

Humans are injudicious creatures when it comes to their choice of transport. Many will get into a vehicle late on a Friday night, without the certain knowledge that the driver is bona fide. They ignore the obvious dangers of choosing a driver who knows where he is going, has insurance, is driving a road-worthy vehicle and doesn’t have a criminal record as long as your arm.

Having said that a robot trying to cope with: snow; icy roads; heavy rain; road works; potholes; malfunctioning traffic lights; cyclists refusing to use cycle lanes; pedestrians walking out expecting the vehicles to stop on a sixpence (a common problem for London’s cabbies); or a policeman standing in the road indicating to proceed; might be preferable then some vehicles and drivers trying to ply for hire on London’s streets at night.

Featured image: Nerdwallet has conducted a survey on driverless cars which concluded that Women Say No Thanks to Driverless Cars, but Men Say Tell Me More.

Graffiti cab

Another in the occasional series ‘old cabs never die’, here I found this forlorn old drotsky in Essex close to a cab garage. My guess is that the apprentices were given free rein to their ‘artistic’ streak.

I’ve tried to capture the essence of the cab, carefully avoiding some of the more lewd contributions. So forgive me if the detailed picture below causes offense.


Killed by a cab

Accidents by Uber drivers today seem to be de rigueur, although it is not a new trend. It was not until 1838 that a cabbie needed a licence to make a living on London’s streets, and not until the end of that century that a test of driving skill was implemented.

No surprise that just giving a licence to anyone who: ‘shall produce such a Certificate of his Ability to drive’, was a recipe for disaster.

[W]ith this rather ambiguous definition, those allowed to ply the capital’s streets killed 54 between 1830 and 1913 according to the records of the Old Bailey. In 1909 alone police officers took 8,715 to hospital as a result of street accidents from Hansom cabs, as well as cars, trams and bicycles. Eighteen deaths were caused by ‘horse traffic’.

In addition between 1850 and 1910, a further 11 passengers committed suicide while sitting in a horse-drawn cab. One of which, on 14th April 1886, was The Earl of Shaftesbury, so the reason for their demise cannot have been solely upon hearing the cost of their fare.

Enough of these statistics, the victims of two of these accidents by Hansom cab make for interesting reading.

Colonel Pierpoint
In 1864 London’s first traffic island was built in St James’s Street. It was designed and funded by one Colonel Pierpoint who was afraid of being knocked down on his way to (and more likely inebriated from) the Carlton, his Pall Mall club. When it was finished, the good colonel dashed across the road to admire his creation, tripped and was bowled over by a cab.

Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates
Son of a wealthy sugar-plantation owner, Romeo Coates would proclaim himself to be the finest actor of his generation. His wealth allowed him to fund his own performances, fortuitously as he couldn’t remember his lines or, indeed whole scenes. He would repeat his favourite parts of the play at random places during the performance, these would often feature multiple melodramatic deaths.

Reprising the role of Shakespeare’s Romeo he added touches the Bard had somehow missed when penning his masterpieces: prising Capulet’s tomb open with a crowbar; taking snuff during the balcony scene and proceeding to offer it round to the audience; and upon Romeo’s death laying down his hat to rest his head, but after ensuring the stage was clean by dusting it with a handkerchief. Eventually, no actress would appear opposite him as Juliet.

Alas by 1816 his popularity had waned and his theatrical career ended. The thespian died in February 1848 whilst exiting a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, when he was knocked down by a Hansom cab.