Tag Archives: London cabs

Bills, badges and blights

Cabbies refer to their authorisation to ply for hire as their ‘Bill and Badge’. The badge is pretty self-evident as it hangs around their necks. Their bill or paper licence is thought to refer to the ‘bill of health’, which is very pertinent in today’s pandemic.

Another nod to the health of Londoners is that it was once supposedly illegal for people to hail a cab while suffering from the bubonic plague. This is still partly true, as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act of 1984 requires a person suffering from a notifiable disease to inform the cab driver, who may then decide whether to ferry the passenger. If he does so, he is then required to notify the authorities and disinfect the cab before taking another fare.

More drivers than vehicles

Since Oliver Cromwell first licensed cabbies there has always been more drivers than available vehicles, in recent times some cabs were ‘doubled-up’ which allowed the cabbies to pay a reduced rent. In the past, all vehicles and the horses were owned by the proprietor who rented them out to many drivers. Today (much like the author) many badges have been retained but not used to ply for hire.

As the only restriction to becoming a London cabbie, irrespective of the licenses in issue at the time has been The Knowledge, therefore there has always been an excess of drivers. Last year, for example, there was 20,136 licensed cabs and 23,159 cabbies.

In the past, in London, the gulf between drivers and vehicles was even greater. For instance, in 1986 there were 14,000 licensed cabs and 19,000 licensed drivers while by 1996 there were 17,000 licensed cabs and 22,000 licensed drivers.

Recent records show the disparity has reduced and averages in the region of about 10 per cent more drivers than available cabs.

Available cabs plummet

But since the coronavirus pandemic, the number of taxis licensed in the capital has plummeted from 18,900 on 7 June to 15,000 on 8 November according to Transport for London.

The London Taxi Drivers Association believe that only 20 per cent of cabbies are plying for hire, which equates to about 4,500, while rental firm, Sherbet London, has hired a car park to help store 400 unoccupied cabs, representing two-thirds of its fleet, its chief executive Asher Moses has estimated 2,000 taxis are standing in fields at the moment, so they are exempt from insurance and road tax.

The last post

Have you noticed the preponderance of pubs named the Blue Posts? A simple tally shows at least five plus, as is inevitable in London nowadays, there are others which have closed to allow yet more ’executive apartments’ to be built.

For many years it was thought that while barber/surgeons sported a red and white striped pole outside their premises, a pair of blue posts denoted that this was a sedan rank.

So how many blue posts pubs are, or were, in London?

Cowcross Street (now called Jacomo’s); Berwick Street; Rupert Street; Kingly Street (now a gastropub); Hanway Street (closed); Old Bond Street (called Two Blue Posts, now closed); Cork Street (called Old Blue Posts, a famous dining room, closed in 1911); Newman Street and Shoe Lane. The Blue Posts in Bennet Street has the following sign hanging above this St James hostelry featuring a sedan chair and two brilliant-blue bollards:

Although the existing ’Blue Posts‘ replaces the one which was destroyed during World War II, a pub of this name, on this site, was mentioned by the Restoration dramatist George Etheredge as early as 1667. The poet Lord Byron lived next door in 1813. The ‘Blue Posts’ (two azure painted poles) once stood in the tavern’s forecourt and served as an advertisement for a fleet of sedan chairs which used to ply for hire in Bennet Street.

In 1634 the first rank for horse-drawn cabs was the brainchild of Captain John Baily, situated on the Strand near Somerset House. Unlike the old sedan ranks with their tiny blue posts this nascent rank was next to a 100ft maypole, no wonder they usurped the sedan chairs.

Horse-drawn vehicles for private hire had been around in one form or another since medieval times. But no one had attempted to operate from a designated waiting place, or rank, until the 17th century, pioneer Captain John Baily, was a veteran of one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions.

He managed a rank of four horse-drawn carriages, Baily’s cabmen wore a distinctive livery and charged customers a fixed tariff depending on the distance. The rank was positioned close to the Strand maypole, a prominent medieval landmark. This towered 100ft high, making it one of the tallest structures in London at the time. It must have made the cab rank very easy to find.

Baily’s cab rank scheme appears to have worked well, and others soon appeared. The cab profession was given official approval in 1654 when one of the first Acts of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages, under the control of a court of aldermen in the City of London, and initially restricted to 200 cabbies.

Featured image: The Blue Posts on Eastcastle Street by Ian S (CC BY-SA 2.0)(CC BY-SA 2.0)

A (very) brave new world

In the 1970s or early 1980s car stickers started to appear on the rear of vehicles, with the wording:

Designed by computer
Built by robot

Driven by an idiot

 

It was a parody of a successful advertising campaign for a car manufacturer whose model I cannot remember, but no doubt somebody might.

This mantra proved prescient and has stuck with me over the years, never more so, as the digital age has taken over our lives and seeing robots on an assembly line is regarded as the norm, and for the third line ‘Driven by an idiot’ could as easily be applied to many motorists driving in London today.

If you could take humans out of the equation, so the theory goes, the roads would be a safer place, and the subsequent reduction in overheads (the drivers) would be of huge interest to the likes of Uber.

That ambition of driverless cars has now become a reality thanks to the work, over many years, conducted at Warwick University. As soon as next year Jaguar is predicting their ‘Robocar’, a rectangular electric vehicle not dissimilar to the familiar electric cab could hit London’s streets.

With a top speed of 75mph and a range of 190 miles between charges, it can transport up to six people anywhere in London, and beyond.

The recent storms proved that this technology can save lives when two Tesler cars independently braked to avoid falling trees in the recent storm, thus saving the passengers from injury or death. These life-saving events help the argument that autonomous and computerised cars are far safer than human-driven vehicles as robots don’t drink drive, fall asleep, watch the passing landscape, or use their phone or i-pad whilst negotiating London’s complex streets.

Not until artificial intelligence has the ability, will these vehicles be likely to confront other artificial intelligence-led vehicles with road rage.

In the race to become a world-leader in autonomous technology, already the Department of Transport has been tasked with drawing up a digital Highway Code thus enabling self-driving cars on to the Capital’s roads by next year.

As the adage goes: ‘The most dangerous part of any car is the nut behind the wheel.’

Dickens and Christmas cabbies

The following text is what purports to be an interview with a London cabby in 1860. It was published in All the Year Round, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. The article has the ring of authenticity and is probably based on fact even if it comes across as a bit literary. It is unusual for the time in presenting a cab driver as speaking in his own words.

Some cabbies may find that some things haven’t changed much in over 150 years. It is the sort of conversation you could hear in green cabbie huts all over London.

25th February 1860, pp. 414-416.

From my earliest youth, I was taught to regard cabmen as birds of prey. I was led to consider that their hands were against every man, and every man’s hand ought to be against them in self-defence. I was forbidden to attribute their husky voices to anything but unlimited indulgence in common spirituous liquors. The red noses that I saw peeping from under broad-brimmed hats, and over bee-hive-looking caped greatcoats, were never said in my hearing to arise from exposure to the weather. When I was sent on a solitary journey – perhaps to school – in a four-wheeled hackney coach or cab, I always heard a stern voice bargaining with the driver before I was placed inside; and I looked upon him, through the small window in front, during the short intervals when I was not being jerked from corner to corner of the far too spacious vehicle, as a dangerous ogre who might leap down and devour me at any moment.

When I grew up to attain the gay, thoughtless position of a young man about town, I lost my fear of the wild cab-driver and found no amusement so agreeable as that of playing upon his weaknesses. My favourite plan at night was to affect the appearance of the most idiotic intoxication, and, when I had drawn half a dozen eager charioteers around me, to select one, in such a manner that he might suppose he had got a helpless productive fare. On arriving at my destination, of course, I left the vehicle with the steadiest of steps and the soberest of aspects, to present him with his exact charge, as regulated by Act of Parliament.

In due time I became a married man; and discarded forever these youthful freaks of fancy. My early teaching with regard to the utter badness of all cabmen had not disappeared, and I still treated them with moderate severity. I never pampered them with bonuses over their legal fares, and I learned every distance as if I had been an Ordnance Surveyor. I still looked upon them as untamed, devouring creatures, who hung upon the skirts of society, and I prepared to impress this view upon my children, as my guardians had impressed it upon me. Before however, I had an opportunity of doing this, my sentiments underwent a marked change.

My wife, accompanied by a servant, and our first-born, an infant, aged three months, had started, one November afternoon, to visit a relative at the other side of London. The day was misty, but when the evening came, the whole town was filled with a dense fog, as thick as soup. I gave them up at an early hour, never supposing that they would attempt to break through the black smoky barrier and accomplish a journey of nearly nine miles. In this, I was mistaken, for towards eleven o’clock the door-bell rang, and they presented themselves muffled up like stage-coachmen. The account I received was, that a four-wheeled cab had been found, that they had been three hours and a half upon the road, that the cabman had walked nearly the whole way with a lamp at the head of his horse, and that he was now outside awaiting payment.

I felt a power struggle going on within me. The legislature had fixed the price of cab-work at two shillings an hour, or sixpence a mile, but it had said nothing about snowstorms, fluctuations in the price of provender, or November fogs. There was no contract between my wife and the cabman, and she had not engaged him by the hour, so that, protected by the Act of Parliament, I might have sent out four-and-sixpence for the nine miles’ ride by the servant, and have closed the door securely against the driver. Actuated, perhaps, as much by curiosity, as a sense of justice, I did not do this, but ordered the man in, and gave him the dangerous permission to name his own price. He was a middle-aged driver, with a sharp nose, and when he entered the room, he placed his hat upon the floor and seemed a little bewildered by the novelty of his situation.

“If I am too, I am,” he said,” but I’d my rather leave it to you, sir.”

“This is a journey,” I replied, “hardly within the meaning of the act, and whatever you charge, I will cheerfully pay.”

“Well,” he said, with much deliberation, “I don’t think five shillin’s ought to hurt you?”

“I don’t think it ought,” I returned, astonished at this moderate demand,* (*This is a fact within the experience of the writer.) “nor yet seven-and-sixpence or eight shillings. You can’t be a regular cabman?”

My visitor pulled his badge from under his great-coat at this remark, not quite understanding the drift of it.

“I mean,” I said, explaining the remark, “that you’ve not driven a cab long.”

“Only thirty years, that’s all.”

“You must know something about the business then?”

“Had ought to, by this time,” he replied.

“Take a glass of something warm,” I said, “and tell me all about it.”

My visitor was very willing to accept my invitation, and I soon saw him seated comfortably before me.

“Cabmen,” he began, “are neither worse than anybody else, nor yet better. There’s good and bad amongst ’em, like in a basket of eggs; and there must be nearly eleven thousand of them according to the badges issued. The first thing cabmen have got to do is to find a cab, and here they’ve got a pick of about ten thousand. P’raps three thousand of these cabs are ‘Hansoms’ and all the rest four-wheelers; but as some of the men work at night, and others in the day, all the cabs are not on the road, and only six thousand perhaps, are paying duty as licensed carriages. Some of these have got what we call the six-day plate – and they only run for six days. Others have got the seven-day plate, and they’re Sunday cabs. The plate costs a sovereign, which we call the ‘one pound racket,’ aud the duty is a shilling a day extra. We used to pay five pounds for the plate, and two-pound duty, in one lump. All this money goes to gover’ment. Well, as I said before, the first thing cabmen have got to do is to find a cab, and they haven’t got to look amongst many proprietors. All the cabs are in very few hands — I needn’t mention names – and the owners do pretty well what they like with the drivers. Of course, a man needn’t drive a cab unless he likes, but lots of them do like, and something must be done to get a living. The young fellows take a great fancy to the ‘Hansoms,’ because they look smart, and run easy. Their high wheels push ’em on, while the low four-wheeler always drags. As to their earnings, that depends. A Hansom is very good in fine weather; and during April, May, and June, before the people begin to go out of town they do very well at road work. They’re of no use for families and heavy railway work, and the regular Hansom cabman hardly understands ladies and children. They make money at what we call ‘mouching’ and ‘putting on,’ which means loitering along the roads and playing about a clubhouse, or some large building. Some of the police are very sharp upon this game, and the driver gets summoned before he knows where he is. The driver of a Hansom has to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, besides paying his ‘yard-money'” (stable charges), “about four shillings, before he begins to pick up anything for himself.

“A four-wheeler is let to a driver for about twelve shillings a day, and he has to pay all expenses. The best work these get is at theatres and railways, and they go on for the day at nine in the morning to run till eleven at night, being allowed two horses. Their best day is one with a fine morning and a wet afternoon. The people come out and are caught. If the day begins wet, it’s bad for the cabs. The night cabs go on at seven or eight at night, working till seven or eight in the morning, and they’re allowed only one horse – or what the owner makes do for one. Of course, it’s often only a bellows on four legs, and those not very substantial. The owner seldom makes any allowance for the difference in horses – you take ’em as they come and he knows pretty well how much work can be got out of them.

“When we go to the yard to begin work in the morning, we deposit our licenses as security for the cabs and horses. Some of the men who’re very anxious to start as drivers, or who want work, are compelled to sign contracts, and when they do this, they bind themselves to pay all damages that may be done to their horses or cabs. They either pay these by instalments or thirty or forty men in a yard will make a fund amongst themselves for accidents, which they call ‘box-money.’

“We drive out, and choose our stand from fancy, providing it’s not full. A stand mustn’t have more than twenty cabs on it at one time and it’s watched over by a police Waterman, who gets fifteen shillings a week and his clothes. If a cabman takes a place on a stand after it’s full we say he’s ‘fouled’ it, and he’s liable to be summoned. The worst court they can take him to is Bow-street. If a month’s imprisonment can be given, he gets it there, or he has to pay a heavier fine.”

“He can always avoid this,” I said, observing that my visitor had come to a pause, “if he conducts himself properly.”

“So he can,” returned my visitor, “but the public often appears at the same place. If a cabman sometimes overcharges a passenger, a passenger quite as often underpays a cabman. We’ve started protection clubs amongst us, with measuring wheels, and we sometimes make the secretaries measure and sue for the balance of fares. We find ladies, the worst passengers. They’re timid and obstinate, and run into houses and send out servants. When the passenger is summoned he is said to have made a mistake, but the cabman is always pulled up for fraud. He earns his pound or five-and-twenty shillings every week, and is quite as likely to be as respectable and honest as any other workman who gets the same money. He’s all right enough if people wouldn’t regulate him so much. There’s the street police regulating him, the police watermen regulating him; and the gover’ment regulating him by saying what price he’s to charge for his work. This sets everybody a thinking he must he awful bad, and a benevolent society of gentlemen has just started up, who want to regulate him still more by giving him what they call ‘Cabmen’s Clubs.’ There’s one club at Paddington, one at Millbank, another at Newington Butts, and another at King’s Cross. They talk of others at Chelsea and Whitechapel. The one I’ve been to most is at King’s Cross, and I don’t like it, because it’s too far away from my stand. They’ve taken an old public-house in a back street, and they’ve scooped it out until hardly anything else is left but the pillars that hold up the roof. A lot of forms are placed along the bare floor, making the place look like a school; and the library seems to me to have very few what I call amusing books. I didn’t like to see handbills lying about, at the top of which was printed ‘The Cabman’s Dying Cry;’ and the whole place seemed to be cold and uncomfortable. The rules may be very good, and the people that started these ‘clubs’ may be very good, but it strikes me they don’t quite understand cabmen. We’ve got a deal to put up with and try our tempers. The owners pull at us on one side, and the public’s always shaking the Act of Parli’ment at us on the other. Sometimes we’re dragged off the very front of the stand -þ a place that’s worth money and all for what? Sixpence! Someone wants to go round the muddy corner in thin boots, and so off we come, according to regulations. If we try to do the best we can for ourselves, and lookout for a long fare with two extra passengers, people shout after us as if we’d picked somebody’s pocket.”

“If you accept a cab,” I interrupted, “you accept it with all its rules and conditions.”

“So we do,” returned my visitor; “and pretty close we keep to ’em. Take us all together, the bad and the good, we don’t often kick over the traces. Because we’ve got to loiter about for hours near our stand, in all weathers, we’re none the worse for smoking a pipe, drinking a pint of beer and sometimes slinking in to warm our hands at a tap-room fire. The gentlemen who start these ‘cabmen’s clubs’ think we are, but while they try to improve us, they never interfere with the tradesmen in the public-house parlour. The ‘clubs’ provide us with tea, coffee, chops, and steaks at the usual charges, but beer is not openly allowed on the premises. This may be all very well for men who’re not at work, but, unless there was one ‘club’ close upon every stand, it can’t be used by the cabmen on duty. Besides – a man wants a beer, and it’s wronging him, in my opinion, to say he don’t. We go to the public-house, or coffee-house, if one happens to be near, for cabmen are quite as fond of coffee as decent mechanics. We use a good many comfortable coffee-shops that are like clubs, in different parts of London, and one especially, near Regent-street, filled with all kinds of books and papers. The books and papers at the ‘cabmen’s clubs’ are not admitted until they’ve passed the committee, because the whole thing is supported by charity. Tills is I another reason why I don’t like it, although they tell me that seven hundred men have become I members at the different stations. The ‘penny bank’ and the ‘sick fund’ may be all very well, because the member pays for all he gets, but the ‘free tea’ provided every Sunday afternoon always sticks in my throat. While I’m able to do my work and pay my way, I don’t want anything given to me. I ain’t a child. If the seven hundred members are not able to do this, they’d better say so, and either throw up driving or get the sixpence a mile altered to eightpence.”

At the close of this speech, as the hour was getting late, my visitor took his departure, having succeeded in making me take a more charitable view of the business and trials of cab-driving.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th December 2012

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