Tag Archives: London cabs

Rollercoaster cab ride

As we say farewell to 2012 as someone who spends his day driving or writing about London all I can say is this year has been an incredible rollercoaster ride these last 12 months.

January started with a new study on cabbies’ brains. University College of London continued research following on from earlier work done in America.

[C]omparing the brains of taxi drivers with non-taxi drivers. ULC’s work confirmed that indeed London cabbies do in fact have larger brains after the period of study to achieve the Knowledge.

No sooner had we stopped patting ourselves on the back a letter delivered by the postman took the smug grins from our faces. Transport for London had decreed that cabs should have identifiers, similar to private hire, displayed on our windows. What wasn’t general knowledge was the size of display; you could almost see a cabbie’s badge number from the International Space Station.

This was soon followed by the planning authority for the Olympic rejoicing in the name ‘London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ disclosing that they had positioned the nearest cab stand over half-a-mile from the stadium. When questioned on how we could access the rank located on Homerton Road we were told that it entailed only a few miles detour to gain access via a plethora of small streets.

Still our spirits were lifted with the celebration for Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee it made you very proud to be a part of the greatest city in the world. Added to that it rained all day so any cabbie working that day received the added bonus that rain always brings.

By the end of June the long awaited Bomber Command memorial was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner and London cabbies, as is often the tradition with servicemen, provided 1,500 free cabs to ferry veterans wishing to attend.

Things really started to look up in July. We were to be allowed into the Olympic Lane on Park Lane, but only to pick-up and set-down but still that avoided being hit from behind by a bus when stationary in the middle of an 8-lane dual carriageway.

Hot on the heels came the disclosure that a new cab was being developed by Lotus cars badged the ‘Metrocab’. That would make three types of vehicle available to cabbies and with increased competition would bring down the price of new cabs.

Just like buses, good news comes along together, when another announcement a week later we received news that Nissan was developing a ‘global taxi’, which already had been adopted in New York as their taxi of choice. With all the competition set to bring down the cost of a new taxi below £35,000, we were jumping up and down like pubescent schoolgirls at a Justin Bieber concert.

This euphoria was short lived for at the start of the Olympics restaurants were reporting a 70 per cent drop in covers. An estimated 1.5 million Londoners worked from home and for cabbies some days it was costing more in diesel to drive around London than they were earning in fares.

Hotel owners were offering cabbies ‘a drink’ to bring tourists to their premises and London for 3 weeks resembled a town in a Spaghetti Western with deserted streets waiting for the baddies to show up.

The Olympics over it didn’t take long before it was officially announced that there was just too many cabs on the road and a moratorium on issuing new suburban badges would be enforced.

Tourists started to return to London during August and hey! The sun shone (between the showers) and Cabbie World was started to look up. It wasn’t long before rumours started to circulate that the firm building the iconic cab was in financial difficulties. By late October London Taxi Company had gone into administration after finding a £2 million hole in their balance sheet.

Furthermore cabs performing inexplicable u-turns could now be put down to a steering fault found in over 300 of the newest model, these cabs had to be withdrawn from service. This was in addition to 700 15-year-old Fairways due to be withdrawn from service in compliance with the dictats of Transport for London.

It has certainly been a roller coaster of a year for London’s cabbies. During the run up to Christmas – our busiest period – no vehicles were available to rent, and your humble scribe spent one week with the winter sickness bug along with one million others.

So what of 2013? Will the Olympics bring the much vaulted boost to London’s economy? Will the iconic London cab be saved at the 11th hour or will the fleet be set to look just like any other city in the world?

Whatever happens London will still be the most vibrant, diverse and interesting city on the planet – with or without the black cab.

Thank you for taking the time to read my analysis of the year and I wish you all a Happy New Year. Never had Samuel Johnson’s words rang more true:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

A Dickens of a Christmas

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dicken’s birth. 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.

[S]ome 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 great coats, 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 wmdow 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 effect 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 chlldrcn, 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 powerful 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 novelty of his situation.

“If I am to, 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 of 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 pound 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 its 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, an 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! Some one 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 look out 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 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 Cabbie’s view of London

As any artist, writer or photographer will tell you, professionally they will observe the world around them in ways that others can take for granted.

It is that same attention to detail that’s needed when one undertakes “The Knowledge”, the qualification required to become a London cabbie; every street, club, bar, church, hotel and even blue plaque must be committed to memory.

[I]n pursuit all these facets of London the Knowledge student discovers that there is more to London than is apparent at first sight. Just like a writer they stop looking at the features of London in isolation and try to put them into some context linking them together and discovering their relation to London’s history and its people.

The Knowledge was introduced in 1851 after complaints by visitors to the Great Exhibition that cabbies didn’t know where they were going, now after 160 years we are regarded as the world’s finest taxi service. But our pedigree goes back even further; London was the first city in the world to have a licensed taxi trade and the licensing can be blamed on a little known English playwright called William Shakespeare, his productions were so popular that all the carriages that arrived to pick up and drop off the theatre-going public would cause a “stop” – in modern day parlance a traffic jam; and just to show that red tape is not a modern phenomenon, it took the authorities about 40 years after Shakespeare’s death to introduce licensing – on 24th June 1654 the City of London authorised the use of 200 licenses for Hackney coachmen.

With such a long history it is hardly surprising that  anachronisms abound in the cab trade: the modern cab has a high roof so that gentlemen wearing a top hat may leave them on when travelling to Ascot; while a cabbie is required to carry sufficient hard food for his horse’s midday meal this is now interpreted as having a boot large enough to take a bale of hay; and to show some consideration to the poor old cabbie in a time of need, he may urinate over the rear nearside wheel if a police constable is in attendance to protect his modesty by shielding him with a police cape; but should he wish to stop at a Cabbies’ Green Shelter he may eat and drink tea but political discussion is forbidden by the philanthropists who originally donated the shelters.

While studying the Knowledge a student discovers that some streets in the City: Milk Street, Poultry, Goldsmith Street, Ironmonger Lane are named after the goods once sold there; or Old Jewry was an area set aside for Jewish money lenders. On the Knowledge when given London Stone to locate in Cannon Street a little research suggests that London’s prosperity for many years was thought to depend on the Stone’s safekeeping and that the Romans could have used this limestone block as the point in which to measure all distances from Londinium.

Above all else the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson should be the mantra for any prospective Knowledge student:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

Johnson was right, the city isn’t just a collection of buildings, roads, lanes and courts; its magic is in Londoner’s belief that this complicated friend can fulfil the dreams and aspirations of those residing within its boundaries.

It is this belief that has given London its longevity as the world’s premier city, the result of generations of these resourceful, hard working individuals coming together to improve their lives and in so doing adding another strata of history, business and culture to this incredible city for future Knowledge students to go out and discover.