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.