Tag Archives: london taxis

Cabbie’s dead end

Driving a cab in the 19th century was a pretty tough occupation, so it’s hardly surprising that George Smith would like to ‘fortify’ himself before starting work, but in so doing history was made in a rather elegant part of London.

[A]t 12:45 on 10th September 1897, 25-year-old taxi driver George Smith an employee of the London Electric Cab Company was spotted by a policeman travelling erratically down Bond Street driving at his vehicle’s top speed of 9 mph.

Police Constable Russell 24C watched as Smith mounted the pavement and careered through the front door of 165 Bond Street coming to a half in the middle of the hallway of one of London’s most expensive addresses.

You’re Nicked

Smith was hauled off to Great Marlborough Street courtroom where he admitted drinking ‘two or three glasses of beer’ before starting work that day. He was fined 20 shillings and staggered into the record books as the first person ever to be convicted of drunk driving.

The hapless cabbie must have thought it just wasn’t his day, his brush with death – whilst driving his cab – could have been the least of his troubles if he had awoken the fictional character lurking inside. For behind the front door of number 165 lived the celebrated actor, theatre manager and owner of the Lyceum Theatre one Sir Henry Irving.

It was at the Lyceum Theatre that Bram Stoker worked as Irving’s assistant and his boss’s manner and the inspired way he would play villainous roles was the model for Stoker’s famous book Dracula. The novel was published just a few months before Smith’s uninvited intrusion.

High cost for running electric cabs

George Smith’s detour would have hardly been welcome for his boss. In 1897 the London Electric Cab Company operated 12 electric out of Lambeth. Walter Bersey grew his cab fleet to 75 vehicles over the following two years, but their running costs were out of control.

It was an expensive project that saw the company generating its own electricity, while the tyres disintegrated under the weight of the vehicles and needed to be replaced regularly. The company lost £6,200 in its first year and was forced to suspend operations in 1899.

The Bersey cab has gone on display at the Science Museum [pictured] a fuller account can be found here.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 8th November 2013

Un-Fare: Sacrificed At The Green Altar

Today we have a guest post from Brian who writes about London at the Capital Letters Blog, his insights include taxis and life generally. His polemical view of today’s regulation by TfL of the Capital’s transport is well made and he laments on the demise of his old Fairway taxi, which he claims has served his well over the years. He also questions the validity of the green argument for replacing the Capital’s old taxi fleet.

[H]ALF A MILLION MILES, two careful owners, sixteen plates. In the end, that’s all that will be remembered of my prematurely stood down London Fairway taxi, thanks to those awfully nice people at Transport for London (TfL). More of them later. And yet, within those sixteen glorious years resides a wealth of faces met, journeys I’d hope were professionally executed and an odyssey of unforgettable stories cut short when more was yet to come.

London’s best taxi

I’m told by others that my London Taxis International Driver was the best model ever made. A beautiful, reliable Nissan 2.7 litre engine that never let me down and had nothing done to it, bags of room in the front for luggage and my 36″ legs and a boot that took plenty of oil, water, tools and a personal bag. The body had hardly changed since it hit London’s streets in 1958 save for a few modifications. And this is why it had become such a historic London icon right up there with Big Ben, the red London bus and a police officer in a cape. Check all those films with London as a backdrop.

Lately, I’ve had my taxi photographed by tourists up to five times a day. My good friend Carlos taught me to invite the snapper to also sit in the driving seat for that extra special picture that then goes around the world as it hits social networks.

15-year limit

TfL, the Mayor or some faceless committee, in a vain effort to appear green, have decided to put a fifteen-year time limit on taxis when issuing new plates. I’m guessing that to them, old means bad and new means efficient and therefore greener.

My taxi admittedly has inferior emission standards. At a cost to ourselves, we Fairway owners were rightly forced to convert our exhaust systems to meet Euro 2 standards. But not a puff of a subsidy that London buses get. Currently, the latest TX4 is spewing out at the admirable emission standard Euro 5. That’s fine it, it even sounds nicer than Euro 2. But keep your thumb on the hand brake buttons before you let me roll down into the Thames. The Fairway has a far superior fuel consumption to the TX4. I am currently driving carefully at a rate of around 26 miles per gallon. Before exhaust modification, it was up to 29 miles per gallon with the help of the excellent Biodiesel that my radio circuit, Mountview sold to us subscribers until recently. Indeed, Radio Taxis as we’re officially known as the world’s first carbon neutral taxi circuit in the world and has used that angle to gain and retain many lucrative accounts with corporates who in turn embellish their own BSI and ISO standards by association.

Built in Britain

In green terms, all taxis were built in Coventry in the Midlands of England, the very cradle of the Industrial Revolution alongside Manchester. British goods for British people made by British people. An economic success story. The new TX taxis are now made in China, yes, the Far East. Not only are they inferior products (radiators, gearboxes not making the first annual inspection; I even saw a rear window drop out when a lady closed her passenger door), but I’m thinking carbon footprint in Yeti proportions here. With the Fairway disappearing off our streets at a scary rate now, the demand for new taxis will distil up to further unbalance the global share of the auto industry, albeit miles from multinational volumes. More shipments from the orient, outsized carbon footprint.

But it’s all set up now, factories tooled up and an increased demand for new taxis. So what could we Fairway owners do to maybe save the planet and continue to promote London with our iconic symbol?

That’s it, wouldn’t you think? A new green engine in the famous Fairway for which we’re promised five more years of annual inspections, the vehicle stays on the road saving fuel and steel production and the classic vehicle continues promoting London around the World, thus nurturing our biggest employer–tourism. But sadly, for some unfathomable reason, we’re not allowed to convert to LPG in Year 15. Thus, in my case when the plate came off on August 1st 2011, something mysterious happened on July 31st making it incompatible with or just plain unworthy of an LPG engine.

Goodby Public Carriage Office

Looks like they just don’t like us. So who are “they”? Well, TfL is the overall London transport authority that begat the bastard child of the Public Carriage Office (PCO) and called it after some hesitation TPH, Taxis and Private Hire to us taxi drivers. The old PCO stood solidly for decades in Penton St, N1. Although architecturally a prime example of Sixties brutalism, its interior felt like your old school. Going inside as qualified drivers or taxi proprietors, our memories of nerve-wracking Knowledge appearances came warmly flooding back like being read stories on the carpet by our favourite teacher. Maybe it was just a flashback to our younger days or maybe it was just that cosy feeling generated by the friendly faces at various counters we came to know and love. It also smacked of the old Welfare State where we were all securely looked after from cradle to grave, not yet living under the tyranny of the bottom line as we do now. You felt sorry for the Knowledge girls and boys you passed on the stairs as you walked to a counter for other business, the memory of knotted stomachs as you sat in the waiting room never leaves you. Who can forget that frightening draining of the memory as your examiner’s footsteps along the corridor heralded your Knowledge appearance?

Warning bells of change rang when Thatcher and her Estate Agents for Summary Execution Party transferred authority for taxis from the sound and very fair Metropolitan Police to the Department of Transport with the instruction that all Government bodies must pay for themselves. Overnight, we went from 15p to £68 for licence renewals in a world-record price hike and the atmosphere inside the PCO became less cuddly and more regimented.

Inevitably, as our political culture changed from relative liberal democracy to mediocre reformism, London institutions became centralised and the PCO was wrenched from Penton Street to the monolith that is the Palestra building in Blackfriars Road, SE1. Since then, we’ve become remote from our licensers and controllers. Instead of that interaction with real people at Penton Street, everything except for Knowledge appearances is conducted electronically now. In the event of losing one’s badge, a visit to the office is ruled out. Instead, the PDF Lost Property form is downloaded and sent off in the post. While arguably efficient, yet another human contact is deleted and we feel further remote from our masters.

In this personal vacuum, taxis have been merged closer to our unfettered rivals in Private Hire (PH). Unfettered because while our numbers have only slowly increased possibly at a rate of five to ten per week, PH has gone from 30,000 drivers to around 60,000 since they became licensed. In a shrunken ground transport market, our share of it has thus dropped further. The growth of the MPV as a standard PH vehicle and their dominance on the streets along with their semi-legal use of satellite offices where they basically ply for hire via a clipboard Johnny on the pavement outside clubs, bars and hotels has thus blurred the lines between the two sectors.

Consequently, with the demise of the Fairway, one less taxi model is visible on the streets of London. The TX will naturally replace that but some drivers will also opt for the Mercedes Vito Taxi, basically a Viano (already popular within PH) with a For Hire light on the roof. Confusion on the streets, is that a taxi or a minicab?

So, let’s look at TfL. To centralise the transport policy for London as a whole made good sense. Before, we’d had individual boroughs making policy in overlap with London Transport and the GLC. Overall, many sensible measures came in that reduced traffic volume, improved the air quality and got London moving. But now it’s too easy to take policy in that vacuum without universal consultation, redress or respect. The various TfL boards are composed of invitees and quislings. My own union RMT are excluded from any process because being radical and one, therefore, presumes a threat to the comfortable status quo, they’re not recognised and they don’t have to tell us why. The records and minutes of many meetings are secret and some appointees to committees are even salaried. Thus, one must ask in whose interests these trade representatives are acting? Exactly what was said about the fifteen-year time limit by the people on these boards whom you expect to represent the taxi trade and have some sense of tradition as mostly Londoners? Of course, we’ll never know. You’d think the TfL Philistines would look at the economic externalities of retaining the Fairway for as long as possible in order to maintain its part in promoting London as a global brand, but alas not. Tucked away in their monolith, they’re removed from our world. This executive decision to prematurely remove the Fairway is just an indicator of what may yet come. I call upon all drivers to make their representations to the Royal Commission on Taxis and Private Hire before the lines between them are blurred further beyond repair.

No opposition

When the news of the new rule emerged there was hardly any opposition within the taxi trade, just some indignation and sympathetic nods from other drivers when stopped alongside me at traffic lights. Even the offer by one well-meaning taxi driver to create a legal fighting fund was met with cheques of support by just a few, thus we were unable to check the legality of the rule and make a fight. So, to the drivers who just kept rolling and thought only about the next job, you stood by while we were wronged. But now we shall all pay. As demand increases for newer TX models, their unit cost must increase with the rules of supply and demand. To our masters, you’ve let down the very city that gives you an income. If PH continues to grow unchecked and lines are further blurred with unfavourable findings by the Royal Commission into Taxis and Private Hire, the London taxi will become nothing more than a curious antiquity.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th September 2012

Hackney Carriages

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[H]ackney, this impoverished region of east London, was probably unknown to most of the world before the Olympic Games Committee decided its marshes would make a rather splendid place to hold the next Games.

The term Hackney Carriage is used the world over to describe a vehicle for hire, but first things first, Hackney [pronounced AK-ni] is now a fashionable place to reside, just don’t, I repeat don’t, call it Hackney, the locals will take you for an out-of-town plonker.

In medieval England Hackney was just a small village north-east of the City, on the west side of the River Lea, but separated from it by a large area of marshland where they are now constructing the Olympic Village. The countryside was pleasant, open, good-quality grassland, which became famous for the horses bred and pastured there. These were riding horses, ‘ambling horses’, as opposed to war horses or draught horses. Hence hackney became the standard term for a horse used for riding in industrial or domestic work. These horses were also made available for hire, and so the word also came to refer, about the end of the fourteenth century, to any horse that was intended to be hired out.

Later still, the emphasis of the word shifted from ‘horse’ to ‘hire’, and it was used for any passenger vehicle similarly available, especially the hackney coach or hackney carriage. This last term of course became the usual one for a vehicle that could be hired, today’s London black taxis, with not a horse in sight, are still formally referred to by that name.

In the nature of things that are hired out to all and sundry, these horses of the hackney type were often worked heavily, so the word evolved in parallel with the previous sense to refer figuratively to something that was overused to the point of drudgery.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, hackney was being applied to people in just this sense, and was abbreviated about the start of the eighteenth century to hack, as in hack work; it was applied in particular to literary drudges who dashed off poor-quality writing to order, hence its modern pejorative application to journalists and now I suppose to the world of blogging.

Hackney horses were also widely available and commonly seen, to the extent that they became commonplace and unremarkable. So yet another sense evolved for something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest, hence something stale, unoriginal or trite. The adjective hackneyed communicated this idea from about the middle of the eighteenth century on.

By the way, it was thought at one time that this whole set of words derived from the French haquenée, an ambling horse. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary considered this to be so, but modern writers are sure that the French term was actually borrowed from the English place name, so great was the reputation of Hackney’s horses even in medieval times.

As the Victorian musical hall song went:

With a ladder and some glasses

You could see the Hackney Marshes,

If it wasn’t for the houses in between.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th December 2009

The Curious Case of the Growler

For many of us, our introduction to the Hansom Cab came as we first read the works of Dr John Watson about his sometime companion Sherlock Holmes, the greatest fictional detective of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, who would have many ‘curious’ cases to solve.

During Victoria’s reign, two types of ‘hired’ transport dominated the streets of London.

[T]he first of these was a four-wheeled vehicle, the Clarence or the ‘Growler’, [below] which acquired its nickname as a result of the noise it made when driven over the cobblestoned streets. A closed, four-wheeled carriage, it was glass-fronted and seated four passengers in relative comfort.

Growler

Clarence or Growler Cab

It was a popular vehicle holding more passengers and baggage than the Hansom Cab and for this reason, was often found at railway stations. Indeed, so popular was it that as Mrs Beeton notes in 1861:

. . . but the Hackney Cab or Clarence seems most in request for light cariages; the family carriage of the day being a modified form of the Clarence adapted for family use

It was the two-wheeled Hansom Cab [featured image], however, that was the most popular public vehicle of the century. Although named for its inventor, the coachbuilder Joseph Hansom, the design of the cab which dominated the London streets was that of John Chapman.

In many ways, it was the ideal vehicle for moving through the crowded London streets quickly. The body was light enough to be pulled by a single horse and with only two wheels and a low centre of gravity could safely turn on a sixpence. Speed, coupled with manoeuvrability meant that the Hansom Cab could steer through the traffic jams so common in later Victorian London.

The driver of the Hansom Cab sat on a raised seat above and behind the passenger’s compartment. Two passengers could ride with reasonable comfort in the cab and a third might be squeezed in if necessary.

Passengers spoke to and paid the driver through a trap-door in the roof which also provided a degree of security for the driver who had control of a lever used to release the doors once the fare had been paid. The reins used to control the horse at the front of the cab ran over the roof of the vehicle which meant that the only part of the horse visible to the driver was its head.

It is not surprising that our image of the Hansom Cab is somewhat fogged by time. Comfortable, they were not, nor were they particularly clean. In the early days, with their open fronts, the passengers were likely to get wet if it rained or have to deal with whatever the horse’s hooves threw up from the road, and in Victorian London’s streets horse excreta was commonplace. Later, they had folding half doors which protected the passengers’ legs.

Mr Udny Yule, in proposing a vote of thanks to a speaker at the Royal Statistical Society in 1936, took the occasion to comment on London as he had known it as a boy. Among his observations was a comment on “giving unintended hospitality to a hungry flea picked up on some Growler or Hansom Cab,” which he went on to note “was not exceedingly rare.” It was certainly a case for Keating’s Powder, a well-known product advertised in the ’80s with the lines: “Keating’s Powder does the trick/Kills all Bugs and Fleas off quick”.

Drivers of Hansom cabs were often before the courts for drunkenness and abusing or injuring their passengers or pedestrians. To cite only one example, from The Times of 12th April 1882:

At Marylebone, Robert Coomber, 38, Hansom Cab driver, was charged with being drunk and furiously driving his cab, thereby causing damage to the extent of £4 to another cab and seriously injuring Mrs Elizabeth Griffin . . . On Monday night about half-past 11, the prisoner, who was intoxicated, was seen driving his cab at a very fast rate . . . on the wrong side of the way. He was shouted to but took no notice, and after going some 600 yards he came into collision with another cab, and the shaft of his cab struck Mrs Griffin who, with her husband, was in the damaged vehicle. She was picked up senseless and was taken to a doctor’s where it was found that she was seriously injured. During the night she only recovered consciousness for a few minutes. Her husband also received a severe shock.

Small children playing in the streets were particularly vulnerable. Only six weeks later two little boys, one sixteen months old and the other four-and-a-half years were killed by horse-drawn vehicles; the latter by a Hansom Cab.

Although the Hansom Cab continued in use until well into the Twentieth Century (the last horse-drawn cab was withdrawn from London’s streets in 1946), its popularity waned and within the first decade of the new century it was being reported that “‘London’s gondola,’ the Hansom Cab, has had its day, and the future is with the taxi-motor.”

What amounts to an official recognition of the fact is to be found in a new police regulation on the subject of cab whistles. Hitherto one blast has signified a call for a Hansom, two blasts meant a four-wheeler, or ‘Growler,’ and three were required to summon a taxi-motor.

Now this is all changed by a regulation issued by the Chief Commissioner of Police and the ‘taxi’ takes the place of honour, the Hansom going down, and the ‘Growler’ being last in order. Henceforward one whistle summons a ‘taxi.’

But there are still those of us who believe, as the yellow fog settles over London, that we can hear the footsteps of Holmes and Watson as they race towards a Hansom and in the ghostly stillness, we can still hear Holmes’ strident voice, “Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot.”

There are numerous tales which involve Hansom Cabs. Here are two you might find of interest.

The Adventure of the Hansom Cab, by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the stories in the compilation New Arabian Nights which can be downloaded by clicking here.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an Australian Novel (1886) by Fergus Hume can be downloaded by clicking here.

And of course, there are all those Sherlock Holmes stories!

Taxi! Taxi!

This remarkable film from the old Rank Organisation shows how much the cab trade has changed over the years. The most obvious difference is that cabbies worked for a garage while nowadays all London cabbies are self employed, and that they learnt The Knowledge on bikes. Other more apparent changes since being filmed is the low traffic levels and the slight haze caused by air pollution.