[I] was contacted last year by the BBC inviting me to apply for the new series of ‘toughest place to be’, in which they planned to take a London cabbie out of his (or her) comfort zone and place them in a city where driving could be best described as challenging.
After reading the e-mail my wife and I speculated upon which city the hapless cabbie would find themselves trying to earn a living. We both concluded that one of the most chaotic cities in the world was Mumbai.
So when the programme was televised recently it was no surprise to find London cabbie Mason McQueen travelling to India’s most populous city.
Mason’s host and mentor was Pradeep Sharma who lives in a tiny two-bedroom house earning less than £10 a day driving his cab.
It wasn’t long before Mason finds driving on some of the busiest and most congested streets in the world. Far worse than London’s, in sweltering heat in a vehicle without air conditioning, he managed to carefully avoided the sacred cows, get his passengers on side when getting lost and did all this with good humour.
But the most touching part of this documentary was the change in Mason’s perception to life. Starting out by complaining about life in London from his Epping home his first reaction upon seeing the slum that Pradeep and his extended family live is one of horror.
Later he is shown other cabbies who have come from the countryside to make a better life for themselves living in squalor 6-8 in a room sending their money home to a family they see only twice a year.
But the life changing event was seeing a young mother with her children living under a flyover, sleeping on the central reservation of the busy road as they try to scratch a living by selling homemade brushes.
The documentary showed us that how bad we may think our job are, and all London cabbies have those moments, others doing the same job have a much harder time.
At the end of the programme Mason is seen in a cabbies hut trying to raise money to send back to India.
Often overlooked Green Cabbie Huts are a quaint anachronism from Victorian days and very, very English. These small shelters providing refreshments are dotted around London’s streets, with many open to the public for takeaway sales, they are worth a visit.
London cabs have been licensed since 1639, and by 1860 there were 4,600 plying for trade. Being out in all weathers poor health and conditions have historically dogged the trade, never more so than in Victorian times.
At that time, the cab-driver’s vehicle of choice was a Hansom Cab a horse-drawn carriage which was open to the elements for the cabbie. He was expected to ‘sit on the box’ in rain, snow, cold and wind waiting for a fare and the only place of sustenance and comfort was a public house. But to utilise this facility meant paying someone to watch the cab and the horse, as it was illegal to leave them unattended. Most cabbies would have a lad who was employed for this purpose, as well as for the carrying of cases and general menial jobs.
In January 1875, a certain Captain Armstrong, ex-soldier and editor of The Globe newspaper based in Fleet Street who lived in St. John’s Wood, sent his manservant out into a raging blizzard to engage a taxi to take him to Fleet Street.
The manservant eventually found the cabbies enjoying each other’s company in a local hostelry, each with varying levels of intoxication.
Returning a full hour later and soaked to the skin, the good captain – slightly miffed – asked his manservant why he had been so long to be told that although there were cabs on the local rank all the cabmen were in no condition to take him to Fleet Street.
Now at that time the Temperance Society was at the peak of its powers, and excessive intake of alcohol was frowned upon.
So in line with the Victorian ethos of public service, Captain Armstrong decided to do something about this and came up with the idea of dedicated shelters for cabbies’ use close to the cab ranks.
With the assistance of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, then aged 73, and a few like-minded philanthropists, they founded the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund which took up offices at
19 Buckingham Street, just off the Strand.
The aim was to build and run shelters at the busiest cab stands within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Each shelter would have an attendant and provide ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices’. This would both address the problems of food and shelter and, more importantly, reduce the cabbies’ temptation to indulge in alcohol.
Many shelters had books and newspapers – donated by the benefactors and publishers – for cabbies to read and provide up-to-date topics of conversation. Publications included such riveting reads as: The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World. Gambling, swearing and political discussion was strictly forbidden – the last condition was almost certainly ignored.
The Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII, put in a few bob. Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter?
An early architectural drawing of a typical shelter.
One shelter erected in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, was paid for by members of both Houses of Parliament, presumably to ensure the politicians would never have to wait for a cab to get them home after a hard day debating in the Chamber.
The first of the early shelters was opened in 1875 in Acacia Avenue, St. John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100.
The cramped confines of a cabman’s shelter showing the lunch counter. The attendants were usually superannuated cabmen. Pictured wearing an apron is this shelter’s proprietor standing in the doorway of the tiny kitchen. From the Outing magazine 1904.
Between 1875 and 1950 forty-seven of these shelters were built at a cost of £200 each. At first the shelters had no provision for supplying meals, but by 1882 larger shelters were erected, which included a small kitchen so that hot meals and drinks could be provided by the shelter-keeper or for a charge of half-a-penny the attendant would cook any food brought in by a cabbie.
By now the watermen seem to have become the London cab stand officials who ensured that cab horses had enough water to drink. Originally, the watermen seem to have been hangers-on who fetched buckets of water from the nearest pump, or did other services for hackney coachmen and their passengers in exchange for tips. By 1850 the waterman had become a quasi-police official charged not only with supplying water, but also with keeping order on the stands and administering punnishments after disturbances. Ironically, the watermen were paid by the cab drivers themselves from a compulsory fee of one penny for each time they came onto the stand, and a further half penny each time they were hired from it. By 1860, watermen had been absorbed into the police force and were not only paid a regular wage of fifteen shillings a week, but were also issued with uniforms.
Only a dozen or so of these green gems remain. They’re worth searching out, because their appearance – a cross between a cricket pavilion and a large garden shed – serves to underscore the truth that the cab trade is so ancient that it pre-existed the modern city.
The proviso laid down by the Metropolitan Police that, as these shelters were situated on the public highway, they could be no larger than a horse and cart. This has given them their characteristic style.
They are of rectangular shape with dimensions described as ‘7 bays long, by 3 bays wide’. Windows are situated on the upper part of the walls in the middle bay of the short sides, and in the second, fourth and sixth bay on the long sides, with the middle window replaced by a door at one end.
The roof was originally felt-clad, but is now more often protected from the elements by traditional slates or oak roof shingles and pitched. In the middle of each shelter was a wood burning stove with a flue leading up a the vent in the roof to carry off the smoke, this square slatted ventilation structure on the roof is not dissimilar to a dovecote. There are railings around the shelters that were intended for the tethering of the Hansom cab’s horses. Some of these can still be seen today.
The upper panels between the windows are decorated with a pattern of holes that include a monogram CSF, standing for Cabmen Shelter Fund, which most shelters have. However, some shelters have either glass or wood in the top panels instead. The whole shelter is painted the distinctive Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green.
Inside, it is warm and bright but this is no Tardis, the shelters really are tiny with enough space for only 10-13 diners. Two benches run along the white walls behind two long, thin Formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people can pass with care in the central aisle, if they turn sideways. At the far end the shelter the proprietor resplendent in their apron moves between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney.
The shelters seem to take on the characteristics of the areas that they reside. The Sloane Street Shelter has a awning sponsored by top estate agent Winkworths protecting customers from the sun. The shelter gleams like a designer emporium with seasonal hanging baskets reflecting perhaps the Chelsea Flower Show. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging the All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. While in St. John’s Wood, a stone’s throw from Regents Park, is surrounded by exotic potted plants.
Many cabbie huts were destroyed in the Blitz and with the subsequent post-war redevelopment and road widening the shelters went into decline leaving only thirteen. They soldiered on with TGWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon butty was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at a cost of £25,000 each. They are now Grade II listed buildings and protected by English Heritage.
One shelter which stood at Hyde Park Corner until it was pulled down to make way for the Piccadilly Underpass was often frequented by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The regulars, prior to his last expedition, presented him with a set if pipes and a pipe rack. He died at sea but his letter thanking them hung on the shelter wall until its demolition.
On 27th September 1966 The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was registered with the Charity Commission: Registered charity number 236108. The shelters are now run by tenants who pay a contribution to the Charity to maintain the shelters, and still sell hot drinks and sandwiches.
This cabmen’s shelter in 1904 London gives some idea of the modest dimensions of cabmen’s shelters. This picture is on a cab stand close to Harrod’s, about 400 yards from the present location of the Thurloe Place cab stand and shelter (see below). Since two shelters would not have been built so close together, the cab stand and shelter must have been moved to Thurloe Place sometime after 1904.
This shelter overlooking Albert Bridge has one of the most romantic locations for a greasy spoon. Nicknamed ‘The Pier’ due to its proximity to Cadogan Pier, it was, in the 1970s, also called ‘The Kremlin’ as it once had a clientele of left-wing cabbies.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Rector of St. George’s Church, Hanover Square.
St. George’s Church in Hanover Square has for many years given out small amounts of money to the homeless who sleep under the church’s portico at night. As in many parts of London the numbers of rough sleepers and other disadvantaged people has been increasing, and often this money is spent on alcohol or drugs, rather than on food and drink.
The green Cabman’s shelter close by has had difficulties of late obscured as it is by the hoarding for ongoing construction work for Crossrail.
The solution has been that the Vestry has now started to issue “refreshment coupons” valued at £2 each, (facsimile above), which may be exchanged for food and drink at the shelter.
The proprietress of the shelter is given funds in advance, and she accepts the coupons in lieu of payment for the excellent value meals she sells.
Anyone who wishes to purchase refreshment coupons to give out themselves to local homeless and disadvantaged people on the street, (rather than giving out money directly) may do so by contacting St. George’s Church.
Kensington Park Road
Kensington Road ‘The All Nations’
Almost opposite the Albert Hall near to the site of the Great Exhibition of 1850 ‘All Nations’ refers to the diversity of visitors visiting the famous Victorian spectacle.
This shelter spent most of its life in Leicester Square, when pedestrianisation arrived in the late 1980s the shelter became obsolete. The decision was soon taken to move the shelter to Russell Square. The shelter was restored in 1987. A plaque outside attestifies that this shelter was presented by Sir Squire Bancroft [pictured] a famous actor/manager in 1901.
Now the shelter has been relocated again, this time to a different part of Russell Square to make way for the 2012 Olympics when Russell Square will be given over to the media. It is undergoing refurbishment.
St. George’s Square
Temple Place ‘The Temple’
In the 1960s developers knocked down four ancient streets running down to Temple Place to allow for a hotel to be built presumably so American tourists could see just the sort of roads they had destroyed. When the hotel reached completion the architects were amazed to find that just at the spot they’d planned to put their grand hotel entrance there was a green cabbie’s shelter.
With typical corporate stupidity they tried to use their financial might to have the shelter removed by the authorities, but they were told that the shelter had been there since 1880 and was staying put. With the image of their rich American visitors being greeted by a ramshackle old shelter they were forced to beg for its removal. For a price the shelter was duly moved a few yards down the hill away from the hotel’s lobby.
The green shelter is still there, but the hotel has since closed – awaiting redevelopment.
Thurloe Place ‘The Bell and Horns’
Opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum this shelter derives its nickname from a pub which once stood on the opposite side of the road. The Thurloe Place shelter is probably the successor to the 1904 shelter shown above and appears more substantial and slightly larger than the earlier shelter, suggesting that the standard design was gradually modified based on experience and customer feedback. The protective iron bollard at some point in its history seems to have suffered a collision hardly surprising as the shelter is positioned in the middle of one of London’s busiest roads.
Surrounded by multi-million pound houses this newly refurbished shelter is located in Little Venice close to the Grand Union Canal. The proprietress Pat Carter featured on Ready, Steady, Cook alongside Ainsley Harriott.
Wellington Place ‘The Chapel’
Non-cabbies are normally prohibited from entering, but sometimes we make an exception. Prince Charles once popped in for a chat with the cabbies at Hanover Square.
Flickr has the group London Cabmen’s/Taxi Shelters devoted to cab shelters containing many pictures from its members with further useful information.
A short 3 minute video on The History of the Cabmen’s Shelters can be found on YouTube:
Here is an interesting link that I have found of Hansom cabs alongside a cabmen’s shelter waiting for fares in Whitehall Place outside the recently built National Liberal Club. Taken sometime between 1887 and 1900.
The Guardian’s food writer Tim Hayward has made a video featuring cabbie Anthony Street. Together, they trundle round London, starting with a full English in a neon-lit Portakabin caff behind King’s Cross and ending with the perfect bacon roll. Hayward even manages to get inside a green shelter, which are otherwise strictly off-limits to civilians.
Between designing handbags fit for the Duchess of Cambridge, and assisting Mayor Boris in his mission to make the host city look beautiful for the Olympic games, Anya Hindmarch is taking up the cause to save the Cabmen’s Shelters from extinction. She has designed a two-way 2012 London diary/notebook which contains tips about her favourite places in London to visit, including, of course, the shelters for a great cuppa. In recognition of her love affair with London’s Cabmen’s Shelters, Anya has produced a limited edition, Cabman inspired, ‘First Edition’ collectible Diary, hand-tooled by London’s oldest book maker. The cover features intricate leather details in Cabman’s Green French Calf leather, embossed with tongue and groove detail reflecting the exterior walls of the wooden huts and features a cabbie’s menu. Turn the pages to discover special details alluding to the character and life of London’s cabbies; a tea stain from a cabbies mug, taxi receipts, a cabbies’ badge and Anya’s take on the magic tree air freshener. With a limited edition of 10 it comes in at £750 a pop. Cabbies who might not wish to spend that much on a diary can purchase the regular one starting from £125.
I read last week that Abercrombie and Fitch are to pay Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino.
No I haven’t heard of him either. He is apparently a star of MTV’s hit reality show Jersey Shore and is being paid a small fortune NOT to wear their iconic clothing.
So it occurred to me that an approach could be made to Marks & Spencer with a similar proposition.
[N]ow, I’m the first to admit that when driving a cab my sartorial sense and that of my colleagues leaves a little to be desired, unlike the model confidently sporting Mark and Spencer’s Blue Harbour range who always looks relaxed and elegant clearly an image the company wish to promote.
Compare and contrast that look with some of my colleagues; one wears a fedora, promoting the advertising on his cab, very elegant in Cuba, a little incongruous in the front of a London cab; others support baseball caps, while a favourite in winter is your woollen tea cosy. Mind you it’s hardly surprising that head protection is deemed de rigueur by some cabbies; during heavy rain my last cab would deposit a copious deluge upon my head whenever I braked.
Another problem known as leather a**e is the result of sitting too long, for when alighting from one’s cab, a view of your rear resembles that of an elephant leaving a firm of French polishers. With a crumpled shirt from wearing a seat belt for 10 hours and a wrinkled countenance courtesy of just about every driver in London we hardly have the clean youthful looks promoted by fashion gurus.
If you want stylish looks you have to look to our aquatic cousins the gondoliers of Venice who are probably the most elegant cabbies in the world; mind you at their prices they can afford to be kitted out by Armani.
Now summer is almost over I had better dust off my muffler and flat cap; that is unless Locks the hat makers contact me first with an offer I can’t refuse.
For some Japanese tourists their first taste of Europe has proved overwhelming.
Coming from a culture that espouses civility and respect, they had expected European capitals to have the same degree of controlled manners as that of Tokyo’s 33 million inhabitants.
For someone who drives daily on London’s roads, experiencing the rude and aggressive attitudes of my fellow road users and some of my passengers, it came as a surprise to learn that some Japanese have been hospitalised by this culture shock.
[I]t was a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, Professor Hiroaki Ota, who first identified the syndrome some 20 years ago. Named the Paris Syndrome from where this condition first surfaced, presumably after a Japanese tourist took a ride in one of its capital’s famously grumpy cabbie’s vehicles, Japanese tourists are now being forewarned before embarking on a European tour.
Paris Syndrome affects around 20 tourists a year, mainly women in their 30s with high expectations of what may be their first trip abroad. The Japanese embassy has a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock, and can help find hospital treatment for anyone in need. This year alone, the Japanese embassy in Paris has had to repatriate four people with a doctor or nurse on board the plane to help them get over the shock.
It appears to spring from the shock of the disparity between the popular image of Paris – of accordions, flowers and cobbled streets seen in the film Amélie– they do not realised that within our lifetimes, those cobble stones have been prised up and thrown in anger.
Around a million Japanese travel to France every year. However, the only permanent cure is to go back to Japan – never to return to Paris – next time visit London where cabbies are courtesy personified.
As the site is entitled CabbieBlog I thought on the anniversary of the blog’s 250th post the time was opportune to give a little of the history of London’s cab trade.
The name cab derives from the French, cabriolet de place and London cabbies have a surprisingly ancient heritage, the now defunct Corporation of Coachmen having secured a charter to ply for hire in London back in 1639.
[H]ackney Carriage is still the official term used to describe taxis and has nothing to do with that area in east London. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse, it literally means, ‘ambling nag’.
In 1625 there were as few as 20 cabs available for hire and operating out of inn yards, but in 1636 the owner of four hackney coaches, a certain Captain Bailey a retired mariner, dressed his four drivers in livery so they would be easily recognisable and established a tariff for various parts of London and most important of all brought them into the Strand outside the Maypole Inn, and in so doing the first taxi rank had been established, this attracted the attention of other hackney coachmen who flocked there seeking work.
In 1636 Charles I made a proclamation to enable 50 hackney carriages to ply for hire in London, it was left up to the City’s Aldermen to make sure this number was not exceeded.
After the Civil War, in 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by an Act of Parliament, and taxi driving became a profession; their numbers was allowed to increase to 200 hackney carriages. The Act was replaced in 1662 under Charles II by a new act, which required the hackney coaches to be licensed, and restricted their number to 400. In 1688 the number was increased to 600, and then again six years later by an Act of Parliament to 700.
Despite licensing they failed to attract the right sort of passenger, however, so that in 1694 a bevy of females in one cab reportedly behaved so badly in the environs of Hyde Park that the authorities responded by banning hired cabs from the park for the next 230 years.
Between 1711 and 1798 some 24 separate Acts of Parliament were passed dealing specifically with the cab trade and increasing the number of drivers who could ply for hire. In 1711 800 licenses were issued and by 1815 the numbers had reached 1,200.
In 1833 the number of drivers became unregulated, and there was no longer a restriction on the amount of taxis, the only limit was that the driver and vehicle be ‘fit and proper’, a condition that still applies today. This makes the licensed taxi trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world, and it is the licensed cabbies in the trade that have demanded that it stays this way. With the passing of The London Hackney Carriage Act the Metropolitan Police gained control of the trade for the next 169 years.
In December 1834, Joseph Hansom of Hinckley, Leicestershire, registered his Patent Safety Cab, but sold the patient for £10,000 before he had it manufactured. Its design was improved by cutting away the body of the cab under the passenger’s seat at an angle, inserting a slope in the floor where the passenger’s feet rested, and raising the driver’s seat some 7ft off the ground; this produced the perfect counterbalance and gave us the most famous Hansom carriage to ply London’s streets. Because of London’s congested streets modern London cabs average speed is now lower than the 17mph attainable by the 1834 Hansom carriage.
By mid-Victorian times the drivers had acquired a bit of a reputation, prompting a number of philanthropists – led by a certain Captain Armstrong from St. John’s Wood, the editor of the Globe newspaper – to pay for the erection of London’s distinctive green cab shelters, places where drivers could eat rather than drink alcohol, and where discussion of politics was strictly forbidden, 64 were built although only around a dozen still remain.
In 1887 Gottlieb Daimler, having previously invented the internal combustion engine some four years earlier, built the first petrol-powered cab, but the Metropolitan Police refused to license such a crazy device until 1904.
The taximeter was invented in 1891 by Wilhelm Bruhn and it is from this that the term taxi is derived. The taximeter measures the distance travelled and time taken of all journeys, allowing an accurate fare to be charged. The word comes from French taxe (‘price’) and Greek metron (‘measure’). Previous inventions for calculating fares included the ‘Patent Mile-Index’ in 1847 and the ‘Kilometric Register’ in 1858. These were disliked by cab drivers as they did not want their incomes regulated by machines. Even Bruhn’s taximeter ended up being thrown in the river by drivers, and were not made compulsory until 1907, his invention is still being used today.
The Knowledge of London was introduced in 1851 by Sir Richard Mayne after complaints that cab drivers did not know where they were going at the time of The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Passing the Knowledge involves detailed recall of 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. The locations of clubs, hospitals, hotels, railway stations, parks, theatres (including the stage door), courts, restaurants, colleges, government buildings and places of worship are also required. In addition Blue Plaques, statutes and London curiosities can be asked. The examinations take the form of a one-to-one oral test and take over three years to pass.
Drivers do not have to stop if you hail them, whether or not the yellow ‘taxi’ sign is lit. This is because legally, taxis are not plying for hire when they are moving. However, if they do stop, they are considered ”standing in the street” and cannot refuse a fare under 12 miles or that will take less than one hour.
Many people believed the original 6-mile limit was to ensure that the poor old horse didn’t get too tired pulling the cab. In fact it was linked to London’s chain of defences that had been erected during the Civil War in 1642. The defences were approximately 6 miles from the City and Westminster and it was deemed as dangerous for Hackney coaches to pass through these robust emplacements.
Taxi drivers do not have to wear a seat belt when they are working, but must belt up when they are driving home.
Taxi drivers are not legally obliged to give change. If a large note is offered the driver is entitled to take the cash and then offer to post the change to the passenger’s home address.
The classic London black cab is the Austin FX-4 and was introduced in 1958 remaining in production until 1996. In 1989 a version of the vehicle went on sale in Japan badged as the ‘Big Ben Novelty Car’.
In the 1960s the wealthy oil heir Nubar Gulbenkian had a luxurious limousine built on an FX-4 taxi chassis for his own use while in London. “Apparently it can turn on a sixpence”, he used to tell acquaintances, “whatever that is”.
The reason London taxis are so high is so that the ‘toffs’ didn’t have to remove their top hats when they were going to the races.
The rate of a shilling (5p) was set in 1662 when King Charles II passed an Act to control coachmen; this rate was not to be exceeded until 1950.
An Act of Parliament in 1784 gave the Hackney carriage trade the sole right to use their coaches as ‘hearses and mourning coaches at funerals’.
The heroic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was a regular visitor to the old green shelter which originally stood at Hyde Park Corner; the shelter’s regulars presented him with a set of pipes and a pipe rack. His letter of thanks hung proudly on the shelter wall until the shelter was pulled down to make way for the Piccadilly underpass.
It is a surprising fact that the last horse-drawn Hackney carriage license was surrendered as late as 3rd April 1947.
Rear-view mirrors became a legal requirement in 1968, but to prevent cabbies ogling the legs of their lady passengers they couldn’t be adjusted, rendering them almost useless.
Harold Wilson when Prime Minister wanted to nationalise the taxi trade and force drivers to wear a liveried uniform and be paid a salary.
London cabbies are expected to abide by laws encompassed in the London Hackney carriage Acts of 1831 and 1843. Among these antiquated laws are terms of one or two months imprisonment for “misbehaviours during employment” and “use of insulting or abusive gestures during employment”.
Take care that you don’t contravene the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 when hailing a cab for ‘No person who knows he is suffering from a notifiable disease shall enter a cab without previously notifying the owner or driver of his condition’.
When a special Buckingham Palace Brownie Pack was formed for Princess Anne in 1959, one of the other nine-year-olds handpicked to keep her company was the daughter of a London cabbie.
The actress Keeley Hawes’ father is a cabbie as are both her older brothers. Amy Winehouse’s dad Mitch, in addition to being a musician and singer, drives a London cab. Entertainer Brian Conley’s late father was once a London cabbie.
In case you still haven’t had enough of our history I would suggest reading The Black Car Story by Alf Townsend, in it is more than you will ever need to know about London’s cab trade, written by our foremost trade journalist.