Tag Archives: the knowledge

C4: The Knowledge

Tomorrow Channel 4 is courageously broadcasting an hour’s viewing devoted to The Knowledge, or more specifically, one of the schools and its pupils. “If it’s not taking over your life, you’re not doing it properly.” So says one of the examiners for The Knowledge, the infamous test of London’s 25,000 streets; the tens of thousands of places upon those streets, added to the traffic restrictions and the little matter of holding down one’s existing job.

[O]nce qualified the novice London Licensed Black Cabbie becomes a human satnav, in fact, they have more expertise in finding their way across their city than any other taxi driver in the world.

In the programme we see several candidates sweat through the one-on-one examinations they have to sit.

These ought to be tedious to watch:

Leave on left: Green Lanes
Right: Highbury New Park
Left: Highbury Grove
Right: St. Paul’s Road
Comply: Highbury Corner
Leave by: Upper Street
Right: Barnsbury Street
Left: Milner Square
Forward: Milner Place
Forward: Gibson Square

They are just a recital but have the tension of a high-stakes quiz show or one of those evil spelling tests on Child Genius.

Often compared to studying for a degree (although The Knowledge does take longer) the candidates have sunk years of their lives and thousands of hours of study into mastering the map of London.

When they stumble, you feel their pain; when they cross the final hurdle, it’s emotional for all concerned.

6-mile-radius

The 6-mile radius that has to be learned

I described Channel 4’s decision to screen the documentary as ‘courageous’ for this behind-the-scenes looks at one of the world’s toughest exams which could be its swan song.

Because of recent decisions taken by Transport for London the take-home pay – after covering their overheads – of London’s cabbies is about the same hourly rate of that of a London bus driver. As a result over time recruitment of those willing to undertake The Knowledge will just dry up.

Since Cromwell licensed the London cab trade in 1654 – and in so doing making it the oldest regulated public transport system in the world – and the advent of The Knowledge after the Great Exhibition of 1851, many have tried to destroy London’s cab trade and been proved singularly unsuccessful.

The watermen plying the Thames were the first to try their luck when the early bridges were built, claiming that cabs couldn’t ‘go South of the River’; in 1961 exploiting a loophole in the 1869 Carriage Act, Michael Gotla spent £560,000 buying 800 red Renault Dauphines expecting that the drivers could ‘ply for hire’. Unfortunately for Gotla within a year, the courts begged to disagree with his interpretation of the law.

His rather costly enterprise did have one consequence, and that was encouraging anyone with a rusty Datsun to attach an aerial to its roof, sign on at a dodgy ‘mini-cab’ office, and chance his luck on London’s streets at the weekend. It would be many years before their act was cleaned up.

Others have called for a truncated Knowledge, fast-tracking students to increase the numbers on the road, or for allowing those final year students to be let loose on the capital’s streets in the hope they know where they were going. All of these cunning plans have come to zilch.

But, I’m afraid Transport for London has won. With students unwilling to put their lives on hold as they pursue The Knowledge this proud service, the envy of the world, will wither on the vine.

The Knowledge: The World’s Toughest Taxi Test – Channel 4 21.00 Wednesday 12th April.

If you want a better insight into The Knowledge I can highly recommend Black Cab London here Robert takes you through all the hurdles necessary to pass. I have also used his map to illustrate the 6-mile radius.

Blue Book run number one

It is the only Blue Book run that many Londoners know – Manor House to Gibson Square. The prospective cabbies’ itinerary the Blue Book – which had of course a pink cover – and nestled between those pink sheets were 320 routes criss-crossing the capital. But when embarking on that first journey in pursuit of The Knowledge what do we know of the roads we travel along? The following is a brief description of the beginning of a Knowledge Boy’s or Girl’s odyssey.

[M]anor House This grandly named station takes its name, not from some palatial residence once owned by the local lord, but from an inn called the Manor Tavern. This boozer had a chequered history, first opening its doors in 1820 then closed only to be resurrected before demolition. Over the years its name transmogrified into the Manor House fortuitously in time for the 1931 opening of the tube station that takes its name, much to the relief of residents setting them apart from downmarket Finsbury Park.

Manor House

Leave on left: Green Lanes As its name implied, this busy stretch of road was once a bucolic idyll. If you can divert your eyes from the road and the oncoming traffic you will see on your left Stoke Newington Pumping Station [featured picture]. Built by the Victorians in the Scottish Baronial manner, this medieval-style oddity with its crenulations and turrets is now the Castle Climbing Centre. Built between 1852 and 1856 at a cost of £81,500 in an area that then was mostly fields, its curious design is thought to be the result of assuaging local concerns in having an industrial building plonked in the middle of a field. The New River Company which owned and operated it would have been a lucrative investment at the time to any of those dissenters. In 1873 a quarter share was sold for £12; twenty years later a single share was worth £94,900.

Blue-Book

Right: Highbury New Park This tree lined road was laid out in the 1850s and given its modern name to set the development apart from the more established Highbury Barn. This street might appear affluent now but between the wars it was very different. An example was No. 150 Highbury New Park, which in 1936 had two flats on the ground floor with a shared bathroom, one flat and two bed-sitting rooms on the first floor, and one flat with a balcony on the second floor; its detached stable block, which had been converted into a caretaker’s cottage in 1914, was a garage with a flat over it, let separately and with its own garden. Despite multi-occupation, overcrowding was not a problem in Highbury as a whole, which had few of the very poor.

Left: Highbury Grove Just 100 yards of travel along this road. If you think all this area is affluent now given that the previous description was taken 80 years ago consider this: as you turn into Highbury Grove on your right is Highbury Grove School. In 2005 Channel 4’s Dispatches sent an undercover teacher who filmed pupils clambering across desks, throwing books across the room and attacking each other. Clearly something was needed and a super-strict headmaster was appointed to this music specialist school, by giving out 300 detentions a day he has turned around, for the time, this failing school now described by Tatler as one of the best in Britain.

First page of routes Manor House to Gibson Square
First page of routes
Manor House to Gibson Square

Right: St. Pauls Road On the left at the junction with Highbury Corner is the curiously named Hen and Chickens Theatre. Seating only 54 this Victorian pub has paid a role in launching the careers of Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Rhona Cameron.

Comply: Highbury Corner The title is misleading as this junction is less a ‘corner’ and more a small gyratory system. One contributing factor for this area to have a wide open space was an event that took place at 12.46 pm on 27th June 1944 when a German V1 flying bomb flattened a wide area killing 26 and seriously injuring another 84.

Leave by: Upper Street The question that must be on your lips must be: “Where is Lower Street?” Well, it’s on your left and now renamed Essex Road, not that it goes to Essex, you have to turn right at Balls Pond Road to get there. Upper Street is the start of the Great North Road not that it resembles anything like that great highway. It could lay claim to the greatest number of unused pedestrian crossing per mile in London. As you travel down this trendy road it takes some stretch of imagination to realise that Islington was once an 18th century village and the hub of dairy farming supplying much of London’s milk.

Right: Theberton Street The old field path across these once bucolic lands form the basis of Theberton Street which is named after the Theberton estate in Suffolk the ancestral home of the Milner-Gibson family who developed these old cow pastures. As you turn into Theberton Street on the corner is was the Sir Walter Raleigh pub once the site of an ancient house – the Pied Bull with associations with the old pirate, now renamed the Bull which brings us neatly back to the area’s dairy farming roots.

Gibson Square Islington

On right: Gibson Square the first of two squares built as part of the Milner-Gibson Estate, was laid out from 1832 to 1839 by architect Francis Edwards, a pupil of Sir John Soane. The garden was originally open to residents only, but in the 1930s it had become rundown and was surrendered to Islington Council for upkeep. During World War II the garden was dug up for air raid shelters and later replanted. In 1963, a proposed ventilation shaft for the new Victoria Line, in the form of a 50-foot concrete structure, was staunchly opposed by residents. This resulted in the simulated classical temple [below] designed by Prince Charles’ favourite architect Quinlan Terry with a domed roof which stands in the garden today, designed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The work was carried out in the early 1970s, when London Transport also restored the garden and replaced its railings.

Gibson-Square

Photo: The Gibson Square Vent David McGroarty

Knowledge Newsletter

Today marks a new chapter in the life of CabbieBlog. Starting in March a monthly newsletter will be published giving information and insights into every aspect of the knowledge.

As a London cabbie I’m always being asked questions. It seems that everyone has an unending fascination with my occupation.

This view might be a rather myopic view of how Londoner’s think.

[I]t is borne out, in part, by the late left wing MP Tony Benn who would, when travellng in a cab, ask of the driver: “. . . and what did you do before becoming a cabbie?”

To increase an understanding of the trade the Knowledge Newsletter will be published monthly (there’s only so much information you want in your inbox) which hopefully will shine a light on the profession.

It will give some idea of the basic starting point and consideration you should give before embarking on The Knowledge: application; medicals; equipment; costs; the time you can expect to allocate to study; and how you will be examined.

Anecdotes from experienced cabbies and experiences from current Knowledge boys and girls will be welcome. For those of you who might already be embarking on The Knowledge, much will be known to you, but stick with it, it’s only one missive a month; the tales from the trade are worth that.

If you have any criticisms or contributions contact the Newsletter at knowledge@cabbieblog.com. Should you have an overwhelming desire to find out about London we post at CabbieBlog twice weekly miscellany.

Even if you, some might say sanely, have no intention of joining the ranks of the world’s finest taxi service the Knowledge Newsletter can provide a valuable resource for research or just curious interest.

In short (now for the boring bit) the Knowledge Newsletter will not send anything offensive, promote anything illegal, or harass anyone. You will not receive from CabbieBlog: pornography or other sexually explicit emails; emails offering to sell any goods or services; or any marketing or commercial email without permission.

You will already be on the mailing list if: you have opted in to receive the Knowledge Newsletter via a sign up form on the CabbieBlog website; have opted in to receive emails from CabbieBlog offline; have at some time contributed a Guest Post to CabbieBlog; a comment has been posted on CabbieBlog by you which has been acknowledged; or have requested an email update when posts on CabbieBlog become live.

We understand that you might not wish to continue to receive the Knowledge Newsletter. In that event you may unsubscribe at the bottom of the Newsletter when it alights upon your inbox.

If after all that you still want monthly updates you can sign up by going to The Knowledge page and entering your email address just under the post box.

Have you got The Knowledge?

She describes her blog as: ‘A city through the eyes of a girl who’s not sure how she ended up here’. For someone who is unsure of her place in the Metropolis, Flora, author of The Accidental Londoner seems to have fitted in rather well, writing one of the best of London’s blogs.

For this Guest Post she writes in praise of the London cabbie and the mystery of The Knowledge.

[quote]Where’s that, love? Sorry, my Knowledge is a bit rusty.” The cab driver I hailed in Chelsea wasn’t entirely sure where my home road in North London was. I rattled off a list of nearby places and the name of the main road that runs towards it. “Alright, hop in!” he said, and off we went. At Hyde Park Corner he apologised for disturbing me in the back and asked if I had a preferred route. We traded streets and road names for a while and he formulated the quickest way in his head; a human GPS re-plotting a route in real-time. “I probably ran this route when I did The Knowledge” he explained, “but I’ve not been there in years”.

‘The Knowledge’ is the education that all London cab drivers must undertake and complete in order to be allowed to drive a black cab. Learning The Knowledge probably gives someone the best understanding it is possible to have of how this vast city fits together. In London if you need to know where something is, and often what is currently going on there, the best person to ask is a cabbie. But the process of gaining The Knowledge is extremely tough, as I learnt when I got chatting to my cab driver on this trip home.

The average time taken to complete the full Knowledge training is four and a half years; my driver tells me he took five years as he was working whilst he learnt (as a postman, which he says was so awful it kicked him to finish his training!). Although he does admit that he only began his lengthy scholarship as a £1,000 bet, laid down by a cab-driving friend. A friend of his completed The Knowledge in only two years, but he did little else with his life during those two years, and had no other job. The first step in gaining The Knowledge is the Blue Book. (I love the mystery of all these innocuously simple words used to describe a city’s most detailed, intimate secrets!) The Blue Book – when my driver began his training – contained 480 ‘runs’, or routes through the city from one place to another, passing through 100,000 streets; despite the fact that my cabbie admits his usual bread and butter routes are frequent trips running the short distance between the West End and the City.

Runs are worked or learned on two wheels rather than four. You can spot learner cabbies on small scooters (complete with L plates) with photocopied routes taped to their windshields in streets all over London. On wintery, rainy days however my driver states, unsurprisingly, that this training becomes rather grim. But the tough road to one’s own four wheels and cab licence does not end there. New cabbies must also go through ‘appearances’, extremely formal tests in which examiners, addressed by examinees as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’, will demand precise descriptions of routes chosen completely at random. These routes have to be provided from memory, without even a map to illustrate the driver’s chosen roads. Examiners are notoriously provocative and will attempt to wind up new cabbies to prove they are not yet ready to face the British public. Those that finally pass are clearly not only very knowledgeable but have the patience of saints; which is no surprise when you think of some of the drunker customers they get driving evening shifts.

My driver tells me of a study conducted back in the 2000s which examined the progress of wannabe cab drivers, following 100 new drivers as the learnt The Knowledge. Five years later only three of the original 100 learners had become cabbies. The remaining 97 had not yet finished learning The Knowledge or had given up on the task ahead of them. So next time you get in a London taxi and become frustrated with the route your driver is taking, don’t start telling them they’re going the wrong way or rant and rave about their chosen way. These people have proven themselves more than capable of manoeuvring their cabs through this complex city. Think before you pipe up . . . do you have The Knowledge?

Mr. Ormes’s parrot

This time of year many are nervously in the throes of examinations fever. It’s an annual ritual performed for generations. Today with nothing better I can think to write about I’ll return to being examined while studying ‘The Knowledge’. Unlike tests set by examining boards it was a rather fluid system with each Carriage Officer putting their own – and unique – interpretation on how the process should be conducted.

[U]ntil recently all appearances [exams] were held on a one-to-one oral confrontation with examiners putting their quirky slant on how the process should be conducted. A favourite ploy to test the mettle of candidates was to adopt the old practice of good cop/bad cop – well they were ex-police. Mr. Lippitt would be civility itself “Is your father in the trade?”/”Have you come far?” before giving you some apparently easy questions. Mr Ormes, his nemesis, would say on a subsequent appearance that your previous answers, with the implication that the questions were easy, were not up to his high standard.

John Mason Head of Transport for London’s Taxi and Private Hire recalls that examiners would place the chair in the appearance room facing the wrong direction so that the candidate was facing the wall and not the examiner, and would give an automatic fail to the student who dared to turn the chair around. I once was reprimanded for moving the chair closer to his desk when finding it positioned in the opposite corner of the room.

At an appearance you are given places in London [points] that you have to identify their exact location, if you give the correct answer you are invited to describe, road by road, the shortest route to be taken from one to the other. Dean Warrington who runs the WizAnn Knowledge School remembers one examiner who decided the start and end points of his questions by throwing darts into a map. Should the student feel this was unfair he would offer to let them throw the darts instead.

Another ploy was to be seemingly engrossed in some urgent paperwork leaving the hapless student waiting sweating wondering when (and what) the first question would be. As an alternative to that Robert Lordon recalls at View from the Mirror being asked a question in the corridor before even entering his office and on another occasion the examiner – Mr Ormes – walking so slow that he walked into his back and having to apologise for treading on his heels. The opposite would be the order of the day for Mr Price who one student recalls as putting his feet on the desk and proceeding to read a copy of The Sun.

Mr Ormes

A BBC Modern Times documentary focused on the climate of fear created by the examiners. And the most feared of all examiners was the aforementioned Mr Ormes who had a life size toy parrot sitting on its perch in his office. It was the stuff of legend that if the parrot was facing you Mr Ormes was in a bad mood. He was a lugubrious character with a bone-dry delivery, and in the documentary was seen asking one nervous candidate with a criminal record how to get to the Penal Reform Society.

He looked and sounded like a copper who had seen it all and didn’t believe your story. He once asked me The Adelphi Building to The Royal Society of Arts. When I queried that they were opposite each other on John Adam Street he replied: “It’s raining, I’m pregnant and I’ve got a wooden leg”.

When a Knowledge boy left his office he wouldn’t even remember his own name – a truly terrifying experience. “You can smell if people have what is needed”, Mr Ormes would say.

When I left Mr Ormes that day I couldn’t recall which way the parrot was facing either. Now the parrot has retired and now resides at another cabbie seat of learning the Knowledge Point School.