Today we are going to be talking about the famous black London cab, a celebrated icon of London life which are relied upon by millions of travellers, tourists and Londoners alike.
There are around 21,000 London cabs, officially called ‘Hackney Carriages’. They are the only licensed taxis which can pick up passengers on the street without pre-booking.
The modern day black cab is the descendant of the horse-drawn hackney carriage which began providing a taxicab service in London in the early 17th century. The first example of taxicab regulation in London was in 1636 during the reign of Charles I, where the number of carriages was set to 50. The now defunct Corporation of Coachmen received their charter (permission to ply for hire in London) back in 1639. The Commissioners of Scotland Yard began regulating hackney carriages after 1662, during the reign of Charles II.
Where was London’s first taxi rank?
According to the London Vintage Taxi Association, the first taxicab stand was formed in 1634 outside the Maypole in the Strand, basically between where Somerset House and Mary le Strand Church is nowadays.
Captain John Baily, a veteran of one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions, managed a taxi rank of four horse-drawn carriages, available for hire from the Strand. Baily’s cab men wore a distinctive livery, and charged customers a fixed rate, depending on distance. The idea caught on and by the 1760s, there were at least 1,000 “hackney hell carts” clamouring down London’s busier-than-ever streets.
Why Are Black Cabs Called Hackney Cabs?
The name cab derives from the French, cabriolet, the popular style of carriage in the early 19th century two-wheeled French-style cabriolets which had an exposed seat on the top. They were known for their speed and comfort and eventually replaced the heavier and more cumbersome hackney carriages for the rest of the century. By the 1830s, the word “cab” entered the Londoner’s vocabulary.
But where does the word Hackney come from? Is it related to the area of Hackney?
The short answer is no. It’s related to the horse. It’s believed the name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse, it literally means, ‘ambling nag’.
The hackney horse as we know it now was developed in the 18th century by crossing Thoroughbreds with the Norfolk trotter, a large-sized trotting harness horse. The first Hackney horse is said to be The Shale’s Horse, foaled in 1760.
The drivers of Victorian London’s horse-drawn hansom cabs were constantly exposed to the elements. They were prohibited by law from leaving the rank whilst waiting for custom and expected to “sit on the box”.
If you were a cab driver, stopping to go to the toilet or grab some food was problematic.
Even with the risk of a hefty fine, many cab drivers were drawn to the warmth and comfort of a pub between jobs which then led them to ‘drink more than is good for their health or behaviour’ as reported in The Illustrated London News of 20 February 1875.
On a particularly snowy night, Captain Armstrong, editor of The Globe – wanted a cab to take him from his home to his offices in Fleet Street. As usual, he sent his servant round to the cab stand to fetch him one. Although there were cabs, there were no cab drivers. Upon further investigation, the servant found them in a pub, sheltering from the storm. The servant considered them too drunk to drive and so returned to Captain Armstrong’s home without a cab. This gave Captain Armstrong an idea.
Within a month, Armstrong had teamed up with a group of like-minded philanthropic worthies, including the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and started the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund.
London wasn’t the first British city to create shelters for their cabmen. Birmingham already had them and there were plans for a ‘cabmen’s room” at the newly built Kingston train station with enough room for the horses too.
In an article in Lloyds’ Weekly Newspaper December 1874, it describes how a cab driver trying to keep warm in London’s wet winters had to choose between waiting “out of doors with his blue fingers to his lips, or his arms flapping against the breast of his greatcoat, or else he must go into a public-house and pay for the privilege of warming himself by buying ‘something to drink’ that he does not want.” Before the end of the month, an article in the London Evening Standard reported that a charity was formed and already appealing to the public for donations.
The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund’ purpose was to supply London cabmen, when in the job, with a place of shelter where they could get some “wholesome refreshments at very moderate prices”. The proposed design would be 17 feet long by six feet wide, and 10 and a half feet tall, leaving just enough room inside for 10 to 13 (thin) men. There were railings to tie the horses to and would have facilities for cooking and water.
The London Evening Standard reported that the cost was put at £75 per shelter, including gas and water facilities. However other sources say the building cost was as much as £200.
By the end of 1875, at least 21 shelters – all painted the same shade of hunter green, with black roofs and trims – were built and serving tea and coffee, sausages, and bread and butter etc.
The initial donations were designed to pay for the initial outlay, but the cabbie shelters were expected to be self-sufficient within the first few months of opening.
Each shelter had tables and chairs for patrons to use. Horses could be tied to the bar running around the edge of the shelter, under the watchful gaze of the cabman and someone inside made and sold warm food. The founding philanthropists often provided reading material such as newspapers (like Armstrong’s Globe) and books. The subscription fee to use the shelters was minimal, no more than 6 pence a week, and once paid, it allowed cabbies to patronise every shelter in the city.
The Victorian cab drivers were expected to maintain a standard code of conduct: they were prohibited from gambling or playing cards, and in some shelters they were asked not to discuss politics.
Even though one of the main benefits of the shelters were for the cab men to take refuge from the unforgiving elements but it was also for convenience for their customers; the aristocracy, so they wouldn’t have to wait for a cab.
By December 1903, there were 45 cabmen’s shelters scattered throughout London, serving some 4,000 cabmen every day. Although the project clearly worked, it wasn’t quite the self-perpetuating scheme the Fund’s creators had hoped for. Summer months, for example, when the weather was fine some shelters lost money. Fund lamented, “It is a matter of regret that the work should be carried on under the disadvantages of insufficient income.” However, the number of cabmen’s shelters continued to rise but it’s unclear how many there were exactly at the height of their popularity; some figures claim 61, one cab driver I spoke to put the number at over 100.
Between 1890 and 1911 the focus had shifted towards upkeep and repair of existing shelters and consequently only seven new structures were built over the period.
London’s crowded streets would change in a way that would eventually doom the shelters. In 1903 the first gas-powered motorcars, French imports, took to the road. Over the next fifteen years the motorcar taxi trade grew. The name “taxi” came from the “taximeter”, the device that measured the distance the vehicle travelled.
Many horses were requisitioned during World War I, the motorcar dominated the cab trade and the need for cabmen’s shelters was necessarily decreased. The last horse cab on London’s streets was taken out of service in 1947.
Cabbie Shelter Design
There are a number of differently designed Cabmen’s Shelters as several architects have been involved in the project over the years. A lost example of an ornate double-tiered shelter decorative finials once stood outside the Law Courts on The Strand.
Where can I see a Cabman’s Shelter?
There are currently only 13 cabmen’s shelters in existence, 12 of them are still in operation. In the early 1990s, the Heritage of London Trust helped the Cabbie Shelter Fund to refurbish seven of these shelters.
If you don’t know what cabbie shelters are, they are the small green cricket-pavilion-style sheds dotted around London.
I have added some photos on the episodes show notes at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast and click on episode 56 The Black Cab’s Legacy.
I have put together a map for you to see their location which you can share to your phone and use to find them for yourself. All of these remaining shelters are now Grade II.
It’s perhaps the Embankment Place cabbie shelter many of you may have seen before. It’s on the corner of the Embankment and Northumberland Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Playhouse Theatre. Following a competition in 1881, Maximilian Clarke was appointed to design a shelter for Northumberland Avenue. The key features of their design included a steeply pitched hipped roof, overhanging eaves with exposed rafters and decorative fretwork panels integrated into the main timber frame which feature ribboned garlands and the ‘CSF’ monogram. This particular shelter was replaced in 1915.
Northumberland Avenue is so named as it was once the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland, overlooking the Thames. A fire in 1866 caused considerable damage to the property that when the Metropolitan Board of Works offered to buy it for £500,000, the Duke jumped at the chance.
You may notice that Northumberland is rather an unusually wide London road. In mid-Victorian London, planning permission for hotels were set for them to be no taller than the width of the road they stood on and since the plan was to build some of London’s largest and grandest hotels here, this short road is very wide.
This Chelsea Embankment SW3 shelter overlooks the Albert Bridge and must have one of the most romantic locations for what is basically a greasy spoon. Its nickname is ‘The Pier’ as close to Cadogan Pier. In the 1970s its nickname was ‘The Kremlin’ as it was known for hosting left-wing cabbies. Sadly it’s been closed for a number of years due to the lack of nearby parking for cab drivers.
List of remaining cabmen’s shelters:
Russell Square WC1 – NW Corner, SE corner for tiramisu
Thurloe Place, Kensington SW7 (opposite the V&A Museum)
Embankment Place WC2 – near the Playhouse Theatre
Warwick Avenue, London W9 (near Warwick Avenue tube station)
Grosvenor Gardens SW1 – W gardens
Kensington Park Road W11 – outside numbers 8-10
Kensington Road W8 – near Queen’s Gate SW7
Pont Street SW1 – close to Sloane Street junction
Temple Place WC2 – opposite Swiss Hötel Howard
Wellington Place NW8 (near Lord’s Cricket Ground)
Hanover Square, London W1 – NE corner
Chelsea Embankment, near to the Albert Bridge
The cabbie shelters are constructed directly on public highways and were not allowed to be no larger than the size of a horse and cart. Their efficient design made it possible to accommodate a small kitchen and enough space for 10 to 13 cabbies. I have even seen designs which incorporate a handy urinal, if you pardon the pun.
Why are cabbie shelters green?
Good question. If you have listened to episode 33 London’s Pillar Boxes, you would know that pillar boxes were originally green but were changed to an easier to notice red colour. However, these shelters weren’t for everyone so perhaps the green colour was more appropriate. Things, however, have changed. Even though only black cab drivers can enter a Cabbie’s shelter, the public are able to get a take away. My favourite for doing this is the one on Russell Square as there is plenty of seating around. And on the other side of Russell square there is a phone box crammed with tiramisu (it’s called Walkmisu) I kid you not, oooh and try their pistachio one. Mmmmmmm
Joseph Legge OBE JP was born in Willenhall in 1860 and founded Legge Locks in 1881, at the age of twenty.
The company adopted a novel trademark. While on holiday in the Isle of Man Mr Legge found himself studying the famous symbol of three legs. Struck by the design he was determined to adopt it as a trade mark; but it was not without the greatest difficulty that he secured permission.
The sign of the three legs is still used today and, in the post war period, was a symbol of his three sons actively engaged in the business.
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