Posted on Aug 14, 2002 – 12:58 AM by Anthony Waldstock
In 1877 Adolphe Smith and J Thomson followed Mayhew’s footsteps onto the streets of London with the intention of updating his material. Taking advantage of advances in technology they “sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject”. They selected their “material in the highways and the byways, deeming that the familiar aspects of street life would be as welcome as those glimpses caught here and there, at the angle of some dark alley, or in some squalid corner beyond the beat of the ordinary wayfarer”. They concentrated on the street characters who were most seen on the crowded streets and took quite a different line to that of Mayhew. Here is their description of the much maligned London Cabmen. There is also an interesting remark about the Victorian equivalent of the Ubiquitous “White Van” of the 20th century!
This old question is assuming a new phase. There is no better abused set of men in existence than the London Cabmen; but recent events and disclosures have helped, at least in part, to remove the blame from their shoulders, and attribute it to those who in this matter are the real enemies of the public interest. Despite the traditional hoarse voice, rough appearance, and quarrelsome tone, cab-drivers are as a rule reliable and honest men, who can boast of having fought the battle of life in an earnest, persevering, and creditable manner. Let me take, for instance, the career, as related by himself, of the cab-driver who furnishes the subject of the accompanying illustration. He began life in the humble capacity of pot-boy in his uncle’s public-house, but abandoned this opening in consequence of a dispute, and ultimately obtained an engagement as conductor from the Metropolitan Tramway Company. In this employment the primary education he had enjoyed while young served him to good purpose, and he was soon promoted to the post of time-keeper.After some two years’ careful saving he collected sufficient money to buy a horse, hire a cab, and obtain his licence. At first he was greeted with many gibes and jeers from the older and more experienced hands; but fortune soon smiled on him in the person of a bricklayer. This labourer had inherited a sum of £1300. His wife had been a washerwoman, and to quote the cabman’s own words,”Nothing was too good for her; but she looked after all only a washerwoman. No more the lady, sir, than a coster’s donkey is like the winner of the Derby!”
This couple engaged him day after day, and their drives caused quite a sensation in the neighbourhoods they favoured with their presence. They rattled pence at the windows of the cab, and threw out handfuls of money to the street urchins who followed and cheered in their wake. They hailed their old friends as they passed them in the streets, insisted on giving them a drive to the nearest public-house, where old acquaintance was recklessly drunk from foaming tankards, – knowing that they might always trust the cabman to see them safely home, if unable to guide their own steps. At last the bricklayer’s mind became affected by the importance of his fortune. A mania seized him; he could not desist from making his will, and then altering it over and over again. Sometimes he even awoke in the middle of the night, sent for his cab, and insisted on being driven to his lawyer’s in Chancery Lane, much to that grave gentleman’s annoyance. The matter of the will was, however, soon settled by the money being all spent, and the cabman lost sight of these peculiar customers. But this momentary good fortune, coupled with much hard work, enabled my informant to purchase a cab and another horse. At this point of his career he considered himself at liberty to indulge in the luxury of a wife, of whom he spoke in terms of high respect and affection. His horses were also the subject of his praise, and he sensibly boasted that they had always been serviceable hacks, and “never above their work.””There are among the London cab-horses, he continued, some animals with the bluest blood of the turf in their veins. Horses that have won piles of money for their heartless owners, and when useless as racers they have been sold for an old song. Some of these thoroughbreds are quiet, free, and useful; others, like broken-down gentlemen, have squandered their strength on the turf. “
Altogether there are 4,142 Hansom cabs, and 4,120 Clarence, or four-wheel cabs, in London. These are managed by 10,474 drivers, and the honesty of these men is best proved by the fact that whereas 1,912 articles forgotten in the cabs were given up to the Lost Property Office in 1869; this number had increased in 1875 to 15,584. On the other hand, it will be said that if we may hope to recover a forgotten parcel, there is but little chance of escape from overcharge in the matter of the fare. This is undoubtedly true; but at the same time, the public are generally unaware that the cab-driver is not exclusively responsible for these extortions. In this matter the proprietors are more to blame, for they demand so high a rate of payment for the hire of their cabs, that the drivers could never make a livelihood out of the legal fare. The charge for one Hansom and two horses per day varies from 10s. to 12s. in the dull season ; but there are no less than eight “rises” in the course of the year.The first is in November, when the Law Courts open, and then an extra shilling is charged; a further rise of a shilling ensues during the Cattle Show week; then there is a lull till the opening of Parliament, when a third shilling is added to the price. Last Christmas- day the cab-drivers were compelled to pay 4s. extra for the hire of their cabs, but on Boxing-day the proprietors prudently refrain from any such demand. The effects of the season are calculated to influence the drivers, and many would doubtless be glad to profit by any dispute as an opportunity of taking a holiday on Boxing-day. Besides, the occasion is not very advantageous, as the majority of customers are drunken men, who may give much trouble, damage the cab, and from whom no redress is possible.From the meeting of Parliament up to the Derby-day the price of cabs steadily increases; and, on the race-day itself, proprietors generally demand £1 15s. to £2 before they allow one of their cabs to go to Epsom. The driver, it is known, generally asks £3 3s. for the trip, and many have been the complaints respecting this apparently exorbitant charge; but when we remember that the driver is compelled to hand over about two-thirds of the sum to the cab-owner, and has also to spend eight to ten shillings on the road, it will be admitted that his profits are not unreasonable. There is but one cabman known to have kept for several years a detailed account of every fare he has taken. He enters in his book where his customers are found, – whether at a railway station, in the street, or while waiting at a cab-stand, – the amount actually received, and what was the legal fare he should have charged. Armed with these statistics, he is able to prove that, according to his experience, the sums given by the public are every year nearer to the legal fare. At the same time he is also able to prove that his income corresponds almost precisely with what he obtains over and above his fare; and that, therefore, the sums to which he is legally entitled only suffice to pay for the hire of horse and cab, and would leave him nothing to live upon. The increased astuteness of the public, and their determination not to give much more than the fare, have reduced this cab-driver’s income from an average of £2 per week to only thirty shillings.A cabman’s income is subject to numerous fluctuations. The months of October and September are the worst in the whole year; and, but for the presence of innumerable visitors from the Provinces and from America, many cab-drivers would have to abandon business altogether during this season. Nor are visitors the best of customers: they seem to shrink from employing cabs except on very special occasions. The “young men about town” are infinitely preferred; and those who are just one step below what a cab-driver described as “the cream of society.” If these gentlemen have no horses of their own, they console themselves by resorting on every possible occasion to the friendly expedient of the Hansom.Then again, fares of this description do not often take the driver far from profitable neighbour-hoods. The last and present year have, however, been exceptionally unfavourable, and many small proprietors were compelled to sell their horses and abandon business. Perhaps this accounts for the decrease in the number of fatal accidents; for there were only 87 persons killed in the streets during the year 1875, while the average for the previous six years amounted to 123 violent deaths. On the other hand, there was an increase of 136 more persons maimed and injured than during the previous year, the total being 2,704; but it would be unfair to blame the cabmen for this long list of casualties. The light carts, used for the most part by tradesmen, are responsible for the largest proportion of these accidents. Cab-drivers, who depend for their livelihood on their skill in manipulating the ribbons, are naturally more careful, and have more to lose should they injure an unwary pedestrian.The best season on record was that of the Exhibition of 1851. Notwithstanding the numerous events, the many attractive “sensations” that have occurred since then, cab-drivers have never again been in such urgent request and gathered so good an harvest. Nearly all the present cab proprietors trace their fortunes to this auspicious date. Many of them were mere cab-drivers, or at best but small proprietors, when the first great exhibition was opened; and the money they made at that time enabled them to start on a larger scale. So many people had, however, visited London during the Exhibition, and so much money had been spent, that a reaction naturally ensued, and for the two following years cabmen’s fares were scarce and meagre.Those only who were not too elated by the golden receipts of 1851, and were able to weather the storm by dint of economy and work, became the great proprietors of the present day. These are not, it is true, very numerous. It was estimated in 1874 that there were not more than fifty cab proprietors in London who possessed more than twenty cabs each. As a rule, three or four proprietors group together and occupy one mews: each man possessing four or five cabs. The two largest cab proprietors in London are, I believe, Mr. Thomas Gunn, of Doughty Mews, Russell Square, and Mr. Tilling, of Peckham. Westminster is often stated to be the chief haven of London cabmen, though till recently the quarter could only boast of two proprietors who possessed more than twenty cabs each. Two large owners have now, however, moved to this quarter from Islington. In any case, whatever may be the number of cab-owners in this locality, it is to the cab-drivers of Westminster and Chelsea that the honour is due of having initiated a reform movement.After many private discussions, the Cab-drivers’ Society was formed at a meeting held in Pimlico in April, 1874. The Eleusis Club, King’s Road, Chelsea, lent its hall to these pioneer organizers, and a most successful public meeting was held, which enabled the drivers to air their grievances for the first time. By the end of the year the Society comprised two branches, 158 members, and boasted of a capital amounting to £48 9s 51/2d. A year later this Society had already become a formidable association. In December, 1875, it numbered thirteen branches, had enrolled 1,658 members, and possessed funds amounting to nearly £800. It had been represented and heartily welcomed at the great parliament of labour, the Trades’ Union Congress, and is now strong enough to espouse the cause of any cab-driver who is unfairly treated by his employer. In this sense some good has already been achieved by the Society, but I must reserve further details concerning the men engaged in this familiar phase of street labour for a future chapter.