by Anthony Waldstock
Hired transport in London goes back to before the 12th century when the Watermen plied their trade on the river. Horses for hire (Hackneys) were given a Royal Patent (which fixed their charges) in 1396. The Watermen roundly resisted. Queen Elizabeth I used a Hackney carriage and the antics of an unruly coachload of ladies in 1694 had an influence on London transport which far outlasted their lifetimes and fame! The motor cab arrived in 1904. The Hansom Cabbies roundly resisted. The familiar black cab of today is a direct result of the strict specifications laid down by the Metropolitan Police – but the colour is not! Hackney to Cab to Hansom to Growler to Taxi and the modern chatty Cabbie and The Knowledge is almost a complete history of London itself.
An Early Hansom Cab
The official term for a taxi in Britain is Hackney Carriage. This refers directly to the first form of land transportation which was available for hire to Londoners – the horse. A Hackney is a horse or pony of a light breed with a high stepping trot, used in harness and is distinct from a war horse or dray. The word itself is Middle English and probably derives from Hackney in East London where horses were pastured. Its first recorded use for the horse is in 1255 and, with the sense of a horse for hire, in 1393.
The practice of hiring transportation is even older than that in London. The Thames was anciently much wider than it is today and there was only a single bridge, London Bridge, until Putney Bridge was opened in 1729 and Westminster Bridge in 1750. The first persons licenced to ply for hire were the Watermen who carried passengers across and up and down the river for a fee. These were clearly a chatty breed and, apparently, a good source of up to the minute news as is plain from the diaries of Samuel Pepys. They were originally licenced by Royal Charter which had to be renewed on the accession of each reigning monarch. This changed in 1193 when Richard I gave control of the waterways to the City of London. It was confirmed in 1393 by Richard II by which time the City authorities governed the entire River from the Medway in Kent to Staines in Surrey (roughly from Rochester to Heathrow in today’s geography). A hint of some problems in the matter of fares charged is given by the fact that in 1372, the City authorities found it necessary to order the Watermen to limit their fare between the City and Westminster to 2d.
Richard II was also responsible for issuing the first known patent for the provision of hacknies for hire in 1396 which set down the charges as follows:”There shall be taken for the hire of a hakenie from Suthwuk (Southwark) in London to Rochester 12d; from Rochester to Canterbury 12d; and from Canterbury to Dover 6d and from town to town according to the rayte of 12d and number of miles”The horses could be hired from hackneymen’s stables, which were set at intervals along the route from London to various Towns. These stables became known as hackney stages. During the reign of Elizabeth the first horse-drawn vehicles for public transport began to appear in England. The lighter vehicles used in Town were known as Hackney Carriages whilst the sturdier vehicles which plied between the towns were known as Hackney Coaches. Association with the hackney stages soon transmuted the latter into Stage Coaches.
A London Hackney Carriage in 1588
Ever ready to try out new ideas, Elizabeth, in 1588, rode to the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral in a Hackney Carriage. The Water men were not entirely happy at this innovation and opposition to the carriages rumbled on for many years. They found occasional allies in the citizens and burghers who complained of the dangers and nuisance of these new contraptions charging through the narrow streets. Matters reached a head in 1614 when a Bill was put before Parliament demanding that the “outrageous” Hackney Carriages be outlawed. It was defeated on May 7th and thus initiated the long decline in the Watermen’s trade.
A Hackney Coach in 1643
Once the Hackney Carriage became both popular and legal the entrepreneurs began to appear. One Captain Bailey, a retired mariner, established a rank for six hackney coaches at the Maypole in the Strand London in 1643. The Commonwealth government which was established on the day after the execution of Charles I in 1649 was dominated by military men. No strangers to the use of horses in the transportation of men and armaments, they were, perhaps, therefore more inclined to favour increased public transport in the streets and between towns. In any event, within six months they had passed an Act of Parliament which granted licences to 200 Hackney Carriages to ply for hire on the streets of London. This Act is still the foundation of our modern taxi licensing system and this is why officials are legally obliged to refer to a taxi as a Hackney Carriage.
Following the restoration of Charles II, Parliament passed another Hackney Carriage Act in 1662, fixed to run for a term of seventeen years. In 1685 The Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London passed an Act of Common Council which established the Hackney Coach Commissioners. This then became the only body empowered to issue licences to hackney carriages and coaches. In 1694, the Government badly needed to raise money for the French and Dutch Wars and had Parliament pass an Act which transferred the money from the licences into the Treasury. Also in this year, in Hyde Park, a coach-load of ladies in behaved in ‘an unruly’ manner with the result that all coaches were banned from the park. The ban was not lifted until 1924!
One of the entrepeneurs involved in this business appeared on the scene in the 1820s. Frederick Gye at this time had a contract to print tickets for the various Lotteries then being held. His luck came in when he bought one of his own tickets and won the handsome sum of £30,000! His fortune made, he became a member of Parliament for Chippenham and was soon on close terms with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Spotting a business opportunity in 1828, he asked the Hackney Coach Commissioners for licences to cover 300 coaches and the French cabriolet de place. The Commissioners pointed out that the existing Law did not permit them to licence more than 1,200 vehicles and that the quota was already exhausted. They also pointed out that to put 300 vehicles on the road would require capital of £66,000. With the Prime Minister’s help, Gye had his way and in 1831 Parliament passed an act that abolished the quota from 1833. Gye’s cabriolets were lighter, faster and more comfortable than most existing coaches and soon became popular. It was not long before they became the mainstay of public transport in London and popularly known as ‘cabs’. The Hackney Carriage had all but disappeared by 1850. By this time too, the authority to licence Hackney Carriages had been passed to the newly established Metropolitan Police.
A Hackney Carriage office in 1850
The streets were now open to all comers and Gye soon faced competition. In 1834 Joseph Hansom took out a patent on a ‘Safety Cab’. This was an ungainly affair which consisted of a wooden body slung low on 7 ½ foot wheels with the driver perched on the top and the door in the front. This was improved in 1836 by John Chapman whose design had the driver behind the cab and a window in the roof through which he communicated with his passengers. This became the standard Hansom cab of 19th century London. It carried only two passengers and a four-wheeled modification which allowed for another passenger alongside the driver was introduced at about the same time. This became known as a Growler.
By 1860 the number of cabs and Growlers in the metropolis had risen to 4,600. By 1904, this had risen to 7,499 cabs and 3,905 Growlers – a capacity that far outstripped demand. The number of cabs cruising the streets in search of fares caused so much traffic congestion that the Metropolitan Police introduced regulations that compelled them to remain at their ‘ranks’ until a passenger came to them. The reputation of the cabmen in the 19th century was not high. Heavy drinking was perhaps a natural outcome of the frustrations provoked by searching the dismal and rainy streets in search of fares or, latterly hunched all day in the cap waiting for a passenger to approach the rank. A number of philanthropists stepped in and financed the building of sixty-four cabmen’s shelters across London. These provided a cheap meal and a hot (non-alcoholic) drink as well as company. About a dozen of these still survive across the Metropolitan area and are still used by today’s cabbies.
A taxi rank and cabmen’s shelter in 1908
The invention of the motor-car was bound to bring changes to public transport. The first horseless cabs were operated by the London Electric Cab Company of Juxon Street, Lambeth. They began operating with twelve accumulator-driven 3 ½ horse-power electric cabs in the City and West end on August 19th 1897. These were powered by batteries, had illuminated electric lamps and could travel up to thirty miles between battery recharges at an average speed of 9 mph. They weighed two tons, four times that weight of a hansom cab but were quiet and smooth running where the horse-drawn vehicles were noisy and bumpy. The company also hired cars out at 25s a day with the driver and by the end of 1897 they had twenty-five cabs in their fleet, adding anaother fifty the following year. The cabs were painted with a yellow and black livery and Londoners soon nicknamed them the “humming-birds”.
They soon began to develop faults however, including vibration and excessive tyre wear, and became uneconomic to operate. Public opinion also became hostile. The first ever prosecution for drunken driving was of the 25 year-old cab driver George Smith. At 12:45 on Friday September 10th 1897 he drove his drove his electric cab onto the pavement and into the front corridor of 165 Bond Street. He was arrested by PC Russell 247C and charged with drunken driving later that day at Marlborough Police Court. He admitted to having taken two or three glasses of beer, found guilty and fined 20 shillings. Their reputation suffered another blow after a fatal accident on 23 September 1897. The nine-year old Stephen Kempton of 106 Chalgrove Road, Hackney stole a ride on a cab in Stockmar Road by jumping onto one of the springs of the vehicle. His coat became entangled in the chain drive and he was crushed to death between a rear wheel and the body of the vehicle. The cabs were eventually banned by the police and early 1900 the Electric Cab Co. sold off its seventy-seven cabs.
London was slow to take advantage of the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the main problem being the 12 mph hour speed limit. This was raised to 20 mph in 1903 and the Metropolitan Police began to licence petrol-engined cabs in 1904. The first was a Prunel Hansom operated by the London Express Motor Service which was issued with Hackney Carriage Plate No. 15831. The vehicle was built as a motorised replica of the Hansom cab with the driver seated above and behind with the steering column and control levers. The body work was by Henry Whitlock Ltd of Holland Park and the cab was powered by a twin-cylinder 12 horse-power Aster engine. By all accounts, the passengers, in the front-line so to speak, were somewhat unnerved by their experience and the design soon settled into now the familiar one with the driver behind the bonnet and the passengers in the rear.
By the end of the year there were three petrol-driven cabs in service and the drivers were said to be making as much as £5 a day. This was far in excess of the £10 per week that the Company charged them for the use of the cab. The fares were regulated to 8d a mile, the price of a gallon of petrol. In contrast, the Hansom cabs charged only 6d a mile. It appears that much of the motor cabbies’ earnings came from their most regular patrons – officers returning to Aldershot after a night out on the town! Like the Watermen before them, the Hansom cab drivers resisted the introduction of these new cabs –
they frightened the horses but the public took to the novelty.
A London Taxi from 1908
By 1906 there were more than 100 motor cabs on London’s streets. It was in this year that the Metropolitan Police began to lay down strict regulations governing the design and construction of motorcabs. One of these was that the vehicle should have a maximum of a twenty-five foot turning circle and this is still the requirement today. Another was the metal flag which was pulled down when the cab was hired and which survived until 1959. They also introduced registered fares, extras and information for the driver. Again as with the Watermen before them, there were disputes about fares. This was resolved in 1907 with the introduction of the Taximeter on March 22nd of that year. This provided both passenger and driver with a measure of the distance travelled and gave the cab its modern name of Taxi. By the beginning of 1914 there were 8,397 licenced motor cabs on London’s streets but the horse drawn cabs survived in ever decreasing numbers. The last one was licenced in 1947.
The design and construction regulations were strictly enforced and eventually became standardised so that by 1940 only three companies were making them. It was not until the introduction of Austin’s FX3 in 1948 that the now familiar face of the London taxi made its appearance. Initially not very popular because of its high price, nonetheless it soon found favour because of its strength and reliability. Many of the taxi features familiar on a modern cab were formed on the FX3 such as the 25ft mandatory turning circle and the luggage compartment next to the driver. The now familiar black bodywork was the cheapest colour that Austin offered, and hence chosen by the buyers. It was not, as some believe, part of the Regulations of 1906. Over 7000 FX3’s were produced in both petrol and diesel (FX3D) models until the introduction of the FX4 in 1958.
The familiar jellymould shape of the FX4 defined the London Taxi and remained unchanged until 1997. FX4’s were predominately fitted with Austin’s 2.2 litre diesel engine and an automatic gearbox. Engine capacity was increased to 2.5 litres in 1972. Over 55,000 FX4’s were produced and they can be identified by their chrome bumpers and the bunny ear indicators above the passenger doors. Austin sold the rights to Carbodies and in 1982 they introduced the FX4R. This model had a number of improvements such as servo brakes and power steering but was hampered by the weak and unreliable 2.2 litre Land Rover engine. (Some drivers opted for the FX4Q, essentially a reconditioned FX4 with a new Perkins engine rather than purchase this model.) Around 6,000 FX4R’s were produced and they can be identified by their black overiders on the chrome bumpers.
In 1984 Carbodies joined forces with Mann & Overton, a taxi sales company, to create London Taxis International. Their first model was the FX4S, with a more robust 2.5 litre Land Rover engine and a redesigned interior which allowed it to be licenced to carry 5 passengers. Externally it was provided with black bumpers (fenders). In 1987 the FX4S Plus was launched.
This was fitted with a larger radiator and a redesigned interior. It reached sales of around 7,000. The introduction, in 2000, of the requirement that all taxis have wheelchair access brought a dilemmas for London’s cabbies. The cost of converting the FX4 models is very high and for many the purchase of a new vehicle made more economic sense. The numbers of the classic FX4 on London’s streets is therefore steadily dwindling.
The Fairway Driver
The LTI Fairway, introduced in 1989, was designed to meet the new regulations. It saw a radical departure in specification and was fitted with an ultra reliable Nissan 2.7 litre diesel engine and a redesigned rear suspension. Wheelchair access was built in as standard. In 1989 this model became available in three trim options bronze, silver & gold, and 1993 saw the introduction of the Fairway Driver with further improved suspension and brakes hidden under the domed wheel hubs. The last Fairway was produced in 1997 and was given the number plate ‘RIP FX’. It was replaced by the LTI TX1. This high specification cab introduced radical improvements in both driver and passenger comfort without losing the familar shape. Perhaps, in this Golden Jubilee Year we might see the second Queen Elizabeth take a ride in this descendant of her ancestor’s Hackney Cab?