At that time, the cab-driver's vehicle of choice was the Hackney or Hansom horse-drawn carriage. The only place of sustenance and comfort was a Public House. To utilise this facility meant paying someone to watch the cab, 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. It is also likely that cabbies could be in these establishments some time, and possibly the worse for wear, through imbibing alcohol!
The story is that Captain George Armstrong, a retired soldier and editor of the Globe newspaper, had need of a cab due to London's inclement weather doing its worst. Although he could find plenty of cabs, there were no drivers to be seen. He eventually found them enjoying each other's company in a Public House, in varying levels of intoxication. Now at that time the Temperance Society was at the peak of its powers, and excessive intake of alcohol was frowned upon. In line with the Victorian ethos of public service, 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 and a few like-minded philanthropists, the Cabmen's Shelters Fund was created. The objective of the fund was to provide and run these shelters which would provide cab drivers with 'good and wholesome refreshment at moderate prices.' Between 1875 and 1914 around 60 of these shelters were built at a cost of £200 each. These would both address the problems of food and shelter and, more importantly, reduce the cabbies' temptation to indulge in alcohol.
There was a 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 gave 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 on the north side. The roof was originally felt-clad, but is now more often tiled, and sloped. It is mounted with a square slatted ventilation structure on the roof not dissimilar to a dovecote, and the whole shelter is painted a distinctive deep green.
Inside is a working kitchen, with seating space at tables for 10 - 13 drivers. Some shelters are decorated outside with hanging baskets of flowers and suchlike. Many in the past had books and newspapers, donated by benefactors and publishers for cabbies to read and provide up-to-date topics of conversation. Besides their function as a cabbie's cafe, they are very popular as a means of catching up with news, particularly where it appertains to their trade, such as closed roads, fires etc, although modern communications technology may have reduced this function today. Gambling, drinking and swearing occurred when the shelters were first created and used, although this went against house rules and one of the reasons for their provision.
There are 13 operational shelters in regular use today, still maintained by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, although this fund now has limited resources and is assisted by the Heritage of London Trust and other benefactors.
- Chelsea Embankment, near Albert Bridge.
- Embankment Place.
- Grosvenor Gardens, west side of north garden.
- Hanover Square, north of Central Gardens.
- Kensington Park Road, outside 8 - 10.
- Kensington Road, north side.
- Pont Street.
- Russell Square, west corner.
- St George Square, Pimlico.
- Temple Place.
- Thurloe Place, Knightsbridge, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- Warwick Avenue, Clifton Gardens.
- Wellington Place, St John's Wood.
If you have never seen one and are in the locality, pay a visit. If you ask politely you may be able to see inside, although as a non-cabbie you are not allowed to enter. Some have a facility where you can purchase a cup of tea!
It is hoped that this Entry has given a little insight into these often overlooked and very quaint, very Victorian and very English shelters on London streets.