The History of the London Black Taxi Trade Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of the London Black Taxi Trade

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The first black taxi in London was the hackney coach in the 17th Century. The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse. It literally means, 'ambling nag'. In 1625 there were as few as 20 available for hire, operating out of inn yards. In 1636, the owner of four hackney coaches brought them into the Strand outside the Maypole Inn, and the first taxi rank had appeared. He established a tariff for various parts of London, and his drivers wore livery, so they would be easily recognisable. 'Hackney carriage' is still the official term used to describe taxis.

Regulating the Trade

  • In 1636 Charles I made a proclamation to enable 50 hackney carriages to ply for hire in London. It was left up to the aldermen to make sure this number was not exceeded.

  • After the Civil War, in 1654 Oliver Cromwell set up the Fellowship of Master Hackney Carriages by Act of Parliament, and taxi driving became a profession. 200 hackneys were now allowed.

  • The Act was replaced in 1662 under Charles II by a new act, which required the hackney coaches to be licensed, and restricted their number to 400.

  • In 1688 the number was increased to 600, and then again six years later by an Act of Parliament to 700.

  • In 1711, 800 licenses were issued, and then another 200.

  • In 1833 the trade became unregulated, and there was no longer a restriction on the amount of taxis. The only limit was that the driver and vehicle be 'fit and proper', a condition that still applies today.

This makes the licensed taxi trade the oldest regulated public transport system in the world, and it is the people in the trade that have demanded it this way. The rivalry between licensed and unlicensed hire vehicles has been around as long as the taxi trade.

The Vehicles

When the drivers began using lighter cabriolets, two-wheeled vehicles from France, at the beginning of the 19th Century, they became known as 'cabs'. The name comes from the French for 'jump like a goat', as they were very light, and tended to bounce through the streets. The London Hackney Carriage Act was passed in 1831, and the Metropolitan Police gained control of the trade for the next 169 years.

Wilhelm Bruhn invented the taximeter in 1891, and it is from this that the term taxi comes from. The taximeter measures the distance travelled and time taken of all journeys, allowing an accurate fare to be charged. The word comes from French taxe ('price') and Greek metron ('measure'). Previous inventions for calculating fares included the 'Patent Mile-Index' in 1847, and the Kilometric Register in 1858. These were disliked by cab drivers as they did not want their incomes regulated by machines. Even Bruhn ended up being thrown in the river by drivers, although his invention is still being used today.

In 1832, Edward Boulnois introduced a two-wheeled, enclosed cab to the hackney carriage drivers. Unfortunately it wasn't very popular, as the door was at the rear. As the driver sat at the front, it was too easy for passengers to jump out without paying the fare.

The early mechanical cabs were made by a variety of manufacturers, but after Austin brought their High Lot cab onto the market, they gradually took over. They brought out the Low Loader, the Flash Lot, the FX3, and then the FX4. The FX4 (also known as the Fairway) is what many people today think of when black taxis are mentioned, and (along with the Mini) was one of the longest lived of car designs. The TX1 followed the FX4 when cabs needed to become wheelchair accessible. The only practical alternative now is the Metrocab, but the FX4 is still the most popular cab on the streets.

There are a number of vintage cabs available for hire, but as they do not meet modern specifications they are only available to be hired privately for special occasions. Often the driver leaves the meter running.

An honourable mention must go to the Asquith taxi. A reproduction cab styled on the original Austin High Lot, there are ten Asquiths licensed to ply for hire on the streets of London. However, most drivers use them for private functions. They are no longer in production.


All black taxis have to pass the 'Conditions of Fitness'. This means that they must have a 25ft (7.6m) turning circle so the cab can U-turn off a central rank, that the passenger compartment must be high enough that a bowler-hatted passenger can sit in comfort, and that the entrance must be level with the floor, and not above 15in (38cm) from ground level. Cabs must also all be wheelchair accessible.

To ensure the taxis pass the Conditions of Fitness, and that they are safe to carry the public, they all have to pass a test three times stricter than the MOT1 for private cars every year. For instance, the tyres on a private car need only to be legal at the time of the test. A taxi will be assessed for wear and tear up to the next test. If the tires will not last a year, they will not pass. Taxis are also assessed by inspectors doing spot checks in the street. If the car fails, it will not be able to ply for hire again until it has been back to the passing station for a retest.

Taxis do not have to be black. They are allowed various forms of advertising on the panels of the cars, namely: single door advertising, double door advertising (the doors on each side must match), and full body advertising, called livery. Nothing is allowed on the boot, because the license plate and the registration number must not be obscured.

The Drivers

In the early days of the taxi, most of the drivers rented the vehicles from a proprietor who owned a fleet. Nowadays, the opposite is true. Most drivers own their own cars, and only a few fleets of a significant size remain.

Drivers do not have to stop if you hail them, whether or not the yellow 'taxi' sign is lit. This is because, legally, taxis are not plying for hire when they are moving. However, if they do stop, they are considered 'standing in the street' and cannot refuse a fare under six miles2 or that will take less than one hour. These regulations are to prevent the now non-existent horse3 from becoming fatigued or thirsty. As a general rule, if the cab driver is wearing his seatbelt, he is not for hire. As taxi drivers do not have to wear a seat belt when they are working, any driver wearing one is likely to be driving home.

The fares are set by Parliament, and always have been. They are set by time and distance, plus 'extras'. Extras include additional passengers, luggage over 60cm long, and hirings on evenings, weekends and public holidays. For journeys that take the passenger outside the Metropolitan Police District, the price can be negotiated with the driver.

Fascinating Facts

  • Taxis were banned from driving through Hyde Park in 1685. This was due to the unruly behaviour of some ladies in a hackney coach. The ban was lifted in 1687, only to be reinstated in 1711 due to 'several disorders' being committed. That time the ban lasted until 1924.

  • Taxi drivers are not legally obliged to give change. If a large note is offered the driver is entitled to take the cash, and offer to post the change to the passenger's home address.

  • The 'Knowledge of London' was introduced in 1851 by Sir Richard Mayne after complaints that cab drivers did not know where they were going. Passing the Knowledge involves detailed recall of 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. The locations of clubs, hospitals, hotels, railway stations, parks, theatres, courts, restaurants, colleges, government buildings and places of worship are also required. It can take three years to pass the test, including the six months it takes to be tested.

  • Only one percent of London's taxi drivers are women.

  • The original 'stage coaches' were certain hackney carriages whose drivers travelled in stages, ie, they would drive short distances, along a fixed route, picking up fares at defintite stopping points. As this part of the trade grew, they eventually became omnibuses, and then the bus transport system we have today.

  • The London Taxi Drivers' Fund for Underprivileged Children was started in 1928 when 12 London taxi drivers took children from a local orphanage to London Zoo. Now the charity takes the children to Disney Land, Paris, France for a few days. This Researcher's father David was the first non-London hackney carriage to take part.

1The MOT (originally abbreviated from 'Ministry of Transport' but now 'Matters Of Testing') is the statutory testing scheme for motor vehicles in the UK. For vehicles that come within the MOT Scheme (most personal vehicles), and which are over three years old, it is mandatory to pass the test each year.220 from Heathrow airport.3The last horse-drawn carriage surrendered its license on 3 April, 1947.

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