The London Licensed Cab trade and Black Cabs.

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Too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy running taxicabs or cutting hair. - George F. Burns. 1896 - 1996

History of the Licensed Vehicle Trade.

The first time that a 'right to hire' license was issued in London was to the Waterman1 of the River Thames, London in the 12th Century, by . This was primarily because all the palaces and large houses of any significance backed ontRoyal Charteron the river, such as the palaces of Lambeth, Richmond2 and Westminster, along with landmark properties like the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle to name but a few and the easiest means of conveyance was by river. York House, on the Strand, uniquely still possesses the watergate entrance. It was the town house of the Bishops of Norwich. Also, dotted along the waterfront, were ferrymen’s seats where ferrymen waited to carry people from one side of the river, including actors and troubadours to the Globe, Rose and Swan theatres, as well as those visiting the 'stews' or brothels that were prolific on the Southbank. The last known seat can be found at Bear Garden, Bankside, London.

In 1625 four-wheeled carriages plied for hire from Inn yards with the first Hackney cab stand appearing at the Maypole, the Strand, London, in 1634, operated by Captain Bailey, a retired mariner who apparently accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his final expedition to (British) Guiana, now Guyana, South America. He operated four of these Hackney coaches with his drivers in livery,and setting his own tariffs. The term 'Hackney' came from the French Hacquenee a term for a general purpose horse or, put literally ‘ambling nag’. To this day the official term for a licensed taxi is a Hackney carriage.

Regulating the trade.

It was, at this time, that Charles I made a proclamation to allow 50 Hackney carriages to ply for hire in London with the Aldermen of the City charged to ensure this figure was not exceeded.

In 1654, Oliver Cromwell created the 'Fellowship of Master of Hackney Carriages' by Act of Parliament and plying for hire was now a profession also the number of Hackney carriages permitted to ply for hire was increased to 200. This Act was amended in 1662 by a new Act of Parliament created by Charles II, requiring all Hackney carriages to be licensed, generating income, but restricted to 400. In 1679, the Hackney carriage trade was further regulated with a 'condition of fitness'. Every carriage was required to be 10 feet (3.048m) long, be strong, capable of carrying a minimum of four passengers and the horses shall be no less than 14 hands tall (56 inches or 1.42m) and be fit and strong. To this day carriages must be able to carry a minimum of four passengers and be 'fit and proper' to ply for trade.

As the population grew so did the popularity and necessity for Hackney carriages increase such that in 1688 the number licensed to ply for hire grew to 600, and increased again in 1694, to 700. In 1711 800 licenses were issued, with 1,200 in 1831. By 1833 the trade became unregulated and there was no further limit on numbers.

In 1831 the London Hackney Carriage Act was introduced, controlled by the London Metropolitan Police for the next 169 years. In 1869 control passed to the Home Secretary, who delegated the authority back to the Commissioner of Police who created the Public Carriage Office, creating the stringent laws that still applies today creating possibly the finest, and oldest, carriage service in the world.

Legal Regulations.

The Hackney Cabs are heavily regulated and there are many Laws and Acts governing the trade. Here are just some of the Acts of Parliament that apply to the trade:

  • The Hackney Carriage Act, 1831.
  • London Hackney Carriage Act, 1843.
  • The Town Police Causes Act, 1847.
  • The Metropolitan Public Carriage Act, 1869.
  • The London Cab Act, 1896 and 1968.
  • The London Cab and Stage Act, 1407.
  • The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions ) Act, 1976.
  • The Transport Act, 1980.
  • The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994.
  • All the above are current, as of March 2009.

Horse-drawn Vehicles.

In 1832 Edward Boulnois introduced a two wheeled enclosed cab to the Hackney carriage driver, but it wasn’t popular as the entry and exit for the passenger was via the rear, while the driver sat at the front. This made it easy for the passengers to exit the carriage without paying the fare.

In 1834, Joseph Aloysious Hansom, an architect from York, England, registered his Hansom safety carriage, the famous two wheeled carriage which was designed and patented in Hinkley, Leicestershire, England. It was operated by a driver at the rear, with the passengers in the front, and was able to combine speed with safety due to it’s low centre of gravity, essential for safe cornering in the tight London streets. It is believed J A Hansom sold his rights for £10,000 and was alleged to have not been paid. It was redesigned and patented by John Chapman in 1836. Entry was via a folding door at the front with a raised seat for two above the axle and a means of talking to the driver via a trapdoor in the roof. Whatever the true story, the new owner of the Hansom Carriage Company bought Chapman’s patent and, with 50 Hansom carriages plying for trade, Hansom’s fame was secured.

With the advent of the Hansom carriage, other manufacturers were looking for lighter and faster two-wheeled carriages with, at the turn of the 19th century, the adoption of the cabriolet style from France proving the most popular. The term cabriolet loosely translates as ‘jump like a goat’ and stems from their lightness and bouncy movement, ideal for London’s cobbled streets, unlike the rigid frames of previous carriages. Bear in mind that they still had solid wheels! The term cabriolet became reduced to cab, a term still in use today, with the drivers called cabbies!

The Taximeter.

The next major advancement in the Public Hire trade came bout by Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891. His improvement was the Taximeter ( French taxe or price, and Greek metron or measure, from which the term ‘Taxi’ comes). The purpose of the device was to measure both time and distance, at the same, for each journey. This meant that, for the first time, an accurate and equal fare, could be charged. Others had also attempted this, with the ‘Patent Mile-Index’ of 1847, and the Kilometric Register of 1858, none of which survived. The Taximeter became compulsory in London in July 1907, and was actively disliked by the cab drivers who neither wanted their fares or incomes regulated by machines. Feelings ran so high that Bruhn was manhandled and thrown into the River Thames, London. However his invention survived to this day, albeit as an electronic rather than clockwork mechanism that has gone through many variation. It works through a number of ways:

For Hire - The taxicab is empty and available for hire, with the luminous ‘For Hire’ or ‘Taxi’ sign illuminated.

Hired - The taximeter is engaged just before the vehicle moves off and the ‘For Hire’ sign is switched off. The running fare,current tariff and any extras, such as luggage etc. are indicated.

Stopped - At the end of the journey the taximeter is stopped and the final tariff will be displayed.

The advantage of the modern meter is that it enables the fare (as the passenger is called) can see how much the journey is costing and decide if the tariff can be afforded.

Some credit, erroneously by most accounts, the Princely house of Thurn und Taxis with it’s development. This family made it’s money from a postal service in Italy and it appears it’s only, tenuous, link is by name only!

Automotive vehicles.

It was well into the period of motorised transport before the first petrol driven cabriolet arrived late in 1903. There had been an attempt at an electric cab in 1897, operated by the Electric Cab Co. Juxom Street, Lambeth, London, which was nicknamed the ‘Hummingbird’ due to the slight hum coming from the motor. It was deemed too dangerous as it couldn’t be heard by people or horses. The next serious attempt at an automobile taxi came from the Vauxhall Motor Company just down the road in, you’ve guessed it, Vauxhall, London, in 1905. It had a similar cab to the Hansom, with a driver at the rear, but with 7 - 9hp, minus the horse! Truly awesome.

During the war the vehicle-manufacturing units were converted to aid the war efforts, and were turning out vehicles for the M.O.D. This meant that, after the war, all pre-war taxis were getting worn out and a new vehicle was urgently needed. Nuffield, manufacturers of the Morris Motors commercial division, produced the Oxford in 1947, which was sold through W Beardmore and Co. Ltd. based in Paisley, Glasgow, and North London who had been making taxis since 1919.

In 1948 the first new black cab, the Austin FX3 was born. This was a joint venture, being made by Carbodies and Austin, and financed by Mann and Overton. It was initially petrol powered, but in 1952 a diesel version became available. There was also a 'posh' version, made by Austin, the FL1, which had four doors, a front seat and no 'For Hire' light. These ceased being manufactured in 1967. In 1958, Austin, with Mann and Overton finance, produced the modern, definitive, black cab, the FX4. This car had a number of modifications and engine models over it's 40 year manufacturing period, and many are still on the road today. A true workhorse!!! Carbodies of Coventry also made two cabs, the FX5 and CR6, primarily due to Austin, and Mann and Overton, being unable to finance an upgrade. In 1982, Carbodies took over production and built the final version, the Fairway. By 1997, when production ceased, 75,000 FX4's had been manufactured.

Another distinctive 'Taxi' plying for hire was the 1930’s style retro Asquith. It was based on an Austin low-loader, with a ‘sit up and beg’ style, powered by a Ford Transit diesel engine. This appeared in 1994 but production halted in 1998, when the company ceased trading. Only twelve were built as they were very expensive.

At the same time, the company who had been manufacturing for Beardmore, Metro-Cammell-Weymann, introduced the Metrocab to mixed reviews, primarily due to it's modern body shape and it's fibreglass body. The Metrocab has, over the years, had a number of owners and is currently not in production.
London Taxis International, who were the last company making the Fairway, came up with it's new version, the TX range. This went through many variations, but was considered by many to be 'boxy' and was unpopular. It was also deemed unreliable and could not meet the 360 degree turning circle rule. The current model is the TX4, which came into production in 2006, and actually meets European exhaust emissions

Hailing a Cab.

You can hail, or stop, a London cab by raising your hand, while standing on the kerb, to an approaching cab whose For Hire light is illuminated, and shouting “Taxi!” . If the cab pulls up then it should take the fare, which is you, the passenger. This is only applicable if the journey is within the Metropolitan Police District. This also applies to cab waiting at a Taxi Rank or strand. The current distance is around 12 miles (19km). However this does not apply if the cabbie is nearing the end of his shift. Previously the distance was 6 miles (9.5km) measured from Charing Cross. This was believed to be a fair distance for a driver and horse to safely travel. This gave rise to a common, and annoying catchphrase “Nort sarf o’ va riva, Guv!” (Not south of the river my good man!).

Licensing Regulations.

All Hackney cabs and cabbies must be licensed, which is valid for 3 years. The cab must have a white license plate attached on the rear of the luggage compartment. This indicates where the cab was registered, which in London is the Public Carriage Office (PCO), the license number, details of the cab’s number plate, expiry date and how many passengers it is licensed to carry. The license number must also be displayed in the passenger area.

The cabbie’s licence is a brass badge, usually worn around the neck. A green enamelled badge enables the cabbie to ply for hire throughout the London area, while a cabbie with a yellow enamelled badge can only apply for hire within the suburbs of London, i.e. up to 6 miles radius of Charing Cross, and excluding Heathrow Airport. As of 1998 there were 17.000 licensed cabs and 22.000 licensed cabbies.

’The Knowledge’.

Aahh! That famous expression “I’ve done ‘The Knowledge’, Guv!”. So what exactly is ‘The Knowledge’?

It is something peculiarly unique to the London Licensed Hire Trade. To become a fully licensed cabbie an arduous and demanding understanding of the routes in the City must be meticulously learnt. This includes it’s traffic patterns, fastest routes between A and B, and all the small side roads. It is estimated to take a full year to grasp the basics of ‘The Knowledge’, using A-Z street maps and travelling around London’s streets, usually on a moped, such as the sturdy Honda C-50 cub with a clipboard attached to the windscreen, holding a map and a list of destinations/directions. It is this intense study that gives cabbies an encyclopaedic understanding of London’s streets and attractions, hence ‘The Knowledge’. Previously most cabbies would be locals, so the first greeting would be “Where to, Guv?”, shortly to be followed by a “Va road’s gawn bleedin’ mad today!” continued by a cheerful and ebullient mix of cliched expressions and expletives, and if lucky, a smattering of cockney rhyming slang. Nowadays cabbies can come from anywhere and are more likely to be surly than cheerful.

An interesting scientific study 3 indicated that a full comprehension of ‘The Knowledge’ showed an increase in the anterior and posterior Hippocampus of the brain, an area that controls spatial memory and navigation.

Vehicle Specifications.


All licensed Hackney cabs have to pass a ‘Conditions of Fitness’. This is a hangover from the horse and carriage era, but is as stringent today. The main criteria are a 25 foot (7.6m) turning circle, such that the cab can do a single sweep U-turn in the street, the passenger seat is high enough to seat a man wearing a top-hat (based on a typical Victorian male), the entrance must be level with the internal floor, i.e. no sill, and not be above 15 inches (38cm) from the ground. All modern cabs must be wheelchair accessible.

The ‘Conditions of Fitness’ also includes a test three times tougher than the M.O.T. (Ministry of Transport, but now more correctly called the ‘Matters Of Testing’) for private cars. An example is roadworthiness of tyres. A private car need only be legal at the time of the test, while a cab’s tyres are assessed by the amount of wear still available by the time of the next test. If it cannot last that long, it will fail. Taxi is also subject to regular on-the-road checks. If it fails it must be reassessed before continuing to hire for trade.

The Drivers.

Most cabbies, during the trade’s formative years, rented fleet vehicles. Nowadays most are owned, or co-owned. Some may have three or more co-owners, so the vehicle is on the road 24 hours a day. The regulations regarding stopping when the ‘for hire’, or more often ‘Taxi’ light is lit, as they are not deemed plying for trade when in motion. If they stop or are at a rank, that is considered ‘standing in the street’ and they cannot refuse a valid fare. Another interesting point is that if a cabbie is wearing his seat belt he is not available ‘for hire’ as cabbies are not obliged to wear seat belts when working, and so is likely to have finished a shift.

Cabmen’s shelters.

One last interesting, but often-missed feature, of the cabbies’ life is the Cabmen’s shelters! This was a major improvement to the cabbie’s working life. They have provided shelter to Hackney and Hansom drivers since 1875. By law, cab drivers could not leave their vehicles unattended while at a stand (possibly the reason for the Law that permitted a cab driver to relieve himself on the rear right wheel of his carriage, now rescinded). This meant they were unable to get a hot meal or refreshment. In 1874, the Earl of Shaftesbury, along with a few like-minded Philanthropists created the Cabmen’s Shelters fund. It’s objective was to provide and run shelters that would provide cab drivers with ‘good and wholesome refreshment at moderate prices.’ Between 1875 and 1914 around 60 shelters were built at £200 each.

There was a proviso laid down by the Metropolitan Police. 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 a central door on the longest pavement side, a tiled sloped roof, mounted with a square slatted ventilation structure on the roof, and painted a distinctive deep green. Inside is a working kitchen, with space for 10 - 13 seated drivers at tables. Some would be decorated outside with hanging baskets of flowers and suchlike. Many would be furnished with books and newspapers, donated by benefactors and publishers. Despite certain rules, gambling, drinking and swearing also occurred. Beside their function as a cabbie’s cafe, they were very popular as a means of catching up with news, particularly where it appertained to their trade., such as closed roads, fires etc. There are 13 operational shelters operating today, still maintained by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund.

  • 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 Square - 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 and possibly get a cup of tea!!!

I hope this entry has given a little insight into the very complex history and working environment of the London cabbie and his vehicle, and possibly a little respect?

1Additional reading in a PDF format on the River Thames Watermen and
2Additional reading in a PDF format on Richmond Palace.3Dr. Maguire - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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