I have this recurring thought, a nightmare really that, due to pressure from a woman’s group or the #metoo people, Caroline Giacometti Prodgers will be canonised and probably end up on the back of the new £50 note.
I blame Heather Tweed for much of this. True her article, posted on CabbieBlog last week, was well researched and even-handed, in fact, she even described Prodgers’ character as “true awfulness”, so we can agree on something. But there is an air of ignorance in the face of facts when it comes to Prodgers, she is not only a female who took on the over-charging, abusive cabmen but neither was she intimidated by her appearances in court, whether at a magisterial level or the highest court in the country.
CAROLINE PRODGERS was born in 1829 in a large house in what is now Brockwell Park, Brixton. At some point in her youth, her family moved to Ayott St Peter in Hertfordshire. Having grown up in Brixton myself and now residing in Hertfordshire, I claim no other link with her.
Often described as eccentric, she was actually admitted to a mental asylum at the age of 24 – which may explain much of her future behaviour. By 1861 she embarked on a tour of Europe, no doubt funded by her £2,000 a year allowance and it was on this tour that she met, and soon after married, Giovanni Giacometti, a Swiss-born officer serving in the Austro-Hungarian navy.
The marriage did not last and her private life was thrust into the public domain by her refusal to allow her husband not only access to his home but access to the marital bed. All of this made Prodgers famous before she began her war with the London cab drivers. In many ways, it was a war brought on by the drivers themselves.
Up until the arrival of the taximeter, some forty years away, drivers would pay the proprietor a pre-agreed sum for the daily rental of a cab and one horse, sometimes two (allowing for a changeover mid-shift). The rental price fluctuated throughout the year. If a particular week was expected to be busy, then the proprietor saw no reason why he should lose out and so would charge the driver an increased amount of rental. Typically, and in the case of most proprietors, a cab driver would have to be continually busy throughout the day just to earn enough to pay his master, the proprietor. The drivers became reliant on extras, (charging for extra people and luggage), tips or downright extortion to increase their money. After all, they had to make sure the master was paid, or they would have no cab the following day, they also had to earn enough on top of that to feed and house themselves and their family.
It was the extortionate demands for charging more than the legal fare that many cab drivers were infamous for – and the most susceptible victim was the ‘lone female’. The defenceless ‘lone female’ was a cri de cœur for many campaigners throughout the nineteenth century (in fact it continued up till the arrival of the taximeter). What was needed was a champion to fight the cause for the ‘lone female’ and that’s when Caroline Giacometti Prodgers stepped up to be counted.
To some in the press of the time she was described as a modern-day Joan of Arc, to others she was Britannia personified, instead of a trident she carried an umbrella, instead of a shield, she fended off attackers with her book of fares.
First of all, let’s debunk two myths concerning Prodgers, both of which were alluded to in Heather’s article. First of all, she had not memorised the book of fares as is often alleged. She knew the legal fare for particular journeys but she only knew these from the book of fares. The authorised version at the time was Sir Richard Mayne’s, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. There were mistakes in the book. If a fare was given as exceeding the actual fare, then the passenger only had to pay what they thought was right. If the published fare was under the actual fare, the public only had to pay that amount and the driver lost out. Such one-sidedness was common-place when it came to the cab trade. Mayne’s book of fares superseded Shrapnel’s book of fares which contained 14,800,000 distinct fares, so memorising the book was not really feasible.
Secondly, she allegedly knew the exact distance she could travel and would stop the cab just a yard or two before the driver could legally tot-up the fare. Such ideas are fanciful and are what Charles Dickens has Jonas Chuzzlewit calling the greatest fun that could be had in London (taking a cab for exactly a mile and no further, for the 6d minimum).
So, it’s 1871 and although the press would report that she has summoned several cab drivers to date, the case of William Southwell was the first to be reported on. The dispute with Southwell was over waiting time, not the distance travelled. She refused to pay him what he was demanding and also refused to give her name and address. She even refused to give it to a passing policeman, as well as the inspector at the station where the party went to settle the dispute. In the end, the inspector convinced her to summon Southwell for demanding more than his proper fare, this she did and Southwell finally got her into court.
Southwell informed the court that several cabmen, as well as porters at the railway station where he picked her up, warned him to keep an eye on the time. It seems she had a reputation already. He even produced a witness who would testify to the exact time Southwell picked her up, as everybody looked at the time when Prodgers was around. She lost. Southwell got his fare and costs.
Cab drivers 1 – Prodgers 0
Cab driver Richard Jones had to summon her, again the dispute was over waiting time. It was this case in which the exchange of words between her and the judge, Sir Robert Cardin, were widely reported. She lost that one as well.
Cab drivers 2 – Prodgers 0
Edwin Castro charged her 4 shillings from Victoria Station to Euston Station, she said the fare was only 3s 6d. Fortunately, the official book of fares had no entry for Victoria Station, even though the station had been there ten years by then. It was fortunate because the ground would have to be measured – and Castro was proven right, it was a 4s fare.
Cab drivers 3 – Prodgers 0
By now, and despite these failures, she is being heralded as a champion of the ‘lone female’. It did not seem to matter that she was not winning any cases, just that she was not going to be intimidated by the over-bearing cabmen – even though to date, none had been accused of doing anything wrong.
She summoned John Challis for refusing to take her to Balham. Challis had picked her up but she insisted on keeping the windows open despite the driving rain entering the cab and soaking the cushions. A passing policeman took Challis’s details before informing him that his cab was not in a fit state to continue to work. Prodgers had to make her way home by a different means. In court, her summons was dismissed. Challis had a reasonable excuse to terminate the fare – because his cushions were saturated.
Cab drivers 4 – Prodgers 0
She was forced to concede another case when the driver agreed to have the ground measured, and a summons against another driver for refusal was in itself refused because the cab was in a railway station, and thus on private property.
Cab drivers 6 – Prodgers 0
She summoned Stephen Boucher for charging 6d extra when he was forced to go over Southwark Bridge, instead of London Bridge which was closed for roadworks. She lost.
Cab drivers 7 – Prodgers 0
Just as it looks like its going to be a whitewash, Prodgers gets her first victory – of sorts.
She took four summons out against Robert Chalk: overcharging, abusive language, not giving a ticket (a kind of receipt with the driver’s details upon it) and not carrying his book of fares. Chalk was going to summon her for the fare she refused to pay but she got to the court first and slapped all four charges on him. He was found not guilty of overcharging and of using abusive language but guilty of not giving a ticket or producing his book of fares.
Cab drivers 9 – Prodgers 2
A driver was summoned for informing fellow drivers at the railway station not pick her up; a bus driver was summoned – by mistake – she believes the railway company gave her the wrong badge number on purpose. Both these cases were dismissed.
Cab drivers 11 – Prodgers 2
By the time she summoned Isaac Gruby, it was believed that she had been to court fifty times. When she heard that Gruby had had the ground measured, and could prove that she was not overcharged, she slipped out of court un-noticed. She may have lost her 2 shillings, the cost of the summons, but Gruby had paid for the ground to be measured and had lost a day’s work in attending court. This case alone shows the vindictiveness of Prodgers. With her wealth, she could easily afford to take a summons out against a cab driver and just walk away if she thought it was not going her way. In all probability, she used this as a weapon against cab drivers who may have thought it better to receive 6d less than spend a day in court.
Gruby was allowed to summon her for his costs and loss of earning. She was fined one guinea in her absence.
Cab drivers 13 – Prodgers 2
Knowing of her reputation, a cab driver demanded the fare up front – something he was not allowed to do. A victory for Prodgers.
Cab drivers 13 – Prodgers 3
She’s on a roll. There was a procedural error over the measuring wheel used in the Gruby case. The ground has to be measured again. Gruby pulls out, Prodgers keeps her guinea.
Cab drivers 13 – Prodgers 4
Perhaps the magistrates were getting tired of her. When Charles Redgrave summoned her for the 2s fare, the magistrate warned her that if she did not pay he would send her to jail for seven days with hard labour. She paid.
Cab drivers 14 – Prodgers 4
Two more summons for refusals at railway stations neither is allowed due to the private property ruling.
Cab drivers 16 – Prodgers 4
Magistrate Arnold, who usually never decided in favour of cab drivers, had to decide on a case where the driver Ben Coombe terminated the hiring after one hour. This he was allowed to do as the compellable distance was six miles and the compellable duration of a hiring was one hour. The parties had to come back the next day whilst Arnold thought about his decision. Coombe was in the right, he could terminate the fare after one hour had passed but he would not allow the cabman anything extra than the 2s 6d fare and the 2s cost of summons. The two days Coombe had been in court were lost. But it was still a victory for the cab trade.
Cab drivers 17 – Prodgers 4
Charles Weedon charged 1s 6d for the fare from Paddington to Queens Grove, St Johns Wood, where she now lived. The book of fares said the actual fare was 1s. Weedon paid the Union to measure the ground, it was 2 miles 90 yards – a 1s 6d fare. But the book of fares was said to be the final arbiter – even, as in this case, when it is wrong. Weedon had to pay Prodgers her 4s 6d in costs as well as losing the 5s he paid to have the ground measured.
Cab drivers 17 – Prodgers 5
Even the Pall Mall Gazette, who was quite happy to put her on a pedestal as the champion for the ‘lone female’ was now beginning to have doubts. Weedon had been in the right but through no fault of his own, found himself on the losing side of a just argument.
A driver named Walker is summoned by her for overcharging, again from Paddington to Queen’s Grove. This time she is made aware that the book of fares will be deemed to be wrong. The ground will be measured and she will lose the case. She leaves the fare of 1s 6d with the clerk to give to Walker and leaves the court.
Cab drivers 18 – Prodgers 5
As this is the exact route taken by Weedon, he appeals. His 4s 6d is returned to him but is paid from the court funds, not Prodgers. Even though he still lost out on the 5s he paid to have the ground measured, it was at least another victory for the trade.
Cab drivers 19 – Prodgers 5
With that, the era of Mrs Prodgers the cabmen’s nemesis was over. It had lasted just four years. It was a week after the Weedon case that her effigy was burnt on Guy Fawkes night, but it is unlikely Prodgers had anything to do with the unsuccessful prosecution of the driver in that case.
From 1875 she began many tours of Europe and the far east. She resurfaced like a dormant volcano in 1886, summoning one driver for overcharging – she was surprised that he asked for her name and address, she felt even after eleven years, every driver should know who she was. Nothing seems to have come of that case. She also summoned John Burgess for abusive language for shouting out “Old Mother Prodgers” as their carriages passed each other. The case was dismissed over questions of identity – Burgess was asleep at home at the time of the alleged abuse. As far as the cab trade was concerned, that was her swan-song. A typical defeat.
Final score. Taking each of the summonses as an individual action and including appeals and failed attempts to obtain a summons we have a final result of:
Cab drivers 20 – Prodgers 5
A resounding victory for the cab trade but despite the drubbing, Prodgers will continue to be seen as a champion of the ‘lone female’ against the overcharging cabmen.
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