An urban view — 22 May 2018

Back in the mid-1980’s, when I was on the Knowledge, Peel House was nothing more than one of several Metropolitan Police section houses, providing accommodation for serving officers, that were supposedly favoured by Mr. Miller on an appearance. I never did get asked a police section house on my appearances and it was only whilst researching this article that I realised how important Peel House was to the Met.

NAMED, OF COURSE, after the founder of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Peel, Peel House itself was not built until 1907, six decades after the death of the eponymous founder. It was here that all Metropolitan Police cadets were trained before they were let loose on the streets of London. This continued until the opening of Hendon Police College, or Peel Centre, in 1974.

For a while, Peel House became a section house before becoming empty for several years. It was then purchased by the Candy Brothers so that they could fulfill their contractual obligations by providing affordable housing in return for developing what became known as No 1, Hyde Park.

In 2010 Peel House was reopened, after being converted into 70 residential dwellings run by the Octavia Housing Trust. It was as I was driving past the building a couple of years ago that something caught my eye. Just to the left of the main entrance is a huge, 4.3m by 1.2m bronze panel depicting an all too common scene in Victorian London – a policeman wrestling with a runaway cab.

Stuart Smith, sculptor

I don’t know if the sculptor, Stuart Smith, had a particular episode in mind when he cast the bronze plaque, and as will be noted later, I think the scene is highly stylised. The scene depicts a hansom cabman, who is most probably drunk, with two terrified passengers, presumably a mother and her son. The cab is careering down the road, only to be brought to a stop by the brave actions of a policeman.

Unfortunately, such scenes were all too common, though the driver was not always drunk, the danger was the same. Sometimes, the drivers were not even at fault:

In 1838, just before the drivers were licensed for the first time (with a badge and bill), a cab horse managed to escape from its harness and began running wildly down the street. It hit an old lady called Pritchard, fatally injuring her. Although this case is different from a runaway cab, what is notable about it is that a deodand of 1s is put on the horse. A deodand was, in effect, the price put upon a murder weapon, whether it be a dagger, sword or gun or, as in this case, the horse. The owner of the horse would have had to pay the shilling (5p) to the Crown in order to regain possession of the horse. This was not the last instance of a deodand being used against a cab through this archaic law was abolished in 1862.

In 1841, as a driver was assisting his passenger with the luggage, the horse bolted, crashing through a rank of cabs at Kennington Cross before hitting and killing a 61-year-old woman. At her inquest, the jury pronounced that under no circumstances should a cab and horse be left unattended.

In 1842 a driver lost control of his cab as he drove down Waterloo Place. The horse continued and went down the Duke of York Steps – making a “tremendous leap, carrying part with it…” The unnamed driver was thrown and sustained serious injuries to his head. Fortunately, the passenger escaped unharmed. The horse, after being “apparently lifeless” made sufficient recovery to clamber back up to the top of the steps but, as the Morning Post reported, “it is supposed to be of little value”.

By 1846, William Birch was one of the largest cab proprietor’s in London, it would be his direct descendant, John Birch, who would develop the diesel taxi in 1952. Birch had just purchased a horse and was driving it home to Horseferry Road, when, just as he passed the House of Commons, the horse bolted. There were no passengers in the cab but as the horse careered down the road, it hit a post and was killed instantly. The sudden impact propelled Birch from his seat and he sustained serious injuries. It just so happened that the accident occurred outside the Westminster Medical School where Birch was taken. He later requested to go home but his injuries proved fatal and he died at home.

Plaque detail

A horse took fright as it was waiting outside Somerset House early in February 1849. The horse and cab drove off towards Charing Cross, the driver was unable to control the horse as the reins had snapped. The cab hit the front windows of The Globe Newspaper (whose later editor Colonel Armstrong, would establish the first cab shelters to stop cabmen waiting in pubs). The windows were smashed and the grating above the machine room was damaged. An actor, by the name of Serle, was then seriously injured, as was a youth who was standing nearby, and who was carried lifeless to the nearby Charing Cross hospital. Next to be destroyed was a jewellery shop, whose windows were smashed sending the display in all direction. Several people were injured here but the owners of the shop, fearful no doubt of losing their stock which had been cast everywhere, refused any help to the injured. They were instead assisted by the owner of a nearby cigar shop. Further on, a woman was struck, breaking her arm in two places. The cab eventually came to a halt after striking a lamp post – the severity of which caused one of the shafts to enters the horse’s chest. “And the horse” reported the Daily News, “which was a fine, spirited animal, being thus rendered useless, was conveyed to a knacker’s and speedily placed out of its miseries. What became of the cabman, none of the accounts which have reached us state.”

Holborn Hill no longer exists – the construction of Holborn Viaduct removed the need to traverse the valley caused by the river Fleet (now buried under Farringdon Street). On 30th June 1858, as Holborn Hill was crowded with “omnibuses, cabs and other vehicles, and the pavement with persons who had come out for an evening walk…” a cab was seen approaching Farringdon Street at full speed. “The driver was on the box” reported the Daily News, “but had not the slightest control over the animal, which dashed frantically down the hill amidst the shouts of alarmed spectators [shocked] at the inevitable catastrophe.” As the runaway cab approached St Andrews Church, it struck a phaeton (a private carriage), “The shock was terrific, and in one instant the body and shafts were seen with the horse in one part of the road, the hind wheels in another, and the poor driver at a distance from both.”

A policeman attempted to stop a runaway cab as it drove wildly down Kennington Park Road in September 1894. Despite the gallant attempt of the officer, the cab crashed, smashing a lamp and one of the shafts. The driver was thrown and sustained serious injuries to his head. His passenger, an actor, crawled out of the wreckage with bad cuts to his legs.

On 1st October 1897, the Daily News reported the following:

A PLUCKY CONSTABLE:- At midday yesterday there was a scene of great excitement in Queen Victoria Street. A cabman driving a hansom stopped to water his horse at the trough at the Baynard Castle. Leaving it unattended, the animal suddenly bolted, and dashed down Queen Victoria Street, scattering the foot passengers right and left. After going some hundred yards, City Constable 212 jumped on to the back seat, and, seizing the reins, managed to stop it just as it was running into a railway van, the sudden stoppage throwing him from the “dicky” into the roadway, where he was picked up severely shaken and bruised.”

This last episode shows that the bravery in stopping a runaway horse and cab was not singular to the Metropolitan Police – which brings us back to the plaque outside Peel House.

Centre stage is the policeman attempting to bring the cab to a halt and save the life of its passengers. He is wearing a top hat. The top hat was part of Met police uniform until it was replaced by the more familiar helmet in 1863. This, therefore, puts a later date on the scene; but hold on, look at the background. Sculptor Stuart Smith used “contemporary Frith photographs” to compile the scenery. At the top of the tableau, we can see the dome of St Pauls. Just above the cabman’s head, we can see the “scar across the face of St Paul’s”. This is the railway bridge that existed until the early 1990’s across Ludgate Hill. In an amazing instance of aesthetics over practicality, the bridge was removed and the railway line into Blackfriars station was rerouted under Ludgate Hill. The bridge was constructed in 1865 – two years after the last Metropolitan Police officer wore a top hat. Also, the alleged scene can only have taken place in Fleet Street (the railway bridge cannot be seen from the Strand) – Fleet Street is in the City of London, which has its own police force separate to the Met. It’s likely that sculptor Stuart Smith was more than aware of the geographic boundaries between the two police divisions, but, for reasons best known to himself – he has a Met police officer coming to the rescue of a woman and child within the City boundaries.

CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. Sean Farrell has written this Guest Post for CabbieBlog. Sean collects information about the history of the London cabbie and its ancient trade. If you have or require information, he can be contacted via the Contact Page.

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