A Government White Paper of 1895 entitled The Cab and Omnibus Trades stated:
“The cabman’s trade is one to which all sorts of men find their way. Many an educated man, who can do nothing else to earn a living, can drive – and if put to it, will seek his daily bread in this way.”
For this Guest Post writer and historian Michelle Higgs gives some background to the Victorian cabbie and his customers.
The Hansom Cab
If I was able to visit Victorian England, I know that one of the aspects which would fascinate me the most is the public transport. Aside from steam trains and the later electric trams, it was all horse-drawn which, of course, is so different from today’s motor-driven vehicles. Horses pulled the omnibuses, carts, and brewers’ drays through to the Broughams, Clarences and Hansom cabs. The sound of hooves clattering on cobbles was everywhere, as was the smell of steaming horse manure . . .
To get about town quickly, catching a cabriolet (or cab for short) was the best bet. Cabbies plied their trade from cab-stands, not while moving. The fare was based on the distance, so it was important to know how far away the destination was to avoid being overcharged. The driver sat on a raised seat behind and above the passengers’ compartment with the horse’s reins going over the top of it. Passengers communicated with the driver and paid him through a trap-door in the roof. The cab-man controlled the door by means of a lever, which made it difficult to dodge paying the fare.
Ladies often found that the overhanging reins could knock off their hats, and dresses could easily be soiled on the rim of the wheel. It was also extremely difficult to get in and out of a Hansom with any dignity while wearing a crinoline.
A journalist from Living London visited a cab yard and observed cab-drivers at work in 1901:
The day cab-men, their hansoms and four-wheelers clean and bright from the washers’ hands, begin to appear in numbers about nine a.m., some hurrying Citywards with fares, and others proceeding slowly to various stands, where they find a few unfortunate and somewhat despondent night cab-men waiting in the hope of obtaining at least one good job before taking their cabs back to the yard.
The best cab-stands for the drivers were outside the railway stations and the West End theatres, but life was tough for them. They worked twelve hour shifts and had to pay for the hire of their vehicles and horses out of the fares they earned.
When John Hollingshead interviewed a cabman for Odd Journeys in and Out of London (1859), he was told that a Hansom cab driver had to earn fourteen or sixteen shillings a day in summer for his owner, in addition to ‘yard money’ which was the charges for the stables. This was before earning any money for himself. A four-wheeler could be let for slightly less at twelve shillings a day but the driver had to pay all expenses. At the time, cabmen driving licensed carriages had to pay five pound for the license plate and a shilling a day extra for the duty.
Beatrix Potter commented in her journal in 1885, that if:
Cabmen were really paid at the rate of sixpence a mile, they must go forty-two miles before they begin to make any profit. They pay sixteen shillings per day to a cab-owner for a cab and two horses, and have incidental expenses as well.
Cab-men could enjoy a cheap midday meal at one of the cab-men’s shelters. Between two and five in the afternoon, hundreds of cabbies drove to the big yards where they changed horses and had their cabs ‘spotted’ to remove splashes of mud. It was usually around 9.30 pm before the first hansom to finish its twelve hour day arrived back at the yard.
Although they were speedy, London cabs were rather uncomfortable. In Saunterings In and About London (1853), Max Schlesinger wrote that the:
many crevices . . . let in wind and dust; the seats feel as if they were stuffed with broken stones; the check-string is always broken; the door won’t shut; or if shut, it won’t open . . . to discover the faults of a London cab is easy.
It sounds as though a ride in a Hansom cab was bearable for a tourist, but not necessarily for everyday use!
Michelle Higgs is a freelance writer and author specialising in history and heritage. She is the author of seven social history books, including her latest, A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England published by Pen & Sword. She is the author of Visit Victorian England and her own website gives details of her writing.