Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter VII

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Chapter VII
The Shrewsbury and Talbot cabs—The Court hansom—The Parlour four-seat hansom—Electric cabs introduced—The "taxameter"—Empty cabs—Number of Cabs in London—Cab fares—Two-horse cabs

From the introduction of hansoms and clarences until 1897, no new cab of any importance was licensed. There were, however, several improved hansoms placed upon the streets. The most important of these was Earl Shrewsbury and Talbot's indiarubber-tyred Forder-built cab, which was introduced about 1880. In every respect the Shrewsbury and Talbot cabs were superior to any others plying for hire, and their popularity was assured from the first. Each of these cabs had S.T. surmounted by a coronet painted above the side windows, and, as the wheels were noiseless, small bells were placed on the horse.

But although Lord Shrewsbury and Talbot raised the standard of London cabs and thereby earned the gratitude of the travelling public, he is not regarded with friendly feeling by other cab proprietors. They, or the majority of them, declare that he ruined the cab trade. When the Shrewsbury and Talbot cabs started work it became necessary for other proprietors to have indiarubber tyres on their vehicles—an expense which they grudged, as, being prevented by law from increasing the fares, they saw no prospect of getting back their money.

In June, 1888, the Shrewsbury and Talbot Cab and Noiseless Tyre Company, Limited, was formed, "to purchase, amalgamate, and carry on (1) the business of a cab proprietor and job-master worked by the Right Honourable the Earl of Shrewsbury and Talbot, and (2) the business of manufacturers of steel and rubber tyres carried on by the Noiseless Tyre Company, Limited, in Manchester and London."

Other variations of the hansom were the "court" and the "parlour." The court-hansom is a four-wheeler with accommodation for two people, and the driver's seat is in the same position as in an ordinary hansom. They are not numerous, but those that are plying for hire appear to be well patronised. In January, 1887, the "parlour four-seat hansom," patented by Mr. Joseph Parlour, was announced as about to be placed on the streets. It was a very novel hansom. The driver sat at the back, with a sliding door on either side of him, which he could open or close with ease, permitting the riders to step from the vehicle on to the kerb. Passengers sat face to face, two on each side. A hansom with a sliding roof, and another with a moveable hood, have also been tried in London.

Parlour's hansom

One of the most important events in cab history occurred in 1897. For more than a century English people, strong in their belief that Mother Shipton's prophecy would be fulfilled, have regarded with great interest every attempt to invent horseless carriages. As long ago as 1771 our very good friend the horse was threatened with elimination, if not extinction, and pictures of superannuated and disconsolate horses gazing over a hedge at horseless vehicles careering along the road, to the evident enjoyment of the riders, were almost as plentiful as they were four years ago. In 1771 a horseless carriage, invented by a mathematical instrument maker, had a trial run in the Artillery ground near the Minories. The event aroused the greatest interest, and the failure of the vehicle to realise the expectations formed of it by no means disheartened the horseless carriage enthusiasts. They declared that before long a reliable horseless carriage would certainly be invented. In 1790 there was a belief that their prophecy had been fulfilled, for invitations were sent out to members of the Society of Arts, engineers, and all interested in mechanics and vehicular tratlie to attend a certain place on a stated day to inspect a horseless carriage, which possessed the additional novelty of having one wheel only. A large proportion of the invitations were accepted, and when the expectant people had assembled, their host, with great ceremony, led them to the coach-house and showed them the one-wheeled horseless vehicle—a wheel-barrow!

After that incident which was talked about all over England—much to the disgust of the members of the Society of Arts who had attended the private view—the interest in horseless vehicle invention subsided for more than thirty years. When at last the craze did again break out, cabs appear to have been overlooked. Steam barouches, vans and omnibuses were invented in large numbers, but no one appears to have tried his hand at a steam cab, and it was not until 1897 that horseless cabs were placed on the London streets. These electric cabs were a pleasing novelty to Londoners and were well patronised, but it must be confessed that there were several objections to them. The want of originality in their build was very marked, for in appearance, although they only carried two passengers, they differed but little from a four-wheeler minus the horse and shafts. But that is a trivial objection compared with the following one which concerned the safety of the public. There are many people living who have been knocked down by carriages, cabs, omnibuses and vans, and have suffered little or no injury because they happened, by chance or design, to roll under the vehicle and thus escaped all four wheels. But if knocked down by one of the electric cabs no such escape would have been possible, as the accumulator was only a few inches from the ground, and would have crushed to death any one who got beneath it.

Electric cab.

Many of our public vehicles are very badly lighted, but no such complaint could be made against the electric cab. They were, perhaps, a little too brilliantly illuminated for the comfort of people of a bashful disposition, who were worried by the thought that as they rode along they were as conspicuous as if they were on the stage with the limelight turned on them. If a man desired to ride through the streets at night unobserved, he did not hire an electric cab. And it does not follow that because a man wishes to escape notice that he is ashamed of being seen. But, as before stated, the electric cabs, or "humming birds," as they were named by the cabmen, were well patronised while on the streets, and certainly it was not for want of support that they were withdrawn. Those indiarubber tyres which so constantly needed attention were no doubt the cause of their withdrawal.

Barely had the electric cabs disappeared than an innovation was made which, in years to come, will be most considered one of the most important events in the history of London cabs. On March 15, 1899, six cabs fitted with a distance registering apparatus, named the "taxameter," started from the Hôtel Cecil on trial runs into different parts of London, and on the following day they were plying for hire in the streets, the drivers conspicuous with white silk hats. The taxameter is a small species of clock fixed on the outside of the cab, and records at the end of every journey the distance travelled and the legal fare which the passenger has to pay, whether he has hired the cab by time or distance. It also registers extras paid for luggage and waiting, the number of journeys made, the number of miles travelled, and the total earnings of the day. When the cab is empty, a little red flag, which can be seen from a distance, projects from the side. Immediately a fare enters the cab the driver turns down a lever, which lowers the red flag and causes the words "not engaged" to disappear and be replaced by the tariff. When the end of the journey is reached the cabman pulls up the lever, and the distance travelled and the fare to be paid appears on the dial.

The cabmen were to be paid a wage of £2 2s. for a week of six days and a percentage on the earnings, and evidently there were many men who would have been glad to work on those terms, for in answer to the Taxameter Syndicate's advertisement for six drivers, three hundred men applied. By the public and the press the taxameter was received with the warmest approval, for it promised a check on the extortion, and abuse accompanying it when practised on women, which has of late become painfully common among some London cabmen, and has earned for them a notoriety which will take many years to live down. Women can travel in London by train, tram, omnibus and boat without fear of extortion and incivility, but they know from bitter experience, that every time they hire a cab they are running a risk of being cheated and afterwards abused for daring to utter a protest. Women, therefore were naturally very pleased when they heard of the new check, but their joy was short-lived, for the Cab-drivers' Union interfered, and declared that any man who drove a taxameter cab was a "black-leg." The reasons given for this decision were by no means satisfactory, and the only conclusion that an unbiassed person can arrive at is, that the majority of cabmen, in spite of constant complaints about their difficulty of earning a living, made, partly by overcharging, considerably more than the £2 2s. a-week and percentage of earnings offered by the Taxameter Syndicate. As the drivers would not take out taxameter cabs, the proprietors were compelled to remove the register from them. But the taxameter is far too useful an innovation to be suppressed at the word of the Cab-drivers' Union. The public must remember that the taxameter gives them the protection for which they have been sighing for years, and that if they are determined to enjoy its benefits the Cab-drivers' Union is powerless to prevent the boon. It may order a strike, but the spectacle of men refusing to work because they are not allowed to overcharge their customers will be more novel than edifying. Let us hope, however, that the cabmen will not be so foolish as to think of striking, but will recognise that the taxameter is bound to come into general use, and when it is again tried will accept the innovation with a good grace.

The taxameter was tried first in 1894 on a few cabs in Berlin, and met with considerable opposition from both cab proprietors and drivers. But the public appreciated the innovation, and patronised those cabs which had the register to such an extent that the opposition was overcome quickly, and soon 5500 of the 8000 cabs plying for hire in Berlin were fitted with the taxameter. In Hamburgh, Vienna, Dresden, Stockholm and numerous other Continental cities the taxameter is in use, and growing in public favour. It is also at work, or has been tried, in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Bradford, and it will be strange indeed if in the course of a few years every public cab in London and the Provinces is not fitted with it.

On Queen Victoria's eightieth birthday electric cabs were placed once more on the streets. But in appearance they had not been altered for the better. The original cabs were painted tastefully in two colours, the upper part black and the lower part yellow, but the new ones were black entirely. Moreover the new cabs were taller than the original ones, and the added inches gave them a clumsy appearance. The accumulator was, as in the previous cabs, only a few inches from the ground. After plying for hire for a few weeks they were taken off the streets and have not yet reappeared.

The electric cab that is to be an all-round success has not yet been invented, but experience is being bought, and it will be strange if we have to wait long for it. But that it will ever supersede entirely the horse-drawn hansom is far from being likely, for while you meet hundreds of people who have had one ride in an electric cab, you come across very few who have had two. It is not because their experience was unpleasant that they have not had a second one, but because it was not so enjoyable as a ride in a horse-drawn cab. Apparently the hansom cab has every prospect of retaining its popularity for another sixty years.

But, in spite of the hansom's popularity, Londoners had complained for a considerable period of the obstruction caused by empty hansoms crawling along the streets plying for hire. Throughout the day a long string of such vehicles, with here and there a four-wheeler, perambulated the Strand and Piccadilly, blocking the traffic and making it exceedingly difficult and somewhat dangerous for pedestrians to cross the road. In 1899 the police authorities put an end to the nuisance by issuing instructions that no empty cabs were to be allowed to proceed along the Strand or Piccadilly, but were to remain on the ranks in, or adjoining, the thoroughfares. The cabmen protested strongly against this regulation, but the public approval of it, for the traffic became much less congested. Moreover, as additional ranks were provided, the cabmen did not suffer from the alteration.

Some people declare that there are too many cabs on the streets, but it is certain that there are no more than the public require. If they were not patronised to an extent which makes them profitable to the proprietors and the drivers, they would not be plying for hire. On December 31, 1900, there were 11,252 licensed cabs in London, of which 7531 were two-wheelers and 3721 four-wheelers. There were 13,201 cab-drivers and 2782 proprietors. For each cab a proprietor pays £2 for a police licence, which has to be renewed 12 months after issue, and 15s. to the Inland Revenue on the first day of every year. The driver pays 5s. for his licence, which is renewable 12 months from the day of issue.

At the present day the fares are:—

By Distance.
s. d.
If hired and discharged within the four mile radius, for any distance not exceeding two miles
1 0
For every additional mile or part of a mile
0 6
If hired outside the four-mile radius, wherever discharged, for the first and each succeeding mile or part of a mile
1 0
If hired within, but discharged outside the radius, whole distance not exceeding one mile
1 0
But exceeding one mile, then for each mile ended within the radius 6d., and for each mile or part of a mile outside
1 0

By Time.
s. d.
Within the four-mile radius. Four-wheeled cabs for one hour or less
2 0
Two-wheeled cab
2 6
For every additional quarter of an hour or part of a quarter, four-wheelers
0 6
0 8
Four-wheelers, or two-wheelers, if hired outside the radius, wherever discharged, for one hour or less
2 6
If above one hour, then for every quarter of an hour or less
0 8
If hired within, but discharged outside the radius, the fares are according to the two preceding paragraphs.

s. d.
For each package carried outside the vehicle
0 2

Additional Persons
s. d.
For each person above two (two children under ten years of age are reckoned as one person)
0 6
For a child under ten years of age, carried with two or more persons
0 3

s. d.
By distance only. For every fifteen minutes completed, if hired within the four-mile radius: Four-wheelers
0 6
0 8
When hired outside the radius, four- or two-wheelers
0 8

Unless stated to the cabman at the time of hiring that he is engaged by time, fares must be paid according to distance. A driver can refuse to be hired by time between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

A cabman hired by distance must, unless prevented by the traffic, drive at the rate of six miles an hour; if hired by time, four miles an hour. Should he be requested to drive above the latter speed, he may demand, in addition to the time fare, for every mile, or any part of one, exceeding four miles, the fare regulated by distance.

There are no two-horse cabs plying for hire at the present day, but if there were the fares, according to an Act of Parliament of 1853, not yet repealed, would be 8d. for a mile or less distance, and 2s. 8d. for an hour or any portion of one. During the great snowstorm of January, 1881, when for several days the roads were impassable for omnibuses, a large number of cabs appeared with two horses—the hansoms' being harnessed tandem fashion. The drivers were well aware of Act of 1853, and, in case any passenger should possess a knowledge of it, they took the precaution, before starting on a journey, to extract a promise from the rider that he would pay double the usual fare. That was reasonable, for, apart from the fact that vehicles were few and travelling difficult, the cabmen, by using two horses, were only able to be at work for half their customary time.