Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter I

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475369Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter IHenry Charles Moore

Chapter I

The introduction of hackney-coaches—"The world run on wheels"—The first hackney-coach stand and the oldest cab rank in England—Charles I. and Charles II. prohibit hackney-coaches—Hackney-coaches and the Plague—William Congreve—Threatened strike of hackney-coaches—Hackney-chariots introduced—Prince of Wales drives a hackney-coach—Licences—Funeral coaches ply for hire in the streets—A pedometer for hackney-coaches suggested—Dickens on hackney-coaches—Origin of the word "hackney"
There are, at the present day, many old people who remember and speak with affection of the old hackney-coach. They admit that it was a lumbering thing, and that the horses were generally sorry specimens fully qualified for the knacker's yard; but they add, emphatically, that no vehicles now plying for hire in the streets of London can compare with it for cosiness and comfort. It was furnished luxuriously, and was as comfortable as a hammock, even when travelling on roads that would shake a modern cab to pieces before it had journeyed half a mile.

Hackney-coaches were established in London early in the seventeenth century, and soon became so well patronised that, in 1623, the Thames watermen, who had long enjoyed the monopoly of carrying the public, became alarmed and complained loudly that they were being ruined. Apparently they wished the hackney-coaches to be suppressed, but the new vehicles were far too popular to be treated in that fashion.

John Taylor, the waterman-poet, bewailed their introduction in a pamphlet entitled, "The world run on wheels." He did not denounce private coaches, his anger being aroused "only against the caterpillar swarm of hirelings. They have undone my poor trade whereof I am a member: and though I look for no reformation yet I expect the benefit of an old proverb, 'Give the losers leave to speak.' . . . This infernal swarm of trade-spellers have so overrun the land that we can get no living upon the water; for I dare truly affirm that in every day in any term, especially if the Court be at Whitehall, they do rob us of our livings and carry 500 fares daily from us."

"I have heard," he continued, "of a gentlewoman who sent her man to Smithfield from Charing Cross to hire a coach to carry her to Whitehall; another did the like from Ludgate Hill to be carried to see a play at Blackfriars."

One is tempted to believe that Taylor was exaggerating in the hope of checking by ridicule the growing fashion for hackney-coach riding.

"It is," he declared in the same pamphlet, "a most uneasy kind of passage in coaches on the paved streets of London, wherein men and women are so tost, tumbled, jumbled, rumbled, and crossing of kennels, dunghills, and uneven ways."

In spite of the protests of the Thames watermen and their friends, hackney-coaches grew in popular favour. Until 1634, they stood for hire in the yards of the principal inns, but in that year Captain Baily, a retired mariner, made an experiment. He had four superior coaches built, stationed them for hire at the Maypole in the Strand, where St. Mary's Church now stands. The cab rank at the side of St. Mary's Church is, therefore, the the oldest in England. Baily's drivers, attired in livery, were instructed as to the charges they should make for driving people to various parts of the town. So successful was this venture that other hackney-coachmen began to take up their stand at the same place and carry passengers at Captain Baily's rates. Soon the rank became so crowded that the practice of driving slowly along the streets plying for hire was begun by hackney-coachmen who could not find room for their vehicles at the stand.

Garrard mentions this innovation in a letter to Lord Strafford :—

"I cannot omit to mention any new thing that comes up amongst us, though never so trivial: here is one Captain Baily, he hath been a sea-captain, but now lives on the land, about this city, where he tries experiments. He hath erected, according to his ability, some four hackney-coaches, put his men in livery, and appointed them to stand at the Maypole in the Strand, giving them instructions at what rates to carry men into several parts of the town, where all day they may be had. Other hackney-men seeing this way, they flocked to the same place, and perform their journeys at the same rate; so that sometimes there are twenty of them together, which disperse up and down, that they and others are to be had everywhere, as watermen are to be had by the waterside. Everybody is much pleased with it; for, whereas, before, coaches could not be had but at greater rates, now a man may have one much cheaper."

Charles I. did not, however, regard hackney-coaches with favour, and endeavoured to check Captain Baily's enterprise by granting to Sir Sanders Duncomb the sole right to let on hire sedan chain, which, until then, were unknown in England. The patent stated:—

"Whereas the streets of our cities of London and Westminster and their suburbs are of late so much encumbered with the unnecessary multitude of coaches, that many of our subjects are thereby exposed to great danger and the necessary use of carts and carriages for provisions much hindered : and Sir Sanders Duncomb's petition representing that in many parts beyond sea, people are much carried in chairs that are covered, whereby few coaches are used among them : wherefore we have granted to him the sole privilege to use, let or hire a number of the said covered chairs for fourteen years."

Sedan chairs did not prove to be formidable rivals to the hackney-coaches, but they added considerably to the congestion of the streets. For this congestion the hackney-coaches were blamed, and on January 19, 1635, a proclamation was made "to restrain the multitude and promiscuous use of coaches about London and Westminster."

The proclamation was to the effect that "hackney-coaches were not only a great disturbance to his Majesty, his dearest consort the Queen, the nobility and others of place and degree in their passage through the streets; but the streets themselves were so pestered and the pavements so broken up, that the common passage is thereby hindered and made dangerous; and the prices of hay, provender, etc., thereby made exceeding dear. Wherefore we expressly command and forbid that no hackney-coaches or hired carriages be used or suffered in London, Westminster, or the suburbs thereof, except they be to travel at least three miles out of the same. And also that no person shall go in a coach to the said streets except the owner of the coach shall constantly keep up four able horses for our service when required."

This proclamation was either withdrawn or ignored, for in the following year there were many hackney-coaches plying for hire in London and Westminster, and the rivalry between hackney- coachmen and sedan-chairmen was humorously depicted in a pamphlet entitled, "Coach and Sedan pleasantly disputing for place and precedence."

In 1654, Parliament limited the number of hackney-coaches in London and Westminster to three hundred, with two horses apiece. It was also ordained that the government and regulation of hackney-coaches should be in the hands of the Court of Aldermen, and for the expense of regulating them, a tax of twenty shillings a year was placed on every vehicle.

A few months after the Restoration hackney-coaches were forbidden, by a proclamation dated October 18, 1660, to ply for hire in the streets. But that this edict was evaded we have the authority of the delightful Samuel Pepys. Writing under the date of November 7 he states :—

"Notwithstanding that this was the first day of the king's proclamation against hackney coaches coming into the streets to stand to be hired, yet I got one to carry me home."

In 1661 they numbered four hundred. They were small, narrow vehicles, drawn by two horses, on one of which sat the driver. wearing spurs and carrying a short whip. It was found, however, that they were very destructive to the paving-stones, and a tax of £5 a year was therefore placed on all hackney-coaches, the money thus obtained being expended on the repairing and cleansing of the roads.

During the Plague infected persons were frequently conveyed to the Pest-houses in hackney-coaches. Defoe mentions this in his "Journal of the Plague Year." In the "Orders conceived and published by the Lord Mayor and Alderman of the City of London, concerning the infection of the plague, 1665," appears the following order: "That care be taken of hackney-coachmen, that they may not (as some of them have been observed to do), after carrying of infected persons to the Pest-house, and other places, be admitted to common use, till their coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six days after such service."

Hackney-Coach, about 1680

After the Great Fire, when the streets were widened, more commodious vehicles came into use, the majority being disused family coaches which had been sold cheaply by the nobility and gentry. Their coats of arms were not removed from the panels, and such coaches as bore the heraldic devices of the most aristocratic houses invariably received the greatest patronage. In 1694 some masked women hired a coach decorated with a well-known coat of arms, and went for a drive in Hyde Park. It is recorded that their behaviour was disgraceful, and that they deliberately insulted some very distinguished people who were riding in their private coaches. What they said or did will never be known, but from that day hackney-coaches were prohibited from entering Hyde Park. In the same year a tax of £4 per annum was placed on hackney-coaches, and the cost of a licence became £50. The licence held good for twenty-one years. The same Act of Parliament ordained that the number of hackney-coaches should not exceed seven hundred.

In the early part of the following year William Congreve, the poet, was appointed a Commissioner for Licensing Hackney-Coaches, at the moderate salary of £100 a year, and retained the position until October, 1707. Possibly the Hackney-Coach Licence Office was not loved by Congreve, and when he left it each day he banished all thought of it until the morrow. The idea of writing anything about it, in all probability never occurred to him. " Who would be interested in hearing anything concerning that dull, wearisome office?" he might have asked had any one made the suggestion, and possibly very few people of that day would have troubled to read anything on the subject. But to us an account of his duties, with some description of the hackney-coach proprietors and drivers with whom he came into contact daily, would be of more than ordinary interest.

Early in the eighteenth century several thieves, not sufficiently daring to attack stage-coaches, cut through the backs of hackney-coaches, snatched off the passengers' wigs and decamped with them.

In 1711 Parliament once more altered the regulations concerning hackney-coaches. The annual tax of £4 was changed to a weekly one of five shillings, and the number of licences was increased to eight hundred. The fares which the hackney-coach men were authorised to charge were fixed at a shilling for one mile and a half, eighteenpence for two miles, and sixpence for every additional mile or portion of a mile.

Under the new regulations hackney-coaches enjoyed almost unbroken prosperity for over fifty years, and, on the whole, gave satisfaction to the public. There was, however, one occasion on which they became very unpopular. A few days prior to the coronation of George III., the hackney-coach and the sedan-chair men agreed that unless they were allowed to charge greatly increased prices on Coronation day, they would refuse to take out their coaches and chairs. This decision created considerable indignation among people who wished to ride but did not possess vehicles of their own, and the Lords of the Privy Council issued a proclamation that all hackney-coachmen and sedan-chairmen were to be out with their coaches and chairs at four o'clock in the morning of Coronation day; they were, moreover, warned that if they demanded more than the ordinary fares, or failed to perform their duties properly, they would be punished with the utmost severity. This proclamation did not have the desired effect. The men decided to defy the authorities, and would certainly have done so had not a well-known sedan-chair maker advised them to go to work and trust to the generosity of the public. He assured them that he had been told by numerous regular users of hackney-coaches and sedan-chairs that they were perfectly willing to pay, unasked, considerably more than the legal fares. So the men went to work, and the majority reaped a splendid harvest. Some people declined to pay more than the usual fare, but they were not sufficiently numerous to prevent the day being a memorable one for hackney-coachmen.

In 1768 there were a thousand hackney-coaches licensed to stand for hire in the streets. Of these only 175 were allowed to ply for hire on Sundays.

By an Act of George III. a commission was formed for the management of hackney-coaches and the receipt of duties. Stands were appointed in various parts of London, and coachmen were forbidden to wait for hire at any other places. Men were also licensed to water the horses at various stands. These men were known as "watermen," "caddies" or cads," and wore slung round their necks, a brass label bearing a number. Besides watering the horses they looked after them while coachmen drank in the taproom or slept on their boxes, and, also, opened the coach doors and lowered the steps for hirers. Every coachman before driving off a rank paid the waterman one halfpenny.

One clause of this Act appears, nowadays, very snobbish. It made a hackney-coachman liable to a penalty of £5 for "not giving way to persons of quality and gentlemen's coaches."

As time went on, hackney-coaches continued to increase in number, but were never allowed to become sufficiently numerous to make competition very keen. At the end of the eighteenth century they were most luxurious. The majority originally cost some £700 or £800 each, and were purchased from the brokers by hackney-coach proprietors at a trifle above breaking-up prices, varying according to the condition of the vehicles, from £25 to £50. To illustrate their commodiousness, a well-known coachbuilder, now dead, was fond of telling the following story. When he was a youngster, he had a difference with another boy in Old Palace Yard and proceeded to settle it in the time-honoured British fashion, much to the delight of the hackney-coachmen on the rank. To their intense disgust, however, an energetic member of the newly established police force appeared on the scene and stopped the fight. Only for a time though, for one of the men bundled the boys into his own hackney-coach and told them to fight it out there. They did; the sport-loving many-caped coachmen crowding round and watching them through the windows.

Hackney-Coach, about 1800

Early in the nineteenth century a more lightly built hackney-coach, named a "chariot," which was introduced many years previously, became popular. It carried two inside passengers and had room for a third in the box seat The driver usually rode on the near-side horse, but some men drove from the box. In 1814 there were two hundred licensed chariots in London, and for a few years the number increased rapidly. Some of the chariots licensed in 1815 had accommodation for three inside passengers.

With the young bloods of the day hackney-coachmen were great favourites, chiefly because they looked on with marked approval while their fares wrenched off a knocker, assaulted a policeman, or kissed a pretty girl. Moreover, their memory was most defective when necessary.

One night a hackney-coach man was called to the British Coffee House in Cockspur Street to take up the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV. The First Gentleman of Europe was in one of his lively moods and commanded the coachman to get down and let him drive. The astonished driver began to make excuses, but the Prince cut them short by seizing the man and pitching him bodily through the open window into the coach. Then, quickly mounting the box, he drove off at an exciting speed. Questioned later as to how His Royal Highness acquitted himself, the hackney-coachman replied, "The Prince isn't such a bad driver. Indeed, he drove very well for a prince; but he didn't take the corners and crossings careful enough for a regular jarvey."

Hackney-coachmen prided themselves on being dashing fellows, and no self-respecting member of the profession was ever without at least one adoring lady-love. Just as nowadays servant-girls of all ages, sizes and shapes, are consumed with one great desire—to have a soldier to "walk-out with," so the girls of that class sixty to a hundred years ago considered it the summit of happiness to be seen leaning on the arm of a hackney-coachman. As a rule, the hackneycoachman had plenty of girls to choose from, and, that being the case, he was naturally rather particular about whom he selected for the honour of being allowed to cook his meals for the remainder of his life.

Hackney-coachmen were not licensed. Any man might drive a hackney-coach, but the proprietor, himself licensed, was held responsible for the actions of his men. No person could obtain a licence to possess a hackney-coach unless he was recommended by a peer, a Member of Parliament, or some other influential being; consequently, a large number of hackney-coach proprietors were men who had been gentlemen's servants. And in the interests of these men the hackney-coach business was not allowed to become overcrowded. The number of licence-plates issued never exceeded one thousand, in spite of the fact that, in the early part of last century, the public were complaining constantly that there were not sufficient hackney-coaches plying for hire.

The hackney-coach fares were, at this period, one shilling a mile, and sixpence extra for every additional half-mile or part of half a mile. The waiting fare was three shillings an hour for the first three hours, and two shillings for every additional hour or part of an hour. For the licence-plate affixed to the vehicle the proprietor had to pay ten shillings a week.

In compliance with a legal requirement every driver was paid a small salary, generally nine shillings a week, but that formed a very insignificant portion of his income, for, like the cabman of to-day, he could keep all that he earned beyond the hire money due to the proprietor.

Mourning coaches, commonly called "black coaches," bore licence-plates, and when not engaged at funerals plied for hire in the streets. The number of these vehicles was limited, but every undertaker kept in reserve many for which he had no licences, as, in the event of requiring more coaches for a funeral than he possessed licences, he had the power to go to any rank and remove from the hackney-coaches standing there as many licence-plates as he wanted. These plates he would affix to his unlicensed vehicles, and for the loan of each would have to pay the hackney-coachman waiting fare.

In the first quarter of the last century, hackney-coach proprietors were blackmailed systematically by two or three men who made a comfortable living as common informers. One of these fellows would stroll into a hackney-coach yard, greet the proprietor in a friendly way and have a chat with him on any topic of the day. The conversation always ended, however, in one way—with a request by the informer that the proprietor would lend him half a sovereign. In most cases the proprietor, knowing who the man was, complied with the request at once, and nothing more would be seen of the borrower for a month or two. But if the proprietor refused the "loan," he received, in the course of a day or two, a summons for some irregularity in connection with his drivers, his vehicles, or his horses. The informer received one-half of every fine that was imposed. These blackmailers flourished long after the introduction of cabs, and when at last their nefarious business was stopped, they were succeeded by blackmailers of another class. Strange as it may seem, forty years ago it was a common thing for the proprietors of a large number of horses to submit to being blackmailed by men whose duty it was to keep an eye on their studs.

In 1822, an order was issued compelling hackney-coachmen to take to the office of the Registrar of Licences all articles found in their vehicles. The losers, on applying at the office, had their property restored to them, upon payment of a small fee to be given to the coachman. It is said, however, that valuable articles lost in hackney-coaches were very rarely recovered; it was only minor things that were taken to the office. Hackney-coachmen had, some years previously, been considered an honest set of men, but they had sadly deteriorated, as had also their vehicles. A correspondent of the London Magazine, signing himself "Jehu," gave, in 1825, the following description of a hackney-coach :—

"A hackney-coach—fogh! Who can be a gentleman and visit in a hackney-coach? Who can, indeed? to predicate nothing of stinking wet straw and broken windows, and cushions on which the last dandy has cleaned his shoes, and of the last fever it has carried to Guy's, or the last load of convicts transported to the hulks."

He was also troubled about the hackney-coachmen's extortion, and suggested this method of checking it. "Is there any valid reason why a hackney-coach should not have a pedometer visible to the unfortunate freight? to be noted on entering, to be noted on exiting, an effectual against fraudulent space as a watch is against fraudulent time, with shillings on the dial plate where there are hours; and where there are minutes, sixpences. It would not cost £2, it would save endless altercations, it would save typographying a table of hackney-coach fares, it would save a man's money and temper, and go far towards saving the souls of hackney-coachmen born, or to born — and the trouble of the commissioners. Our invention is best of all possible inventions, and therefore it will not be adopted."

"Jehu" did not make a mistake—his suggestion was not adopted, and hackney-coachmen, soured by the rivalry of the newly introduced omnibuses and cabs, became more extortionate and abusive than ever they had been.

A few proprietors believing that the new vehicles were doomed to failure, kept their hackney-coaches in good repair and made it a rule to have respectable men for drivers but these clean coaches were not numerous enough to prevent hackney-coaches as a body from being termed dirty and disreputable. In "Sketches by Boz," Dickens gives the following description of a hackney-coach of the early thirties:—

"There is a hackney-coach stand under the very window at which we are writing; then only one coach on it now, but it is a fair specimen of the class of vehicles to which we have alluded—a great, lumbering, square concern of a dingy yellow colour (like a bilious brunette), with very small glasses, but very large frames; the panels are ornamented with a faded coat of arms, in shape something like a dissected bat, the axle-tree is red, and the majority of the wheels are green. The box is partially covered by an old great-coat, with a multiplicity of capes, and some extraordinary-looking clothes; and the straw, with which the canvas cushion is stuffed, is sticking up in several places, as if in rivalry with the hay which is peering through the chinks in the boot. The horses, with drooping heads, and each with a mane and tail as scanty and straggling as those of a worn-out rocking-horse, are standing patiently on some damp straw, occasionally wincing and rattling the harness; and, now and then, one of them lifts his mouth to the ear of his companion, as if he were saying, in a whisper, that he should like to assassinate the coachman. The coachman himself is in the watering-house; and the waterman, with his hands forced into his pockets as far as they can possibly go, is dancing the 'double shuffle' in front of the pump, to keep his feet warm."

A writer in the Monthly Magazine gives a less graphic but more denunciatory account of the hackney-coaches of that period.

"Nothing in nature or art can be so abominable as those vehicles at this hour. We are quite satisfied that, except an Englishman, who will endure anything, no native of any climate under the sky would endure a London hackney-coach; that an Ashantee gentleman would scoff at it; and that an aboriginal of New South Wales would refuse to be inhumed within its shattered and infinite squalidness. It is true that the vehicle has its merits, if variety of uses can establish them. The hackney-coach conveys alike the living and the dead. It carries the dying man to the hospital, and when doctors and tax-gatherers can tantalize no more, it carries him to Surgeons' Hall and qualifies him to assist the 'march of mind' by the section of body. If the midnight thief finds his plunder too ponderous for his hands, the hackney-coach offers its services, and is one of the most expert conveyances. Its other employments are many, and equally meritorious, and doubtless society would find a vacuum in its loss. Yet we cordially wish that the Maberley brain were set at work upon this subject, and some substitute contrived."

Hackney-coaches died hard. In 1841, there were four hundred plying for hire, but before the Great Exhibition of 1851, nearly all the proprietors who possessed sufficient capital had sold their hackney-coaches at breaking-up prices, and started cabs. Nevertheless, as late as 1858, hackney-coaches were to be seen occasionally in the streets.

The origin of the word "hackney" cannot be decided. In all probability it was derived from the old French word "hacquenèe," which was applied to horses—and sometimes coaches—let on hire. The claim that Hackney was the first place where coaches could be hired, and gave its name to the vehicles, does not bear investigation.