Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter II

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475378Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter IIHenry Charles Moore

Chapter II

Cabs introduced into England—Restrictions placed upon them—A comical-looking cab—Dickens on cabs—Hackney-coachmen wish to become cabmen—The cab business a monopoly—Restrictions are removed—The Cab paper—The Boulnois cab invented—The "minibus"—The "duobus"—Bilking—A peer's joke

Nearly one hundred years have elapsed since Londoners, growing dissatisfied with the lumbering hackney-coaches plying for hire in the metropolis, began to advocate the introduction of the cabriolet de place which for some considerable time had been exceedingly popular in Paris. Unfortunately, the hackney-coach proprietors had been granted the sole right of carrying people within the bills of mortality—an area which contained the most thickly populated parts of London and nearly all the places of entertainment—and naturally they protested strongly against the introduction of what might prove to be formidable rivals to their slow-travelling vehicles. But in 1805 cabriolet promoters received a slight encouragement, Messrs. Bradshaw and Rotch—the latter a member of Parliament—obtaining licences for nine of their vehicles on the condition that they never entered within the bills of mortality. In appearance the cabriolet resembled the modern gig, and carried two people only, the driver sitting side by side with his fare. In consequence of the limited area in which they were allowed to ply for hire, the new vehicles attracted little attention, but, on April 23, 1823, twelve fully-licensed cabriolets, built by Mr. David Davies, were placed on the streets. They were announced as being "introduced to the public in honour of his Majesty's birthday." These cabriolets were a decided improvement upon their predecessors, as each one had accommodation for two passengers. The driver, whose proximity to his fare had proved to be the reverse of a pleasure to riders, was relegated to a comical-looking seat built out on the off side, between the body of the vehicle and the wheel. The hood strongly resembled a coffin standing on end, and earned for the vehicle the nickname of "coffin-cab." The fore part of the hood could be lowered as required, and there was a curtain which could be drawn across to shield the rider from wind or rain. The fare was eightpence a mile and fourpence for every additional half-mile or part of half a mile. Each vehicle carried, in a leather pocket made for the purpose, a book of fares for the convenience of hirers.

London cab of 1823, with curtain drawn.

In a short time cabriolets became very popular, and a topical song of the period contains the following verse :—

        " In days of old when folks got tired,
          A hackney coach or a chariot was hired;
          But now along the streets they roll ye
          In a shay with a cover called a cabrioly."

The French name of the vehicle was soon abbreviated to "cab," and, although the word was at first considered deplorably vulgar, convenience triumphed quickly over the objections of purists.

To be able to travel cheaply and quickly was a pleasing novelty to Londoners, but many of them lived to regret having trusted themselves in a cab, for the drivers, proud of being able to pass hackney and private coaches, were fond of showing the superior speed, and while doing so frequently ran against street posts or collided with other vehicles; and when either of these things happened, or the horse fell, the "fare" was usually pitched forward into the road. This danger, coupled with the difficulty of climbing into a cab, prevented old men and women from patronising the new vehicle. They remained satisfied with hackney-coaches, but young and middle-aged men—"dandies" and shopmen striving to imitate them—gloried in cabs, and many of them boasted of the number of times they had been thrown out of them.

Dickens on several-occasions mentioned the cabs of this period. Describing, in "Sketches by Boz," morning in the streets of London, he wrote—

"Cabs, with trunks and band-boxes between the drivers' legs and outside the apron, rattle briskly up and down the streets on their way to the coach-offices or steam-packet wharfs; and the cab-drivers and hackney coachmen who are on the stand polish up the ornamental part of their dingy vehicles—the former wondering how people can 'them wild beast cariwans of homnibuses to riglar cab with a fast trotter,' and the latter admiring how people can trust their necks into one of 'them crazy cabs, when they can have a 'spectablce 'ackney cotche with a pair' orses as von't run away with no vun;' a consolation unquestionably founded on fact, seeing that a hackney-coach horse never was known to run at all, 'except,' as the smart cabman in front of the rank observes, 'except one, and he run back'ards."

The "Coffin-Cab"

"Talk of cabs!" the great novelist wrote in his article on Hackney-Coach Stands. "Cabs are all very well in cases of expedition, when it's a matter of neck or nothing, life or death, your temporary home or your long one. But, besides a cab's lacking that gravity of deportment which so peculiarly distinguishes a hackney-coach, let it never be forgotten that a cab is a thing of yesterday, and that he was never anything better. A hackney-cab has always been a hackney-cab, from his first entry into public life; whereas a hackney-coach is a remnant of past gentility, a victim to fashion, a hanger-on of an old English family, wearing their arms, and, in days of yore, escorted by men wearing their livery, stripped of his finery, and thrown upon the world, like a once smart footman when he is no longer sufficiently juvenile for his office, progressing lower and lower in the scale of four-wheeled degradation, until at last it comes to—a stand!"

The growing popularity of the cabs soon thoroughly alarmed the hackney-coachmen, who at first had jeered at the new vehicle and prophesied a short career for it. They endeavoured to get their licence-plates transferred to cabs, but were unsuccessful, for the proprietors of that period were men of good social position—some of them occupying Government appointments—and all the influence which they could command was exerted to keep the trade in their own hands. In spite of the protests of the hackney-coach proprietors this monopoly existed for nearly ten years, and many of the aristocratic cab owners amassed money rapidly. They did not believe in having a large number of cabs, even of their own, on the streets, and for some months there were only fifty. Afterwards the number was raised to one hundred, and in 1831, to one hundred and fifty. In Paris in the same year, there were nearly two thousand five hundred of them! In 1832, when the number of London cabs reached one hundred and sixty-five, the disgraceful monopoly was put an end to, and, all restrictions being removed, hackney-coach proprietors were at last enabled to transfer their licences from their coaches to cabs. In a few weeks there were several hundred cabs, and other two-wheel vehicles, plying for hire in the streets.

A paper called The Cab was started immediately, but the title was chosen simply to attract attention, as, although the publication bore on the front page a small and blurred illustration of a cab, its contents were literary odds and ends. In the "Answers to Correspondents" column, a cabman's MS. was declined with thanks. Its non-publication is to be regretted.

Some months later a new cab, invented and patented by Mr. William Boulnois, father of Mr. Edmund Boulnois, M.P., was placed on the streets. It was a two-wheeled closed vehicle, constructed to carry two passengers sitting face to face. The driver sat on a small and particularly unsafe seat on the top of it, and the door was at the back. It was, in fact, so much like the front of an omnibus that it was well known as "the omnibus slice." Its popular name was "the back-door cab." Superior people called it a "minibus." This cab was quickly followed by a very similar, although larger, vehicle invented by Mr. Harvey. It was called a "duobus," a name frequently applied to Mr. Boulnois's cab.

A young man of good family, who had squandered a fortune, conceived the idea of earning his living by driving a back-door cab of his own. His friends having supplied him with the necessary capital, he created a sensation by appearing one morning in the Haymarket driving a superbly fitted and splendidly horsed cab. The result of his first morning's work was very satisfactory, and the young cabman was in high spirits. But driving to the stables, his horse stumbled and fell, and, taken by surprise, the unfortunate young cabman was pitched head-first into the road, and killed on the spot.

Boulnois's cab

But the driver's unsafe seat was not the only weak point about the back-door cab. The facilities it offered for alighting without paying, soon made "bilking" a popular amusement with a certain class of people.

A somewhat rackety young peer proved, for a wager, how easy it was to "bilk" a cabman. He hailed a cab outside his club and told the cabby to drive him to a certain address at Hammersmith. Just before he arrived at his destination he got out unobserved, and from a distance watched cabby's surprise and wrath on discovering his vehicle to be empty. After a time the cabman started back for town, and the youthful lord, seizing his opportunity re-entered the cab and shouted almost immediately, in well-assumed anger. "Hi, you rascal! Where are you driving me? I told you to take me to Hammersmith." The cabman, speechless with astonishment, turned around and made for Hammersmith once more, only however to discover on arriving there, that his "fare" had disappeared again. He became convinced that his cab was haunted, and this belief was strengthened, as he drove back through Kensington by discovering suddenly that his fare was sitting calmly in his vehicle as if nothing had happened. Cabby did not utter a word, for he was too frightened to address his "fare," but drove to the club, where he had picked him up, as quickly as possible. There the young peer alighted, and, without the slightest explanation, paid the cabman five times his fare.