Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter IV

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475435Omnibuses and Cabs — Chapter IVHenry Charles Moore

Chapter IV

A strike—Cabmen's revenge on Members of Parliament—Cab radius altered—Cabmen object to knocking at doors—The King of Cabmen—Nicknames—A lady feared by cabmen—The kilometric reckoner—Lord John Russell and "Palace Yard Jack"—Cab fares altered—A strike against the introduction of lamps—Another strike—The Cab-drivers' Benevolent Association—The London Cabmen's Mission—The Hackney Carriage Proprietors' Provident Institution—The Cabmen's Shelter Fund

The cabmen's reputation for being extortionate is by no means of recent growth, but frequently men have been accused wrongfully. In 1853, a cabman was charged with demanding more than his legal fare, the complainant declaring that although the distance travelled was only three miles the defendant had charged as if it were five. Cabby was sentenced to a month's imprisonment, but before his time expired a gentleman interested himself in his case, and paid to have the distance officially measured. It was seven miles!

In the same year the Government imposed fresh regulations upon cabs, and the fares, which had been eightpence a mile, and fourpence for every additional half a mile, or portion of half a mile, were reduced to sixpenn for every mile, and for any part of a mile over and above any number of miles completed. Mr. Thompson of Southampton Row, a proprietor in a large way of business, had introduced those fares two years previously.

The new regulations and the reduction of fares created great indignation among both cab proprietors and cab drivers. The latter were particularly enraged with the Members of Parliament, and hit upon a way of expressing publicly their feelings towards them. When the House rose on the night of July 26, and the members hurried out to go home, they were astonished to see all the cabmen drive quickly away with empty cabs. Some of them ran after the cabs; but the drivers declined in most unparliamentary language to take them, and as many of the honourable gentlemen who could not get a lift in friends' carriages had to walk home. The following morning there was not a cab to be seen in the streets of London, for the cabmen were on strike. Members of Parliament soon felt the want of cabs, and the Sergeant-at-Arms personally asked Mr. Gamble, an omnibus proprietor, to oblige them by running an onmnibus for their sole convenience between the House and the clubs. But Mr. Gamble, who was also a cab proprietor, and not just then well disposed towards Members of Parliament, declined to accede to their request. The strike, however, only lasted for four days, for when the men saw that the police permitted unlicensed vehicles to ply for hire they returned to work. Nevertheless, they gained something by the strike, for their grievances were investigated without delay, and the following alterations made. The cab radius, which for twenty years had been three miles from the General Post Office, was changed to four miles from the statue of Charles I. at Charing Cross, and the cabman was empowered to charge one shilling for every mile, or part of one, which he should be required to drive beyond the radius, providing that the cab was discharged beyond it. Moreover, the tax on each cab was reduced from ten shillings a week to a shilling a day.

The success which attended the first cab strike of any importance incited cabmen to think of other grievances, and from that year to this they have never been without a good supply of them. Some were reasonable, but the majority were imaginary or frivolous. Of the latter nothing need be said. Of the former, one of the chief was that passengers expected cabmen to get down and ring the bell or knock at the door of the house where they wished to alight. For years the cabmen's objection to performing this duty was a source of continual squabbles, and consequent police-court cases. But at length one magistrate decided that cabmen were not obliged to ring bells or knock at doors. Other magistrates agreed with him and cabmen were jubilant. But an old gentleman, who used cabs daily, objected strongly to the new arrangement and determined to teach the cabmen a lesson. One cold winter's evening, he hired a cab and rode home—a shilling distance. On arriving at his destination, he requested the cabman to knock at the street door. But cabby declined to do so. "This is a free country," he said, "and knocking at doors ain't no part of my duty."

"Very well, then," the old gentleman replied, looking at his watch, "by the law of this free country I sentence you to remain idle, in the cold, for fourteen minutes, without any addition to your fare." Then he went indoors and did not send out his shilling until fourteen minutes had elapsed, for he knew that no waiting fare could be charged until fifteen minutes had passed. Afterwards he informed the London newspapers of what he had done, and suggested that their readers should follow his example. Hundreds did, and the squabbles between cabmen and their "fares" became more frequent than ever. For some years the quarrel dragged on, but finally people ceased from commanding cabmen to knock at doors, and when they particularly wished it done they asked for it as a favour.

Another grievance of cabmen, before shelters were built for their convenience, was the action of the police in summoning them for leaving their cabs outside coffee-shops while having their dinner. "The King of Cabmen," a well-dressed, important-looking individual, whom the public believed to be an aristocrat, although he was really the son of a London tailor, protested publicly against their action by dining al fresco in the leading thoroughfares. He would pull up outside some public-house or dining place in the Strand, Oxford Street, Haymarket, Regent Street, or Piccadilly, spread a very clean table-cloth over the top of his cab, and have his dinner brought out to him. Frequently he dined outside West-end clubs, his dinner being sent out by members who sympathised with him. "The King of Cabmen" was also known as "Nonpareil." When sixpenny fares were introduced, "Nonpareil" took a prominent part in denouncing the action of the Government, and whenever a passenger offered him sixpence he haughtily suggested tossing him "double or quits."

Cabmen have always been fond of bestowing nicknames upon their comrades, and at the present day there are men named "Busy Bee," "Dan, the policeman," "Engineer Charley," "Piggy," "Nicodemus," "Bill King about Jermyn Street," "Harry of Halfmoon Street," "Father Christmas," "Hospital Jack," "Rhoderic Dhu," "Old Pickles," "Topsy," "Bustler," "Old London," "Australian Jack," "Candle-dipper," "Mr. Smith," "Doctor" "Sloane Square Sailor Jack," and "Joe in the Copper." Cabmen also bestow nicknames upon their masters, the cab proprietors, and, in the majority of cases, they are of an uncomplimentary nature. Those existing at the present day must remain unknown beyond the circle of cabmen, but there is no harm in publishing nicknames applied to proprietors long since dead. "Whooping-cough Bill" was so named because he filled up pauses in his conversation with nervous little coughs. "Pious Tommy" would allow no swearing in his yards. "Jack the giant-killer" was barely five feet two in height. "Darling Joey" had been married three times. "Skin 'em alive" never allowed his men any credit, and "Boozey Bill" was a teetotaler. Cab proprietresses usually were named from something striking about their personal appearance. "Ginger Sal" needs no explanation. "Beautiful Kate" was exceedingly plain, and "Fairy Emma" was so stout that she could scarcely walk. Another woman, very good-looking, but domineering and detested by all cabmen who had business transactions with her, was known throughout London as "The Queen of Hell."

There was another woman, not an owner of cabs, who was feared by all the cabmen of London, and consequently had more uncomplimentary names bestowed upon her than any other woman ever had. Mrs. Prodgers, the lady in question, obtained considerable fame through her constant squabbles with cabmen. Possessing an extensive and unique knowledge of cab law and London mileage, she made a point of travelling the full distance to which her shilling entitled her, with the result that cabmen who did not know her usually demanded more than the legal fare. Her reply was to take his number, and apply for a summons against him. Frequently she summoned men who took what she offered without demur, for she had practically appointed herself an inspector of cabs and cabmen, and was as successful in discovering breaches of the hackney-carriage regulations as the most energetic paid official could have been. After a time she became so dreaded that the warning cry of "Mother Prodgers" would send every cab within hail dashing away up side streets to escape her. Even now there are scores of cabmen who cannot hear her name mentioned without fuming with indignation.

The conditions of a cabman's employment were, and still are, calculated to encourage extortion. The cabby paid the owner a certain amount for the loan of his cab, and his profits did not begin until he had earned the hire money. Therefore, when a cabman, after waiting for hours on the rank. obtained a "fare," the temptation to overcharge was very great. It was his first job that day, and it might be his last. He was grateful for an extra shilling or sixpence, but if it were not him offered he endeavoured to obtain it by indulging in scathing remarks or vulgar abuse. The fact that a cabman has a wife and children to support may be considered extenuating circumstances, but it is poor consolation for the unfortunate victims of his extortion.

With the idea of protecting the public against overcharge, an endeavour was made, in 1858, to get attached to cabs a patent machine named "The Kilometric Register," which would indicate the number of miles travelled and fare to be paid. But the cabmen objected strongly to such an innovation, and it was not made.

Lord John Russell was in the habit of riding home every night from the House of Commons in a cab. The distance was short, and the cabmen all knew that he paid a shilling for his ride. But one night a cabman, well known as "Palace Yard Jack," was surprised to find that Lord John had placed a sovereign in his hand instead of a shilling. He saw that the statesman had made a mistake but having had a spell of bad luck, and being in great need of a new pair of boots, he did not call his lordship's attention to the coin. But on the following night, as "Palace Yard Jack" was sitting on his cab, Lord John Russell walked up to him, and said :—

"You drove me home last night, I think."

"Yes, my lord."

"What did I give you?"

"A sovereign, my lord."

"Well, what have you done with it?"

"Bought a new pair of boots; and"—sticking out his feet—"look, my lord, they're Russells, not Wellingtons."

Lord John Russell smiled and walked away leaving "Palace Yard Jack" to boast of his smartness.

In 1860 there were upwards of 4300 licensed cabs in London, and 200 cabstands.

Three years later Mr. Thomas Tilling started four cabs, and at the present day his successors, Thomas Tilling, Limited, possess over sixty.

The minimum cab fare of one shilling was introduced in 1867. For that sum a passenger could ride two miles, the fare for any additional distance ridden being a sixpence a mile or part of a mile. This abolition of sixpenny fares gave great satisfaction to cabmen; but another regulation filled them with indignation. In December, 1867, Parliament gave power to the Chief Commissioner of Police to insist upon all cabs carrying, between sunset and sunrise, "at least one lamp properly trimmed and lighted." Hansoms, or the majority of them, had for many years a lamp, but the proprietors and drivers of four-wheelers protested strongly against being put to the expense while vans and private carriages were permitted to be without lights. The hansom drivers supported the four-wheeler men, and on December 3 the whole of the cabmen went on strike. A promise was immediately made that the Police order should not be enforced, and on December 5 the men returned to work. However, two years later Parliament passed an Act compelling all cabs to carry a lighted lamp from sunset to sunrise.

The next strike began in September, 1868, and was an attempt to compel the Railway Companies to abolish the "privilege" system and admit all cabs to their termini. It was, however, shortlived and unsuccessful.

On January 1, 1870, a new regulation, compelling all cab proprietors to display inside their vehicles a list of fares, came into force. Four-wheelers were to have them fixed or painted on their doors; hansoms, facing the passengers. By the same Act the cost of licences was reduced from £19 and £17 to £2 2s.

In the same year the Cab-drivers' Benevolent Association was founded, to make some provision for deserving aged or infirm cabmen unable to earn their living. The late Marquis of Townshend, a staunch friend of cabmen, took an active part in establishing it, and for many years it was known among cabbies as "The Marquis's Society." The objects of the Association, of which His Majesty the King is patron, are (1) to give annuities of £20 each to aged cab-drivers who from infirmity are unable to earn their living; (2) to grant loans, without interest, to members requiring such aid, and to give temporary assistance to those who may be in distress through unavoidable causes; (3) to give legal assistance to members who may be unjustly summoned to the police-courts.

In 1900 the Society had sixty-five annuitants, and also granted small loans to seventy-six members, nearly the whole of which were repaid.

Cabmen becoming members while under thirty years of age pay an annual subscription of 5s. and an entrance fee of 2s. If over thirty the entrance fee is 3s. There is also a Widow and Orphan Relief Fund, for which an additional subscription of 2s. a-year has to be paid.

At the annual meeting of the Society in March, 1900, Benjamin Heppelthwaite, aged 74, was elected one of the annuitants; but, feeling that he was still able to work, he waived his right to the annuity, which was then given to the highest unsuccessful candidate. Heppelthwaite's generous behaviour did not go unrewarded. The chairman, Viscount Duncannon at once announced that he would give Heppelthwaite, for the next twelve months, a sum equal to the annuity which he had refused in favour of a weaker friend.

In 1871 the London Cabmen's Mission was started in premises adjoining the King's Cross Station of the Metropolitan Railway, and during the thirty years of its existence has done much to improve the moral character of cabmen. Religious services for cabmen and their families are held at the hall at King's Cross on four days in each week, and the missionary also visits the men on the ranks to talk with them and distribute bright, wholesome magazines.

We read, frequently, in the daily papers, of cabmen being drunk while at work, and it will, therefore, surprise many people to hear that there is a large number of total abstainers among London cab-drivers. During the summer months a cabmen's Gospel Temperance meeting is held every Sunday evening on the stand outside King's Cross Railway Station. The speakers and singers are all cabmen. Last year they held, at the same spot, an open-air Harvest Festival. Fruit, flowers, vegetables and bread were displayed on the temporary platform, and a cabman sang, "Oh, what shall the harvest be?" At the conclusion of the service the fruit, flowers, and other gifts, were taken in cabs and given to a Rescue Home.

The London Cabmen's Mission also distributes among the men, woollen mufflers, cuffs and hosiery—presents which are greatly appreciated. One lady subscriber gave the Mission six dozen sunbonnets for cab-horses, and thereby added to the comfort of the animals and the gaiety of the streets.

Another very excellent society, the "Hackney Carriage Proprietors' Provident Fund," was founded, by the late Mr. Herbert Rymill, in April, 1873. It was started to establish a fund for providing annuities of £26 to aged, decayed, or disabled proprietors or their widows, and to afford temporary relief to its members or to the widows and children of deceased members. It was registered under the Friendly Societies Acts in July, 1878, and in January, 1887, its title was changed to the "Hackney Carriage Proprietors' Provident Institution." For an annual subscription of £1 1s. a member is able to make provision against misfortune. Many a cab proprietor has, through no fault of his own, been reduced from comfortable circumstances to want. One of his horses may have contracted glanders in consequence of the driver foolishly permitting it to drink at a public trough; the disease spreads through his stables and a number of his horses have to be destroyed. To a wealthy cab proprietor this is a serious loss, but to a man who owns only three or four it would mean ruin but for the "Hackney Carriage Proprietors' Provident Institution's" assistance in helping him to tide over his difficulties. And it must be remembered that the majority of cab proprietors are small owners; on December 31, 1900, there were 2782 licensed cab proprietors in London, and of these 2207 owned from one to five vehicles.

The "Hackney Carriage Proprietors' Provident Institution" had been in existence barely two years when the "Cabmen's Shelter Fund" was started. Its object was to provide for cabmen on the ranks a place where they could obtain protection from the weather, and purchase good, wholesome food at moderate prices.

On February 6, 1875, the first shelter for London cabmen was opened in Acacia Road, St. John's Wood, by the Hon. Arthur Kinnaird, M.P., Vice-President of the Society. Among the crowd which had assembled to witness the ceremony were some thirty or forty cabmen who came, as representatives of their class, to do honour to the occasion. By the end of the year the Society had thirteen shelters in various parts of the Metropolis, and, at the present time, it possesses forty-three, a dozen of which are open day and night. Many of these were presented to the Society; the one in Palace Yard, Westminster, by members of both Houses of Parliament, and those at Pont Street, Belgrave Square, St. George's Square, S.W., Clapham Common, Kensington Crescent, Royal Crescent, Uxbridge Road, Piccadilly, Warwick Road, Maida Vale, and the one near the Oratory, Brompton Road, by residents in those neighbourhoods. The shelter at Portland Road Station was presented by the residents of Richmond. The remainder were either erected by the Fund or presented to it by various individuals. The entire cost of the new shelter now being erected in the Haymarket has been defrayed by Sir Squire Bancroft.

The forty-three shelters maintained by the Society are used daily by nearly four thousand cabmen. The attendants in charge of the various shelters make their living by selling provisions to the frequenters, and cooking, at a charge of one penny, any food they may bring in.

Every shelter is divided into two compartments—a mess-room and a small kitchen. The mess-rooms are supplied with newspapers, and some of them possess small libraries.

In the mess-rooms the following rules are displayed:—

  1. This Shelter is the property of the Cabmen's Shelter Fund and is for the use of CAB-DRIVERS solely.
  2. The Drivers of the FIRST TWO CABS on the rank are not to enter the Shelter.
  3. No bad language, card-playing, betting, or gambling allowed.
  4. The Attendant in charge is authorised to sell Tea, Coffee, and Bread and Butter to the Drivers using Shelter only, at prices as per Tariff.
  5. The Attendant is instructed to see that the above Rules are strictly kept.

Any complaints as to attendance, quality of refreshments sold, etc., etc., must be made to the Hon. Sec., and will be at once attended to.

The Committee appeal to the good sense and feeling of the Drivers to help in maintaining the respectability of this Shelter, and by every means in their power to prevent its being damaged.

During one of the recent cab strikes an attempt was made at some shelters to prevent non-strikers from using them. This was, of course, in direct opposition to the rules of the Society, and the strikers were taught that the shelters are for all cab-drivers.