Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter V

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Chapter V
Cab show at Alexandra Palace—Forder's cab—The strike of 1894—Cabmen become organ-grinders— The Asquith award—Boycotting the railway stations—The "Bilking Act"

On October 4, 1875, a Cab and Cab-Horse Show was opened at the Alexandra Palace, and attracted a large number of people to Muswell Hill. The first prize for the most convenient and best appointed hansom cab was awarded to Messrs. Forder, who also exhibited one of the same type which they had built for the Prince of Wales. Two years previously, a cab built by this firm had been awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts, and this identical hansom won at the Alexandra Palace the second prize for vehicles which had been at work for not less than six months. Forder's cab had been working in the London streets for two years.

In the class for horses which had been at cab work for not less than eight years, during which they must have been the property of the exhibitor, the first prize was won by Mrs. Ruth Farmer, whose bay mare, aged twenty, had been in constant work for seventeen years.

Prizes were also offered for cabmen who had retained their badges and been exempt for the longest period from any charge of cruelty to animals, reckless driving, drunkenness or any other offence, and who had constantly driven for upwards of ten years. The winner of the first prize had been a cab-driver for forty-six years.

The long service and good conduct prize was awarded to a cabman who had been for thirty-five years in the service of his master, and the Temperance prize was won by a driver who had been a teetotaler for twenty-nine years.

Strikes, and threats to strike, have been exceedingly numerous since 1853. On some occasions the cabmen objected to Government regulations, and on others their quarrels were with the cab proprietors. It had been the complaint of cabmen, for very many years, that the prices charged by proprietors for the hire of their cabs were too high, and in May, 1894, they determined to make a strenuous effort to get them reduced. On the morning of May 10 they held a meeting in a hall at Bell Street, Edgware Road, to discuss the advisability of striking, in the event of the cab owners refusing to accede to their demands, the chief of which was that the hiring-price of 16s. or 17s. a day should be reduced by three shillings. The meeting was enthusiastic, and decided, promptly, to strike unless the cab proprietors made the reduction which they wanted. Negotiations were then opened with the cab proprietors who refused, however, to comply with the men's request, pointing out, in support of their decision, that, as a large number of cabmen never worked more than four or five days a week, it was evident that they made a very good living, and could, if they liked, make a still better one.

In consequence of the cab proprietors' attitude, a mass meeting was held at midnight on May 14 at the Novelty Theatre, and the place was so crowded that an overflow meeting had to be held in the street. The resolution, pledging the men to strike, was moved and carried with tremendous enthusiasm by both meetings. The following morning the strike began, but, contrary to the expectation of most people, there were many cabs plying for hire. The majority of these belonged to proprietors in a small way of business who had submitted to the Union's demands and were permitted, therefore, to run. Men who drove their own cabs were also allowed to work, but both class of vehicles had to affix the Union's labels on their windows. The former bore the legend, "Fair-priced cab," while the latter carried an announcement that they were working by permission of the Union. Three thousand Union labels were issued, and, as far as the public was concerned, the strike was not very serious. There was a little difficulty at the railway stations on the first day about getting sufficient cabs, and some people complained that they could not procure them after the theatres closed. Considering, however, that nearly nine thousand cabs were kept off the streets, it is truly surprising that far greater inconvenience was not caused to the public. Many people said it was a conclusive sign that at ordinary limes there are far too many cabs in London. Of course, the cabs which were permitted by the Union to run earned plenty of money, but the drivers were not allowed to keep all of it. Those who worked were expected to contribute towards the support of those who did not, and for once in a way, that was a perfectly fair arrangement. Certain of the men on strike were sent out daily by the Union to sell tickets to the men at work. These tickets were of various prices, and the colour indicated their value. When a cabman bought one he stuck it in his hat, so that his fellowmen might see to what extent he was doing his duty. But selling tickets was by no means the only way in which the Union raised money to carry on the strike. Cabmen were sent out with street organs, and for many days ground out music from morning till night with very satisfactory results—from a pecuniary point of view. 'Busmen chaffed them unmercifully about these organs for many months and an argument between a cabby and a 'busmen invariably ended in the latter advising the former to take his cab home and bring out his organ.

When the strike had lasted for nearly a month, a Board of Conciliation was formed to settle, if possible, the dispute. Cab proprietors and strikers were both represented, the Home Secretary (Mr. H. H. Asquith) acting as mediator. After a few meetings had been held at the House of Commons, Mr. Asquith made his award, which was as follows :—

June 4 to July 15, 6 weeks at 16s. per day.
July 16 " "  22, 1  "       " 15s.  "  "
"   23 " "   29, 1  "       " 14s.  "  "
"   30 " August   5, 1  "       " 13s.  "  "
August  6 " "   12, 1  "       " 12s.  "  "
"    13 " "   19, 1  "       " 11s.  "  "
"    20 " October 21, 9  "       " 10s.  "  "
October 22 " "   28, 1  "       " 11s.  "  "
"    29 " January 14, 11  "      " 12s.  "  "
January 15 " April 1, 11  "      " 11s.  "  "
April  2 " "   15, 2  "       " 12s.  "  "
"    16 " May 6, 3  "       " 13s.  "  "
May  7 " "   20, 2  "       " 14s.  "  "
"    21 " June  3, 2  "       " 15s.  "  "

"The above scale is to regulate the net cash price to be paid per day by driver to owner for first-class street hansom cabs from this date. It is to be subject to revision as from the first Monday in April, 1895, if within fourteen days prior to that date notice demanding revision is given to me by, or on behalf of, either of the parties to the agreement of this day."

The award was dated June 11, 1894, and two days later the cabmen went back to work. On the 27th of the same month Mr. Asquith fixed the following scale for four-wheeled cabs :—

(1) The net cash price to be paid by driver to owner for best street iron-tyred four-wheeled cabs, with two horses per day, to be according to the subjoined seal :—
May 14 to July 22, 10 weeks at 13s. per day.
July 23 " August 12, 3  "       " 12s.  "  "
August 13 " September  9, 4  "       " 11s.  "  "
September 10 " March 26, 28  "       " 10s.  "  "
March 27 " April  9, 2  "       " 11s.  "  "
April 10 " May 14, 5  "       " 12s.  "  "

(2) The net cash price to be paid by driver to owner for rubber-tyred four-wheeled cabs to be in all cases 1s. (one shilling) over the price for iron-tyred four-wheeled cabs.

(3) The net cash price to be paid by driver to owner for four-wheeled cabs worked on the one-horse principle to be according to the subjoined scale:

June  4 to July 29, 8 weeks at 8s. per day.
July 30 " April  2, 35  "       " 6s. 6d.  "  "
April  3 " May  7, 5  "       " 7s.  "  "
May  8 " June  3, 4  "       " 7s. 6d.  "  "

(4) The actual amount chanced by the Railway Companies for privileged cabs to be paid by the drivers to the owners in addition to the above.

Londoners were heartily glad when the strike was at an end; not because they had suffered very much inconvenience from it, but out of sympathy for the women and children, for strike pay is not magnificent. Nevertheless, over a thousand man were thankful to receive it for many weeks after the strike was concluded. These were men who found themselves out of work through cab proprietors having sold off their stock and retired from business in disgust. The balance-sheet of the Cab-drivers' Union dealing with the strike showed that £8202 was received, and £8111 spent from the beginning of the strike until July 28.

The next strike began in September, 1896, and aimed at compelling the Railway Companies to allow all cabs the privilege of entering their termini to pick up fares. The drivers refused to work for any proprietor who had privileged cabs, and pressure was put upon the drivers of the latter vehicles to cease work until the Railways agreed to the Union's demands. The number that did so, however, was comparatively small. Then the strikers made the great mistake of trying to get the public on their side by inconveniencing it. They refused to take people into any terminus in which they were not allowed to pick up fares, but put them down, luggage and all, outside the premises. But, to their surprise, they found that their fares refused to pay unless they were taken right into the station. So that plan was discarded very quickly. The strike dragged on for many weeks, but the average Londoner only knew that it existed by seeing Union mottoes adorning the cabmen's whips. Eventually it died peacefully of sheer weakness.

The year of this futile strike saw the passing of an Act which was badly needed. Although "bilking" has never been so common as it was in days of back-door cabs, there has always been a number of well-dressed rascals who make a point of swindling cabmen. Usually they alight at some big shop or institutions, telling the cab-driver that they will be out again in a few minutes and will want to be taken farther; then they enter the building and pass out by another door into a different street, leaving the cabman to discover that he has been "bilked." The "Bilking Act," as cabmen called the Act of 1896, made any person who hired a cab knowing that he could not pay the legal fare, or intending to avoid payment of it, liable to a fine of 40s., in addition to the fare, or to be imprisoned for a term not exceeding fourteen days. The whole or part of the fine could be given to the cabman as compensation.