Omnibuses and Cabs/Part II/Chapter VI

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Chapter VI
Gentlemen cabmen—An applicant's nerve—The doctor-cabby—John Cockram—A drunken cabman's horse

Cab proprietors receive applications for work from all classes of men. One morning a particularly dissipated-looking fellow strolled into a cab-yard, not far from King's Cross, and asked the proprietor for a job, mentioning that he had driven most things in India from a pony-trap to a four-in-hand, and did not anticipate the slightest difficulty in driving a cab. The proprietor observed that it required some nerve to drive a cab in London. "Nerve!" the applicant exclaimed. "Well, I don't think I'm deficient in that. One morning in India I woke and found a cobra coiled up on my bed. It wasn't a nice position to find myself in, but I'd been in many a worse fix and didn't lose my presence of mind. I'm a bit of ventriloquist, and as there was a big image of some old Hindoo god at the other end of the room I immediately made it speak. As I expected, directly the cobra heard the voice he slipped off the bed like a shot and went for the idol, while I seized the opportunity to bolt from the room." The cab proprietor congratulated him on his presence of mind, but after appearing to consult a well-worn book, declared that he had not a single vacancy. The applicant did not seem very disappointed, and having succeeded in borrowing twopence, departed.

Many aristocratic, military and professional men had at various times driven a cab for a livelihood, and usually they have been reduced to that strait through their own folly; but there have been cases of young, well-educated men driving cabs for a period until their prospects in life brightened. Only seven or eight years ago a student at one of our great London hospitals passed "final," and found himself in the painful position of being a qualified medical man without any money. Unable to obtain a locum tenens or an assistantship, he applied for and received a cabman's licence. Medical students and their friends made a point of patronising him, and for some months "the doctor" was one of the best-known cabmen in the West End. He has now a very good provincial practice, but the money with which he purchased the nucleus of it was not earned as a cabman. This "doctor" is not the cabman referred to in Chapter IV. The latter, who has been a driver for twenty-one years, is an old man.

An ex-cabman who is well known to many hundreds of Londoners is John Cockram. He was born, in 1833, in French-horn Yard, Holborn, his father being a cab proprietor in a small way of business. Cockram, senior, died early in the forties, leaving a widow and four children totally unprovided for. Moreover, he was deeply in debt to a horse dealer, who speedily caused the stock-in-trade and household furniture to be seized and sold. All that was left to the widow was a bed, a Prayer-book, a Bible, and a watch which had been presented to her by the physician to George IV., in whose service she had been prior to her marriage. Young Cockram, although but eleven years of age, became the main support of his mother, and a few years later she was entirely dependent upon him.

In 1851 John Cockram became a cab-driver, but as he objected on religious grounds to Sunday work, it was his ambition to possess a cab of his own.
John Cockram
Having saved £20, he purchased a horse, hired a cab, and started business on his own account; but as he followed Mr. Thompson's example and accepted sixpenny fares, he became unpopular with cabmen, and a complaint was made to Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief Commissioner of Police, that he was driving a cab while under age. But when Sir Richard Mayne discovered that Cockram was the sole support of his mother, and, moreover, thoroughly qualified for a cab-driver in every respect, except age, he declined to prohibit him from driving. However, there was trouble in store for Cockram. He had been a proprietor for a very short time when his horse bolted, and the cab was smashed. Again Cockram had to drive for a master, but this time he refused to drive on Sundays.

"If you don't take the cab out on Sunday, you shan't on Monday," the proprietor declared; but Cockram at once offered to pay him 5s. every Saturday night to allow his horse and cab to remain in the yard on the following day. The proprietor agreed to this arrangement, and Cockram drove for him for two years, during which time he paid off the money which he owed for the smashed cab, and began educating himself, while waiting on the rank, by studying Cassell's Popular Educator.

In 1860 Cockram competed for and won a prize of £20 offered for the best essay on "Sunday cab-driving, and its influence on the religious, domestic, and physical condition of those employed." Cockram wrote his essay in the streets, using the top of his hansom as a writing-desk. On the essay being published in book form, George Moore, the philanthropist, Sir Hope Grant, and Mr. J. T. Delane, the editor of the Times, sent for Cockram, ongratulated him on his work, and many inquiries concerning Sunday cab work. Colonel H. Knollys mentions in his "Life of General Sir Hope Grant," that the General commissioned Cockram to buy him a cheap cab-horse to use in his private hansom, and promised him £5 for his trouble. Cockram purchased a horse for £38, but refused to accept more than £2, his usual charge for such transactions.

Some years later Cockram published a useful little book entitled, "The Horse in Sickness, and how to treat him."

In 1862 Cockram and another young driver started business as cab proprietors. Each had saved £100, and with their joint capital they purchased seven horses, three cabs, and seven sets of harness. The partners were of one opinion concerning Sunday work, and a clause was inserted in their deed of partnership prohibiting either of them from letting out, or using for their own pleasure, on Sunday, any horse or vehicle. They prospered, and in 1877, the year in which they sold their business, they possessed cabs, omnibuses, broughams, traps, and 126 horses.

Since retiring from business Mr. Cockram has been a member of the Richmond Town Council, and the Richmond Board of Guardians, and, in June, 1895, gave evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Lord's Day Act.

For many years Cockram has been an active member of the Open Air Mission, and is frequently called upon to speak at meetings of the Working Men's Lord's Day Rest Association, and kindred societies. Although now sixty-eight years of age, he is still very energetic, and when I last saw him—three or four months ago—he was preparing to start off on his bicycle to hold a service many miles away from London.

Drunkenness has been the ruin of many cabmen, and the cause of numerous accidents to the cab-riding public. Some people have had very narrow escapes. Many years ago a lady and gentleman hailed a cab on the Grand Parade, Portsmouth, and told the cabman to drive them to London Station. They took no particular notice of the cabman, and on arriving at the station were considerably surprised to see that everybody was staring at them. On proceeding to pay their fare they discovered that the cabman's seat was empty, and the bystanders then informed them that the cab arrived without any driver. The police took up the matter, and discovered eventually that when the cabman picked up his fare he was so intoxicated that before he had driven clear of the High Street he had rolled from his seat into the middle of the road. The horse of its own accord had taken the unsuspecting passengers in safety to their destination.

In London, quite recently, two ladies driving in a hansom had a narrow escape. They were engrossed in conversation when, suddenly, to their surprise, they saw a policeman dash at their horse, and after a few moments' struggle, bring it to a standstill. A large crowd collected immediately, and not until then did the ladies become aware that their horse had taken fright, that the cabman had been thrown from his seat, and that for nearly a quarter of a mile the animal had been dashing madly along uncontrolled. And then they understood that they had had a narrow escape from being killed.

A four-wheel cab-horse took fright about four years ago near Hyde Park Corner, and after a short but exciting run crashed into an omnibus. The cab was damaged, and one of the other omnibus horses received a bad cut. The wounded animal was taken at once to a veterinary surgeon, who examined the wound as thoroughly as the blood would permit and then sewed it up. But it did not heal as quickly as he expected, and when three or four weeks had expired he became convinced that there was some foreign matter in the wound. So he opened it, and discovered, deeply embedded in the flesh, the whole of one of the cab-door handles, for which cabby had made a fruitless search soon after the accident.