The fuss over Uber, the cab company booked and paid for using digital technology, is only the latest in a centuries old practice.
The Hackney Cab originated in 17th century London when a retired sea-captain named Bailey established a service at the Maypole Inn at St Mary in the Strand. In 1654 Oliver Cromwell authorized a Fellowship of Hackney Coachmen and by 1662 400 licenses had been issued at a fee of £5 each.
The word hackney is derived from the French haquenée, originally a gentle horse (often a mare) suitable for ladies to ride in the Middle Ages. The diminutive haque may have given rise to the English hack, although some think both words are associated with the medieval pasturing of horses at Hackney, outside London.
“An Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney-Coachmen in London and the places adjacent” was approved by Parliament in 1654, to remedy what it described as the “many Inconveniences [that] do daily arise by reason of the late increase and great irregularity of Hackney Coaches and Hackney Coachmen in London, Westminster and the places thereabouts.”
The first hackney-carriage licences were applied to horse-drawn vehicles, which later became Hansom cabs. Everything from fare rates to the coachman’s behaviour was strictly regulated, including a minimum size for the coach horse. The Hansom cab (photo left) was designed and patented in 1834 by Joseph Hansom, an architect from York. Originally called the Hansom safety cab (a short form of cabriolet), it combined speed with safety, with a low centre of gravity for better cornering. The Hansom cab soon replaced the hackney carriage as the vehicle of choice.
In 1859, Charles Dickens fell out with the publisher of Household Words and set up his own weekly magazine called All the Year Round. It was a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. Ever interested in social matters, on 25 February 1860 he wrote a piece called “Cab!”
“From my earliest youth I was taught to regard cabmen as birds of prey. I was led to consider that their hands were against every man, and every man’s hand ought to be against them in self-defence. I was forbidden to attribute their husky voices to anything but unlimited indulgence in common spirituous liquors. The red noses that I saw peeping from under broad-brimmed hats, and over bee-hive-looking caped great coats, were never said in my hearing to arise from exposure to the weather. When I was sent on a solitary journey – perhaps to school – in a four-wheeled hackney coach or cab, I always heard a stern voice bargaining with the driver before I was placed inside; and I looked upon him, through the small window in front, during the short intervals when I was not being jerked from corner to corner of the far too spacious vehicle, as a dangerous ogre who might leap down and devour me at any moment.”
Dickens pursued his theme with a sympathetic piece about the trials and tribulations of cabbies, who faced the constant aggravation of dissatisfied customers (nothing new there), a lack of proper insurance cover for themselves and their horses, and all kinds of hidden “extras”:
“When we go to the yard to begin work in the morning, we deposit our licenses as security for the cabs and horses. Some of the men who’re very anxious to start as drivers, or who want work, are compelled to sign contracts, and when they do this, they bind themselves to pay all damages that may be done to their horses or cabs. They either pay these by instalments or thirty or forty men in a yard will make a fund amongst themselves for accidents, which they call ‘box-money’.”
A day’s work was not easy:
“We drive out, and choose our stand from fancy, providing it’s not full. A stand mustn’t have more than twenty cabs on it at one time and it’s watched over by a police Waterman, who gets fifteen shillings a week and his clothes. If a cabman takes a place on a stand after it’s full we say he’s ‘fouled’ it, and he’s liable to be summoned. The worst court they can take him to is Bow-street. If a month’s imprisonment can be given, he gets it there, or he has to pay a heavier fine.”
Dickens was an important social commentator, using journalism and fiction to criticize economic, social, and moral abuses in the Victorian era. He always showed compassion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of English society, and contributed to several important social reforms, including the abolition of imprisonment for debt, overhauling the Magistrates’ courts, better management of criminal prisons, and restrictions on capital punishment.
Concluding “Cab!”, Dickens admonishes himself and his readers: “At the close of this speech, as the hour was getting late, my visitor took his departure, having succeeded in making me take a more charitable view of the business and trials of cab-driving.”