Cabbies Shelter

I’ll drop you by the cabbies shelter then shall I?

London cab driver 2018

 I was on my way to Waterloo Station in London but had decided to stop off and stroll the embankment gardens. The cabbies shelter is a well known piece of listed architecture on the north bank of the River Thames. “Will you be stopping?” I asked the driver. “Not at this one, this one is abandoned now, got my own provisions here with me” he said patting his flask and lunchbox on the seat beside him.

The green sheds are a familiar site to Londoners, not much noticed on a day to day basis but these small pieces of architecture, thirteen of them still in existence are a reminder of days when the black cab’s predecessor was a Hansom safety cab.

Cabbie's shelter
Cabbies Shelter on London’s Embankment

Why was there a need for a safety cab?

The streets of Victorian London were filled with horses, cabs, delivery carts, people and animals. Riding the cobbled narrow streets could be a matter of life and death as carriages were prone to overturning and crush injuries were common. Most of the carriages and carts were wide requiring at least two horses to draw them. The public cabs which conveyed people hither and thither were also four wheeled, known as ‘Growlers’ because of the noise they made over the cobbles, they were unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre and turn in the narrow streets. What was needed was a light carriage with greater stability, capable of turning safely in narrow streets. It had to be a swift carriage, with the added advantage of being cheap to run of course.

Introducing the Hansom cab.

The Hansom Cab, was a two wheeled, one horse carriage which dominated the streets of London as well as other cities in Britain. It was an invention by Joseph Hansom, patented in 1834. Hansom was born in York in 1803, he worked with his father as a joiner but showed real flair in design and so took an apprenticeship to become an architect. He excelled in this field and went on to design over two hundred buildings.

In 1828 Hansom set up in partnership with a man called Edward Welch and together they won a commission to design Birmingham Town Hall, due to be completed in 1833. The construction costs however went far beyond Hansom and Welchs estimate and Hansom was made bankrupt. During this tumultuous period in his life he made friends with land owner, Dempster Hemming who counselled Hansom on his future and encouraged him to register a design for the safety cab.
He sold the patent for his cab for £10,000 but the firm he sold it to became insolvent themselves and Hansom saw not a penny of the money.

What did the Hansom safety cab look like?

It could hold two passengers and the driver was seated at the back of the vehicle exposed to the elements. From this position he communicated with his passengers through a trapdoor in the roof and from here he could control the doors. If the customer had a mind to make a run for it they would find their way blocked by a locked door. The driver controlled the horse with reins that went over the top of the carriage, the driver sitting low to maintain the low centre of gravity was only able to see the top of the horses head. In Hansom’s design the front of the cabin was open which allowed a better view. Later designs had a leather curtain that could be pulled across.
The body of the cab was light weight and could be pulled by a single horse. Only having two wheels and a low centre of gravity meant that it could make tight turns without fear of toppling its passengers into the gutters. Although the streets of London were still very congested, the invention of the Hansom cab certainly improved things.

The Hansom Cab.

So back to the cabbies shelter.

The design of the cab as we have seen meant the poor driver sat outside in all weathers and he was not allowed to leave his vehicle unattended during a shift so no chance to pop into the pie shop to get himself a warm meal.

In 1875 however a charity was set up called, ‘The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund’. They built sixty one cabbies shelters around London and they all looked the same. They were the built at cab ranks and were no longer than the length of a cab and horse. Each was equipped with a small kitchen (see in the photo the chimney) and could seat ten to twelve drivers.

As with all good reforming measures they came with a list of rules, no alcohol, no gambling but a useful supply of wholesome books to encourage greater levels of literacy and improved knowledge of how to live a better life. As the cartoon below reveals maybe the rules were there to be bent!

They appear like very smart garden sheds, with glazed windows, decorated panels and some still serve tea and sandwiches to the present black cab drivers.

So at least some of the cabbies shelters still exist but what of the Hansom cab?

The Hansom cab prospered until the arrival of the motorised, ‘taxi-cab’ and as the road surfaces improved with the introduction of ‘macadamized’ roads so people opted for the more comfortable motorised cab journey. By 1950 the last license was handed in.

Cabbies shelter in London
Notice the chimney on top of the shelter.
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