One of those things I used to wonder about was the term “Hackney carriage.” If you’re not familiar with the phrase, it’s another term for “taxi” in London. It specifically refers to taxis licensed by the Public Carriage Office. A vehicle thus classified doesn’t technically have to be a carriage.
I’d always assumed the name meant that the first taxis had something to do with Hackney. Maybe the first carriage designed specifically as a taxi was built there or something. Much as the town of Kocs in Hungary gives us the modern word “coach.”
Then I was informed that actually, the name was French. It was derived from “haquenee,” a small breed of horse ideally suited to small and nippy vehicles such as the old horse-drawn taxi.
Now I’m told that’s wrong again – haquenee is derived from Hackney, which up until relatively recently was in the middle of horse country, and where the aforementioned small horses were bred. These horses were typically hired out for riders, and eventually the word “hackney” came to mean “for hire.” It attached itself to carriages for hire and – later still – to journalists who worked for hire (hence the term “a hack,” but I digress).
The first attempt at regulating carriages for hire came at some unknown point in the 15th century during the reign of Edward V, but it was actually Oliver Cromwell who we have to thank for basically inventing the taxi in a 1654 ordinance catchily titled ‘The Regulation of Hackney Coachmen in London.’ As a Puritan, regulating stuff was kind of “his thing.” Charles I had attempted to regulate the carriages before, but the only function of this 1631 law was to limit hackneys to journeys over three miles. This, of course, had nothing to do with the money paid to him by sedan chair magnate Sir Sanders Duncombe the previous year. In any case, nobody paid much attention to the law.
Despite (often furious) competition with watermen and sedan chairs, the taxi came to be the dominant form of transport-for-hire, and as competition grew, fares dropped. The laws governing the hackney carriage evolved over the next couple of centuries – one you might have heard of, albeit inaccurately, was from the 1831 Hackney Carriage Act. Section 54 stated that horses could not be fed in the street unless from a nosebag or a bale of hay carried by the driver. Since then, the popular misconception has arisen that the law stated that all taxi drivers must carry a bale of hay in their cab, even now. I mean, they could, but without horses the law doesn’t apply. Sorry to spoil your fun there.
Which brings me to the Hansom cab, without doubt the iconic London taxi of the pre-motor era. Prior to the hansom, the most popular type of hackney carriage was the cabriolet, known for its comfortable ride. We still use the word “cabriolet” to describe taxis, albeit we shorten it to “cab.” One of these days I’m going to end up getting drunk, ringing the local minicab office and requesting a “miniature cabriolet.”
1814 had seen the introduction of two-wheeled “chariots” to London. Although nowhere near as comfortable as the cabriolet, they had the advantage of speed, manouevrability and lower weight.
In 1834, Joseph Aloysius Hansom came up with his cab. It combined the advantages of the chariot with those of the cabriolet, and was additionally designed to be safer at speed. Unfortunately, he didn’t get rich off his idea, as he sold the idea before the cabs were put into production. He negotiated £10,000 for the invention but was paid no more than £300.
Nevertheless, the Hansom was an instant success. These days it’s synonymous with 19th century London. For instance, Sherlock Holmes chases one through the West End in A Study in Scarlet, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum has preserved an example (the one you see above, in fact).
Two notable innovations came in 1897. The first was the taximeter – the mechanical fare-calculating device from which we get the word “taxi” (and, indeed, in the sense of the taxicab, “meter”). The second was London’s first motor taxi, the Bersey (pictured left). It was battery-powered and not a huge success due to its unreliability. Within a few short years, all had been withdrawn from service. Alas for the poor Hansom, the petrol-driven taxi arrived in 1903.
And yet the old Hansom was not entirely beat. The last horse-drawn taxi didn’t disappear until 1947. In 1939, the last three Hansom drivers were a Mr Frisbee, a Mr Woolf and a Mr Lamont. In an interview, Frisbee (I know) lamented that most of his fares were either from those who saw it as a novelty or from the more elderly city gents. By that time, spare parts were almost impossible to find – most of the Hansoms had long since had their valuable metal and glass removed and the rest thrown into a pit in Hendon. Yet another reason to hate North-West London.
It’s a sad but inevitable tale of technological progress. Although I can’t help wondering if we’ve really progressed all that far. A well-driven Hansom could attain a speed of 17mph with ease, and prior to the omnibus was regarded as the cheapest means of getting about the city. The modern taxi is seen as ridiculously expensive compared to the bus or Tube, and with modern congestion doesn’t manage anything like 17mph…