Funny green buildings

This is the 200th entry for London Particulars and, in celebration, I intend to do nothing special whatsoever.

Instead, I’d like to talk about the funny little building you see on the right there and its brethren. There are a few of these dotted around, looking like “miniature cricket pavilions” in the words of Alf Townsend, whose book The Black Cab Story has provided a lot of the information in this entry.

This one is at Temple. Twelve others survive, including the original at Wellington Place in St John’s Wood.

As the name suggests, they are shelters for taxi drivers. They pre-date the invention of the motor taxi, with the first appearing in 1875. The hansom cabs were much more open to the elements than the modern taxi, and so waiting on the rank in the worst excesses of a London winter was not an attractive prospect. Under such conditions, the more popular option was to nip into the pub. The newspaper editor Captain Armstrong, who lived in St John’s Wood, was appalled that they had to resort to such measures (although the way the story is told, it sounds like he might have been equally appalled by an inability to get a taxi in a hurry) and so set up the London Cabmen’s Shelter Fund with the help of various wealthy individuals, including the then-Prince of Wales.

The distinctive buildings were designed to be no larger than the parking space for a horse and hansom. From 1882, they incorporated a kitchen (hence that jaunty little cupola on the top) providing much-appreciated cups of tea, bacon sarnies and the like.

In typically Victorian fashion, despite the utilitarian purpose of the shelters, close inspection will reveal a surprising amount of architectural detail. For instance, the panels above the windows feature delightful patterns cut into the woodwork. How much these holes in the walls were appreciated in winter is sadly unrecorded.

The Chelsea Embankment shelter

Comparison between the Temple example and the Chelsea Embankment one on the left will show that there were various detail differences from shelter to shelter, perhaps due to the fact that they were built over several decades.

The last went up in 1914, by which time 47 existed. What eventually did for them, or at least 34 of them, was Progress. As roads were rebuilt and new traffic systems were implemented, the cabmen’s shelters tended to get in the way and so were mostly got rid of.

Example in South Kensington. Note the patterns cut into the wood.

Ironically, two of the survivors should perhaps have been demolished. The Chelsea shelter, known to cabbies as “The Pier,” was hit by a lorry and wrecked, but fortunately has since been rebuilt. The one in Leicester Square would have been demolished when the square was pedestrianised, but was instead moved to Russell Square, where it may be seen today.

The former Leicester Square shelter.Those that remain are, happily, Grade II listed. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, with English Heritage and the Heritage of London Trust, keeps them in good order.

Though they’re not as well-known as their friends the red telephone boxes or the black cabs they serve, they’re every bit as deserving of recognition as an icon of London.

Further Reading – Lots of information here, along with a list of all the survivors and their locations.


1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Buildings and architecture, chelsea, Food, History, Kensington, London, Photos, The City, Transport, West End

One response to “Funny green buildings

  1. Pingback: China Miéville and Urban Fantasy | London Particulars

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