London’s Black Taxis have a unique and distinctive appearance, as well as a long and proud history, and they are one of the most recognizable symbols on the streets of our capital City – and so and taking a ride in one of them can be considered an attraction in itself.
‘Hackney Carriages’, to give them their official title, have been in London as early as the 17th century, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – but these original vehicles for hire came in the form horse-drawn carriages.
The term ‘Hackney’ comes from the French word ‘hacquenee’ which means ‘ambling nag’ and therefore a type of horse suitable for hire.
The first person to organize ‘Hacks’, as they became known, was Captain John Bailey (a veteran of Sir Walter Raleigh’s global expeditions to the ‘new world’) – and he put 4 carriages to work from the ‘Maypole’ in the Strand, London’s first cab rank, which you will see the site of on our Tours.
Bailey had ideas ahead of his time, and dressed his coachmen in livery and told them what to charge – and although many followed his example, it would in fact lower standards, because by the 1760’s there were over 1,000 ‘hackney hell carts’ thronging the streets causing obstruction.
To ensure the safety of passengers, the British Government imposed a law in 1679, which required all vehicles to undergo inspection before they could ply their trade.
By 1832, a 2-seat, 2-wheeled carriage called a ‘Cabriolet’ was introduced from France, which was very popular for its speed and comfort – and it is from this vehicle that we derive the term ‘Cab’.
From about 1840, 2 types of cab began to dominate – the 2-wheeled ‘Hansom’, a fast and elegant carriage, and the 4-wheeled ‘Cambridge’, which, with its luggage carrying ability was to be found mainly at railway stations.
The ‘Cambridge’ took the nickname of ‘Growler’ – maybe because of the noise it made rattling through London’s cobblestone streets, or perhaps because of the disposition of the driver!
London’s first motor cabs were the electrically powered ‘Berseys’, named after Walter C. Bersey, manager of the London Electric Company who designed them – but were nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’ after the sound they made.
The first petrol powered cab in London was a French-built ‘Prunel’, introduced in 1903, and among the early British models was the ‘Herald’ – but an attempt to introduce the American ‘Ford Model B’ failed through lack of finance.
The introduction of rules for motor cab design, the ‘Conditions of Fitness’ were introduced by the licensing authority, the ‘Public Carriage Office’ in 1906 – and one new regulation demanded a 25 foot turning circle, which is still the case today.
The fitting of taximeters was made compulsory by 1907, and the words ‘taxicab’ and ‘taxi’ became new words in common language.
A taximeter is by definition what makes a ‘cab’ a ‘taxicab’ – and the modern taximeter was a German invention, first used in Berlin, and its name came from its inventor, Baron von Thurn und Taxis.
‘Conditions of Fitness’ requirements were modified over the years, but they are still being enforced today by the ‘Public Carriage Office’, which is overseen by ‘Transport for London’, the local Government body responsible for most aspects of the transport system in Greater London.
Today, London’s Taxi Drivers have to be ‘Fit and Proper people’, and have to undergo regular ‘Disclosure and Barring Service Checks’ – and London Taxis provide much better and comfortable accommodations for driver and passengers, as well as wheelchair access for the disabled.
London Taxis have recently been voted the best in the world for the 6th consecutive year in the annual global survey from www.hotels.com.
More than 2,500 voters from 30 countries gave London 22% of the votes, well ahead of runners-up New York City (10%) and Tokyo (9%) – and London also topped the list across 5 of the 7 categories, including cleanliness (23%), knowledge of the area (27%) and quality of driving (30%).
The service life of London taxis is usually between 10 and 12 years, and after retirement, they may continue to provide transportation service in other UK cities where taxi regulations are less stringent, or they may end up in the garages or showrooms of classic car collectors.
Just to put one myth to bed – it has never been statute law for a motor cabman to have to keep a bale of hay in his cab (even after the last horse-drawn carriage was decommissioned in 1947) – although he was required to carry sufficient hard food (such as oats) for his horse’s lunchtime feed!
There has also never been a law demanding that all London Taxis had to be black up until the 1970’s, when a wide range of colours were introduced – although we at ‘Black Cab Heritage Tours’ side with tradition!