Today (February 6) in London History – 1st Cabman’s Shelter

February 6, 1875 was the rollout of the first-ever London’s cabman’s shelter. This podcast tells the story.


It’s February 6th, 1875. Special day for London. 

Its first-ever cabman’s shelter is open for business. 

It’s in St. John’s Wood. Still there today, nearly a century and a half later. Not the original structure. They were made of light wood so they could easily be moved. Indeed, they were often on wheels. But constructed out of light wood, the shelters were not made for the centuries. 

But, yes, they were easy to move, easy to relocate. And they were the approximate dimensions of “a clarence” – a four-wheeled cab – with a horse in front. So they looked the part. Haven’t changed all the much in appearance in a century and a half. Still that lovely green colour. Still the window at one end with the step where a cabbie – or indeed ourselves – can order a cup of tea and a sandwich from outside the shelter. Only cabbies and the shelter’s attendant can be inside, of course.

The interior is divided into two compartments. At one end is a counter and behind it a mini kitchen, with a fridge and a cooker and a kettle and a toaster and pots and pans and china and tea mugs and utensils and a sink and hot and cold water of course.

Other side of the counter is longish table, with benches around the two sides and the far end. Most of them will accommodate a dozen or so cabbies. Protocol is a cabbie comes through the door the other cabbies are already in there slide along to make room for him. In due course another cabbie will come in the door and again the diners and tea drinkers slide along, to make room for the new entrant. And eventually you get round to the seat by the door you came. Another cabbie comes in and you’re out the door. Your break’s over. It’s a good sociable, considerate way of timing your break. You can get a cup of tea and a sandwich – or indeed, if you want a three-course meal.

The idea for the shelters originated in Liverpool. Spread to Glasgow and then to Birmingham. And then pitched up, here in St. John’s Wood. 

It was an eminently sensible idea. Until World War I cabbies rode outside. On a cold, wet winter’s night, the temptation for them to knock off early was very strong. Or to go into the pub. And of course once that happened, forget it. You weren’t going to see them again. That was bad news for everybody else. Theatre-goers coming out of the Royal Opera House at 10.30 pm on a cold wet January night, they couldn’t get a cab.

That’s the simplified version. It’s actually more complicated than that. And when you know the full score, boy, do you feel for those cabbies.

Let’s try to get an appreciation of their lot. Let’s hear from a contemporary voice. A late Victorian newspaper story about the short straw the London cabbie very often drew in the lottery of life. Passage goes like this:

“What experiences must they have had – what exposure to all kinds of weather, chilling, wetting, foggy, rainy, windy, frosty, not too often sunshiny – what long drives home at night without a fare, perhaps five shillings behind with the day’s out of pocket expenses – what wrangling with unjust and arrogant customers, tempting a decent man to swear at the contempt they treated him with – what extra labours, sometimes unpaid, in carrying heavy boxes into the house and upstairs – what loss of time in waiting at the door, ten minutes here, ten minutes there, with a denial of fair remuneration – what mean hagglings over the other sixpence, what angry outbursts of temper, what endurance of haughty scorn. We hope, in these times of improving civilisation and professed moral culture, when gentlemen and ladies understand it to be a point of honour to behave gently and fairly to all whom they employ, there is comparatively little of that insolent treatment of cabmen which belonged to the manners of a past age.  Good breeding means good feeling shown with due reserve and propriety, and its grace is nowhere so apparent as in these small transactions with people of the humbler classes who render us direct personal service.”

Here’s another account:

“The cabman is as much the creature of chance as the gold-digger or trapper. And can never tell until the night comes whether he has made a profit on the day’s operations or a loss.

He pays for the hire of his cab and its two horses something varying from ten and sixpence to sixteen or seventeen shillings, according to the nature of the vehicle and the condition of its repair, together with the quality of the steeds.

If he is lucky he may pick up as much as twenty or thirty shillings, or even more, in the course of a single day’s work. With bad luck, on the other hand, he may return to his yard absolutely penniless and at the same time responsible to its proprietor for the day’s hire, and to the yardman for the customary gratuities.”

And here’s a third contemporary voice. This reporter’s writing about that first ever London cabmen’s shelter. 

It reads: “the revolution which this new shelter will effect in the cabman’s life will be little short of magical. Probably few people have ever thought how miserable a time of it a night cabman has upon the rank. Theoretically, it is against the regulations for him to shelter himself in his own cab, no matter how severe may be the weather. The police – all credit to them for it – do not, we believe, attempt to put this harsh rule into strict force. But it is only when the cold is more than unusually keen and cruel, or when the rain comes down as London rain sometimes does towards the spring and autumn equinoxes, that the unlucky cabman is driven in sheer self-defence to creep into his vehicle. Usually he sits patiently on the box, or else walks slowly up and down with sentry-like monotony, occasionally stamping his feet and beating his arms across his chest and blowing upon his numbed fingers in a vain endeavour to keep up some flicker of warmth in his poor chilled body. Perhaps in an hour or an hour and a half a stray eighteen penny fare may reward his patience. Often even this consolation is denied him, and he has to keep himself warm as best he can for hour after hour until six o’clock strikes and the life of the great city begins to recommence. There are probably few of us whose bad fortune it has not been to return home at about two in the morning and to grope in vain in all our pockets for the missing latchkey. A mauvais quart d’heure it is that is thus passed, while the sleepy servant is struggling to the consciousness that someone is ringing at the bell. It is bad enough at any time; but when the rain is coming down and soaking through our patent leather boots and our very greatcoat is saturated, then it is, if at all, that we can realise the discomforts to which the luckless cabman is subject, night after night, and appreciate how hardly indeed he earns the few shillings fortune may bring to him. The only wonder is that the men should be able to stand it as they do. Six long hours in the open air without chance of refreshment of any kind is terrible work. Rheumatism, cramp and toothache mark the cabman out.

It is unreasonable to imagine that under the present conditions of a cabman’s existence a man would voluntarily drive a cab who could find any other sort or kind of employment. But the erection of the first cabman’s shelter is, we hope and believe, the dawning day of a new order of things. We go to the very root of the matter when we provide him with a warm room, a comfortable fire and a hot plate on which he can warm his supper and boil his cup of coffee.

Couple statistics. The average cost of a shelter was £100. There were public campaigns to raise the funds the construct them. The Prince of Wales, for example, made a donation of £20. Once the £100 construction and set-up cost had been met the shelters were self-sustaining. The cabmen paid a penny a day to frequent them. In those early days the attendants were decayed members of the trade – old, worn-out cabbies who were no longer equal to the hours and the weather and the exertions. They were paid 17 shillings a week. Besides the refreshments, which were sold at the lowest possible cost, cabmen were allowed to have cooked, free of charge, any food they brought with them. Newspapers were provided.

It’s interesting – and telling – to chart the advance of the idea across London. Inevitably, I suppose, the wealthy end of town, the West End, got the first cabmen’s shelters. The well-to-do were keen to look after their own needs and creature comforts and convenience. Having cabmen at the ready at the nearest cab rank was of no little importance to well-heeled Victorians. They well understood that cabmen to gravitate to cab ranks that had a cabman’s shelter. So sure enough, the smartest addresses in London got in on the act haste post haste. Berkeley Square, St. James’s Square, The Strand, and so on. The West End of London had a couple of dozen cabmen’s shelters before the East End had even one.

And the biggest and poshest shelter? I’ll bet you can guess. It went up outside The Palace of Westminster. Parliament in other words. It was luxury itself. Had gas-lamp lighting. It accommodated up to18 cabbies, six more than standard-sized shelters could carry. Paid for by wealthy Parliamentarians. As they let the world know. They had a plaque put up on the outside of the shelter saying it had been erected at the expense of a few members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Bottom line: they wanted cabs on tap. The Palace of Westminster cabman’s shelter followed as a matter of course.

Eventually there were 60 or so in London. That sounds like a lot. It wasn’t. In 1890 there were over 600 public cab ranks. There were over 12,000 cabs and over 15,000 cabbies, some of them doing night duty with cabs driven by other men in the daytime. They took about 100,000 “fares” a day. 

There are still about a dozen of them in operation today. One at Warwick Avenue in Little Venice. We take a good look at it on our Little Venice Walk. There’s one by Embankment Station. There’s the grandpappy one in St. John’s Wood that this podcast has been about. There’s one alongside Kensington Gardens. 

But let’s end with a tale about one that’s no longer with us. It stood in front of the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane. London’s poshest hotel. Back in the 1950s an American entertainer you’ve all heard of was staying at the Dorchester. Frank Sinatra. Sinatra goes into his suite, looks out the window and there’s a cabman’s shelter. It looks like a garden shed. Right in front of the Dorchester, the grandest hotel in London. Sinatra rubs his eyes and says, “what in hell is that green shed in front of this hotel?”  His London minder says, “that’s a cabman’s shelter, Mr Sinatra.” Sinatra’s fascinated. He says, “you gotta get me inside, I want to see it on the side.” The minder says, “all right, I’ll arrange that.” So ten minutes later Frank Sinatra crosses the threshold of that cabman’s shelter. There are six or seven London cabbies sitting in there, having a cup of tea – and the most famous singer in the world comes in the door. The cabbies don’t bat an eye. Not an eye. Finally, one of the cabbies says to Sinatra, “hey mate, what do you do for a living?” Sinatra says, “well, I sing a little bit.” The cabbie says, “go on mate, give us a few bars.” And sure enough, Frank Sinatra breaks into song then and there, in that cabman’s shelter. My Way. When it’s all over, the cabbie shakes his head and says, “give it up, mate – you’ll never earn a living that way.”

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