Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 18 - Concerning Cabs

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ONE of the most blessed institutions of London is the cab. I prefer it much to the bus - to equestrian exercise - and if I had, which I have not, a carriage of my own, I dare say I should prefer it even to that. If the horse falls down, it is not yours that breaks its knees; if the shafts suddenly snap asunder, they are not yours that are damaged. And you need not be imposed on, unless you are flat enough to ask cabby his fare, and then it serves you right. The number of cabs now licensed in London is 4,500; each common cab and the two horses with the appointments requisite to work it are estimated to cost not more than £60, so that the capital engaged is, in round numbers, upwards of £270,000, provided by upwards of 1,800 small owners. The waste of the capital committed by this competition within the field of supply is visible to the eye, at all times and all weathers, in full stands, or long files waiting hour after hour, and in the numbers crawling about the streets looking out for fares. The cost of the keep [-186-] of each horse is estimated at 16s. 4d. per week-the depreciation of horse stock is put down at 2s. 6d. per week each, and of the vehicle at 8s. per week. The market value of the labour of such a man as the driver of a cab may be set down in London at 4s. per diem. The stable rent is at least 10s. per week, per cab and horses, so that the capital invested for man, horse, and vehicle, may be set down at more than one shilling per hour lost during every hour of the twelve that cabs are kept unemployed. On every cab-stand, where in foul weather as well as fair a dozen cabs are seen constantly unemployed, the administrative economist may see capital evaporating in worse than waste at a rate of 12s. per hour, £7. 4s. per diem, or at a rate of between two and three thousand pounds per annum, to be charged to some one, i.e. the public. If all were employed, as the usual rate of driving is six miles per hour, they must be each employed at least four hours per diem to pay for their keep. If, however, the cabs were constantly employed daily, at least three horses must be employed, which would augment the charge, by that of an additional horse, at the rate of 4d. per hour. A large proportion of the cabs are employed during the whole 24 hours; but there are then two men, a night man and a day man, and three horses. It is probably greatly below the fact to state that at least one-third of the cabs are, the week though, unemployed - that is to say, one-third of the capital invested is wasted, a service for two capitals being competed for by three; to the inevitable destruction of one. As in [-187-] other cases of competition within the field, efforts are made by violent manifestations of discontent at the legal fare, by mendacity, and by various modes of extortion, to charge upon the public the expense of the wasted capital. Sometimes it is in the form of a piteous appeal that the driver or the competitor has been out all day and has not before had "one single blessed fare." And yet the legal charge for the frequently wretched service of the man, horse, and vehicle is, when taken by the hour, nearly double, and by the mile, nearly treble - when only two horses per diem are used - its actual prime cost, which is, when driving at little more than six miles an hour, 2d. or 3d. per mile, and when waiting, 1s. 4d. per hour. But there is now a cry from the cab proprietors that this charge of double the prime cost does not pay, as it probably does not under such a ruinous system, and an appeal is proposed to parliament for an augmentation of the fares, but such augmentations, under this principle of competition within the field, would only aggravate the evil, for it would lead to an increased number of competitors, and instead of there being a competition of three to do the work of two, there would be a competition of two or more to do the work of one-that is, a greater waste of capital to be paid for by some one. Since the reduction of the fares in 1852, the number of cabs in the metropolis, instead of being reduced, has been increased from 3297 to 4507 in 1857.
    The criminal returns afford melancholy indications of their moral condition to those conversant with penal [-188-] statistics. Thus, in the police returns we find, under the head of "Coach and cabmen" - but it is stated by the police to be chiefly of cabmen - a very heavy list of offences. In the year 1854 it was 682; in the year before that, 777. The recurring crimes are thus denoted:

Apprehensions for 1853 1854
Offences against the Hackney Carriage Act 369 335

Simple larcenies

29 36
Other larcenies 10 12
Common assaults 54 42
"                 " on the police 24 11
Cruelty to animals 57 27
Disorderly characters 15 21
Drunk and disorderly characters 66 62
Drunkenness 82 73
Furious driving 24 18

In respect to this service of cabs, says a writer - from whom I have taken these figures, I regret I cannot find out his name, that I might quote it - "the analysed charges and statistics show that by a properly-conducted competition by adequate capital for the whole field - for which, in my view, the chief police or local administrative authorities ought, as servants of the public, to be made responsible-service equal to the present might be obtained at 3d. or 4d. per mile; or at the present legal fare of 6d. per mile, a service approaching in condition to that of private carriages, might be insured out of the waste which now occurs."
    [-189-] A pleasant way of getting along is that of getting in a Hansom, and bidding the driver drive on. A great improvement, undoubtedly, on the old Hackney coach, or on that first species of cab-consisting of a gig with a very dangerous hood - on one side of which sat the driver, while on the other was suspended yourself. Now as you dash merrily along, with a civil driver, a luxurious equipage, and not a bad sort of horse, little do you think that you may be driving far further than you intended, to a dangerous illness and alt early grave.
    A terrible danger threatens all who live in London, or who visit it, by means of a custom - which ought not to be tolerated for an instant - of carrying sick persons in cabs to hospitals. No doubt the increase of smallpox in the metropolis may be referred to this source. Put a case of smallpox into a comfortable cab for an hour, then send the vehicle into the streets; first a merchant sits in it for a quarter of an hour, then a traveller from the railway gets his chance of catching the disease, and so on for the next week or two. When it takes, the victims have had no warning of their impending danger, and wonder where they got it. They in their turn become new centres of disease, and for the next few weeks they infect the air they breathe, the houses they inhabit, the clothing sent to the laundress, and everybody and everything which comes within their influence, and it is impossible to say where the infection ceases. The following arrangements would easily, cheaply, and effectually do away with the evil :-1. Make it penal to let or to [-190-] hire a public vehicle for the conveyance of any person affected with contagious disease. 2. Every institution for the reception of contagious disease should undertake to fetch the patient on receipt of a medical certificate as to the nature of the case.
    Do not be too confidential with cabby, nor ask him what he charges, nor hold out a handful of silver to him and ask him to pay himself, nor give him a sovereign in mistake for a shilling, and delude yourself with the idea that he will return it. Don't tell him you are in a hurry to catch the train. I once offered the driver of a Hansom a shilling for a ride from the Post Office to the Angel, Islington; he was so disgusted that he plainly informed me that if he'd a known I was only going to give him a shilling, he'd be blessed if he would not have lost the mail for me. The repeal of the newspaper stamp has done wonders for cabby. He now takes in his morning paper the same as any other gentleman. To ride in a cab is the extent of some people's idea of happiness. I heard of a clerk who had absconded with some money belonging to an employer, he had spent it all in chartering a cab, and in riding about in it all day. M.P.'s are much in the habit of using cabs. On one occasion an M.P. who had been at a party, hurrying down to a division, was changing his evening costume for one more appropriate to business. Unfortunately, in the most interesting part of the transaction, the cab was upset and the M.P. was exhibited in a state which would have made Lord Elcho very angry.
    [-191-] Cab drivers I look upon as misanthropic individuals. I fancy many of them were railway directors in the memorable year of speculation, and have known better days. The driver of a buss is a prince of good fellows compared with a cabman. The former has no pecuniary anxieties to weigh him down, he is full of fun in a quiet way, and in case of a quarrel he has his conductor to take his side-he has his regular employment and his regular pay; the cabby is alone, and has to do battle with all the world, and he has often horses to drive and people to deal with that would tire the patience of a Job. He is constantly being aggravated-there is no doubt about that; the magistrates aggravate him - the police aggravate him-his fares aggravate him - his 'oss aggravates him-the crowded state of the street, and the impossibility of getting along aggravates him-the weather aggravates him - if it is hot he feels it, and has a terrible tendency to get dry - and if it is cold and wet not even his damp wrappers and overcoats can keep out. I suspect, chilblains; and 1 know he has corns, and he will use bad language in a truly distressing manner. Then his hours of work are such as to ruffle a naturally serene temper, and when he finds it hard work to make both ends meet, and sees how gaily young fellows spend their money-how he drives them from one public to another, and from one place of amusement to another - and in what questionable society, - one can scarce wonder if now and then cabby is a little sour, and if his language be as rough as his thoughts. Strange tales can he tell.
   [-192-] A friend of the writer's once hired a chaise to take him across the country; their way led them through a turnpike-gate, and, to my friend's horror, the driver never once pulled up to allow him to pay the toll. My friend expostulated; as the toll had to be paid, he thought the better plan was to pay it at once. " Oh, it's all right," said Jehu, smiling, "they know me well enough - I am the man wot drives the prisoners, and prisoners never pay." Our London cabby is often similarly employed, and, as he rushes by, we may well speculate as to the nature and mission of his fare. Cabby so often drives rogues that we cannot wonder if in time he becomes a bit of a rogue himself.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860