Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 5 - Riding London : Of Cabs, Jobs and Black Jobs

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THERE is a very large class of Riding London, which, while not sufficiently rich to keep its private carriage, holds omnibus conveyance in contempt and scorn, loathes flys, and pins its vehicular faith on cabs alone. To this class belong lawyers' clerks, of whom, red-bag-holding and perspiration-covered, there are always two or three at the Holborn end of Chancery Lane flinging themselves into Hansoms, and being whirled off to Guildhall or Westminster; to it belong newspaper reporters, with their note-books in their breast-pockets, hurrying up from parliament debates to their offices, there to turn their mystic hieroglyphics into sonorous phrases; to it belong stockbrokers having "time bargains" to transact ; editors hunting up "copy" from recalcitrant contributors; artists hurrying to be in time with their pictures ere the stern exhibition-gallery porter closes the door, and, pointing to the clock, says, "It's struck!"-young gentlemen going or coming from Cremorne; and all people who have to catch trains, keep appointments, or do anything by a certain specified time, and who, following the grand governing law of human nature, have, in old ladies' phraseology, "driven everything to the last." To such people a Hansom cab is a primary matter of faith; and certainly, when provided with a large pair of wheels, a thick [-42-] round tubby horse (your thin bony rather blood-looking dancing jumping quadruped lately introduced is no good at all for speed), and a clever driver, there is nothing to compare to it. Not the big swinging pretentious remise of Paris or Brussels ; not the heavy, rumbling, bone-dislocating droskies of Berlin or Vienna, with their blue-bloused accordion-capped drivers ; not the droschky of St. Petersburg, with its vermin-swarming Ischvostchik not the sbatteradan caiesas of Madrid, with its garlic-reeking conductor! Certainly not the-old vanity hackney-coach ; the jiffling dangerous cabriolet, where the driver sat beside you, and shot you into the street at his will and pleasure the "slice," the entrance to which was from the back ; the " tribus," and other wild vehicles which immediately succeeded the extinction of the old cabriolet, which had their trial, and then passed away as failures. There are still about half-a-dozen hackney-coaches of the good old build, though much more modest in the matter of paint and heraldry than they used to be ; but these are attached entirely to the metropolitan railway stations, and are only made use of by Paterfamilias with much luggage and many infants on his return from the annual sea-side visit. Cabs, both of the Hansom and Clarence build, are the staple conveyance of middle-class Riding London; and of these we now propose to treat.
    Although there are, plying in the streets, nearly five thousand cabs, there are only some half-dozen large masters who hold from thirty to fifty vehicles each, the remainder being owned by struggling men, who either thrive and continue, or break and relapse into their old position of drivers, horsekeepers, conductors, or something even more anomalous, according to the season and the state of trade. My inquiries on this subject were made of one of the principal masters, whose name I knew from constantly seeing it about the streets, but with whom I had not the [-43-] smallest personal acquaintance. I had previously written to him, announcing my intended visit and its object ; but when I arrived at the stables, I found their owner evidently perceiving a divided duty, and struggling between natural civility and an enforced reticence. Yes, he wished to do what was right, Lor' bless me but - and here he stopped, and cleared his throat, and looked, prophetically, afar off, over the stables' roof, and at the pigeons careering over Lamb's Conduit Street. I waited and waited, and at last out it came. Would I be fair and 'boveboard? I would No hole-and-corner circumwentin? I didn't clearly know what this meant, but I pledged my word then there should be none of it. Well, then - was I a agent of this new cab company as he'd heard was about to be started? Explaining in full detail my errand, I never got more excellent information more honestly and cheerfully given.
    My friend had on an average thirty-five cabs in use, and all of these were built on his own premises and by his own men. There was very little, if any, difference between the price of building a Hansom or a Clarence cab, the cost of each, when well turned out, averaging fifty guineas. To every cab there are, of necessity, two horses but a careful cab-master will allow seven horses to three cabs, the extra animal being required in case of overwork or illness, either or both of which are by no means of unfrequent occurrence. These horses are not bought at any particular place, but are picked up as opportunity offers. Aldridge's and the Repository in Barbican furnish many of them. Many are confirmed "screws," some are well-bred horses with unmistakable symptoms of imminent disease, others with incurable vice-incurable, that is to say, until after a fortnight's experience of a Hansom's shafts, when they generally are reduced to lamb-like quietude. There is no average price, the sums given varying from ten to five-and-twenty pounds; nor can their lasting qualities be reduced to an average, as [-44-] some knock up and are consigned to the slaughterer after a few weeks, while other old stagers battle with existence for a dozen years. In the season, cabs are generally out on a stretch of fifteen hours, going out between nine or ten A.M., returning to change horses between three, and five P.M., starting afresh, and finally returning home between midnight and one AM. Of course there are cabs which leave the yard and return at earlier times, and during the height of the Cremorne festivities there are many which do not go out till noon, and seldom appear again at the stables until broad daylight about four A.M. These are far from being the worst paid of the cab fraternity ; as a visit to Cremorne, and a mingling in its pleasures, is by no means productive of stinginess to the cabman, but occasionally results in a wish on the part of the fare to ride on the box, to drive the horse, and to proffer cigars and convivial refreshment on every possible occasion. Each cabman on starting carries a horse-bag with him containing three feeds of mixed chaff, which horse-bag is replenished before he leaves for his afternoon trip. The cab-masters, however, impress upon their men the unadvisability of watering their horses at inn-yards or from watermen's pails, as much disease is generated in this manner.
    The monetary arrangements between cab-masters and cabmen are peculiar. The master pays his man no wages; on the contrary, the man hires horse and vehicle from his master; and having to pay him a certain sum, leaves his own earnings to chance, to which amicable arrangement we may ascribe the conciliatory manners and the avoidance of all attempts at extortion which characterise these gentry. For Clarence cabs the masters, charge sixteen shillings a day, while Hansoms command from two to three shillings a day extra; and they are well worth it to the men, not merely from their ordinary popularity, but just at the present time, when, as was explained, there is a notion in the minds of [-45-] most old ladies that every four-wheel cab has just conveyed a patient to the Small-Pox Hospital, the free open airy Hansoms are in great demand. In addition to his lawful fares, the perquisites or "pickings" of the cabman may be large. To him the law of treasure-trove is a dead letter; true, there exists a regulation that all property left in any public vehicle is to be deposited with the registrar at Somerset House; but a very small percentage finds its way to that governmental establishment. The cabman has, unwittingly, a great reverence for the old feudal system, and claims over anything which he may seize the right of freewarren, saccage and soccage, cuisage and jambage, fosse and fork, infang theofe, and outfang theofe; and out of all those portemonnaies, pocket-books, reticules, ladies' bags, portmanteaus, cigar-cases, deeds, documents, books, sticks, and umbrellas, duly advertised in the second column of The Times as "left in a cab," very few find their way to Somerset House. I knew of an old gentleman of muddle-headed tendencies who left four thousand pounds' worth of Dutch coupons, payable to bearer, in a hack Clarence cab; years have elapsed, and despite all the energies of the detective police and the offer of fabulous rewards, those coupons have never been recovered, nor will they be until the day of settlement arrives, when the adjudication as to who is their rightful owner - with a necessarily strong claim on the part of their then possessor - will afford a pretty bone of contention for exponents of the law. All that the driver has to find as his equipment, is his whip - occasionally, by some masters, lost nose-bags are placed to his account - and having provided himself with that, and his license, he can go forth.
    But there is a very large class of London people to whom the possession of a private carriage of their own is the great ambition of life, a hope long deferred, which, however sick it has made the heart for years, coming at last [-46-] yields an amount of pleasure worth the waiting for. Nine-tenths of these people job their horses. Those pretty, low-quartered, high-crested brougham-horses, with the champing mouths and the tossing heads, which career up and down the Ladies' Mile ; those splendid steppers, all covered with fleck and foam, which the bewigged coachman tools round and round Grosvenor Square while "waiting to take up;" those long, lean-bodied, ill-looking, but serviceable horses which pass their day in dragging Dr. Bolus from patient to patient - all are jobbed. It is said that any man of common sense setting up his carriage in London will job his horses. There are four or five great job-masters in town who have the best horses in the metropolis at command, and who are neither dealers nor commission-agents, but with whom jobbing is the sole vocation. And, at a given price, they can, at a few days' notice, provide you with any class of animal you may require. Either in person, or by a trusty agent, they attend all the large horse-fairs in the kingdom or should they by any chance be unrepresented there, they are speedily waited on by the dealers, who know the exact class of horse which the job-master requires. Horses are bought by them at all ages, from three to seven. Young horses are broken-in at four years old, and when their tuition is commenced in the autumn, they are generally found ready for letting in the succeeding spring. The breaking-in is one of the most difficult parts of the job-master's business. The voting horse is harnessed to a break by the side of an experienced old stager, known as a "break-horse," who does nothing but "break" work, who is of the utmost assistance to the break-driver, and who, when thoroughly competent, is beyond all price. Such a break-horse will put up with all the vagaries of his youthful companion; will combine with the driver to check all tendencies on the part of the neophyte to bolt, shy, back, or plunge; and if his young friend be stubborn, or devote himself to jibbing or standing [-47-] stock-still, will seize him by the neck with his teeth, and, by a combination of strength and cunning, pull him off and set him in motion.
    The prices charged by job-masters vary according to the class of horse required and according to the length of the job. Many country gentlemen bringing their families to London for the season hire horses for a three or six months' job, and they have to pay in proportion a much higher rate than those who enter into a yearly contract. For the very best style of horse, combining beauty, action, and strength, a job-master will charge a hundred guineas a year, exclusive of forage; but the best plan for the man of moderate means, who looks for work from his horses in preference to show, and who has neither time, knowledge, nor inclination to be in a perpetual squabble with grooms and corn-chandlers, is to pay for his horses at a certain price which includes forage and shoeing. Under these conditions, the yearly price for one horse is ninety guineas; for a pair, one hundred and sixty guineas; and for this payment he may be certain of getting sound, serviceable, thoroughly creditable-looking animals (which he may himself select from a stud of two or three hundred), which are well fed by the job-master, and shod whenever requisite by the farrier nearest to the hirer's stables, to whom the job-master is responsible, and which, when one falls lame or ill, are replaced in half an hour. Having made this arrangement, the gentleman setting up his carriage has only to provide himself with stables, which, with coach-house, loft, and man's room, cost from twenty pounds to thirty pounds a year; to hire a coachman, costing from one guinea to twenty-five shillings a week; to purchase a carriage-setter (a machine for hoisting the wheels, to allow of their being twirled for proper cleaning), and the ordinary pails, brushes, and sponges, and to allow a sum for ordinary expenses, which, according to the extravagance or economy of his coachman, will stand him in from six pounds to [-48-] twelve pounds a year. If more than two horses are kept, the services of a helper, at twelve shillings a week, will be required ; and it is scarcely necessary to add, that if day and night service have to be performed, at the end of three months neither horses nor coachman will fulfil their duties in a satisfactory manner. Indeed, there are several otherwise lucrative jobs which the job-masters find it necessary to terminate at the end of the first year; the acquisition of "their own carriage" proving such a delight to many worthy persons that they are never happy except when exhibiting their glory to their friends, and this is aided by ignorant, unskilful, and cheap drivers taking so much out of their hired cattle as utterly to annihilate any chance of gain on the part of the real proprietor of the animal.
    As a provision for sick or overworked horses, each principal job-master has a farm within twenty miles of London, averaging about two hundred acres, where, in grassy paddocks or airy loose-boxes, the debilitated horses regain the health and condition which the constant pelting over London stones has robbed them of. Generally speaking, however, the health of a jobbed horse is wonderful. In the first place, he is never purchased unless perfectly sound, and known by the best competent judges to be thoroughly fitted for the work which he is likely to undergo ; then he is fed with liberality (six feeds a day are on the average .allowed when in full work); and, lastly, there is generally a certain sense of decency in his hirer which prevents him from being overworked. This fact, however, is very seldom realised until a gentleman, urged by the apparent economy of the proceeding, determines upon buying a brougham-horse and feeding it himself. On the face of it, this looks like an enormous saving. The horse is to cost - say from sixty to eighty pounds, the cost of keep is fourteen shillings a week, of shoeing four pounds a year. But in nine cases out of ten owned horses take cold, throw out splints or curbs, [-49-] pick up nails, begin to "roar," or in some fashion incapacitate themselves for action during so large a portion of the year, that their owner is glad to get rid of them, and to return again to the jobbing system.
    Although most job-masters profess to let saddle-horses on job yet - for yearly jobs, at least - there is seldom a demand for them. A saddle-horse is in general a petted favourite with its owner, who would not regard with complacency the probability of its being sent, on his leaving town, to some ignorant or cruel rider. So that the jobbing in this department is principally confined to the letting of a few horses for park-riding in the London season. For these from eight to ten guineas a month are paid, and the animals provided are in most cases creditable in appearance, and useful enough when the rider is a light-weight and a good horseman; heavy men, unaccustomed to riding, had better at once purchase a horse, on the advice of some competent person; as hired hacks acquire, under their various riders, certain peculiarities of stumbling, backing, and shying, which render them very untrustworthy. Sonic job-masters have a riding-school attached to their premises, and whenever an evident "green hand" comes to hire a hack for a term, the job-master, who reads him like a book, asks, with an air of great simplicity, whether he is accustomed to riding. In nine cases out of ten the answer will be, " Well, scarcely! - long time since - in fact, not ridden since he was a boy;" and then the job-master recommends a few days in the school, which, to quote the words of the card of terms, means "six lessons when convenient,  2 2s."
    Probably the next day the victim will arrive at the school, a large barn-like building, and will find several other victims, old and young, undergoing tuition from the riding-master, a man in boots, with limbs of steel and lungs of brass, who stands in the middle of the school, and thence roars his commands. This functionary, with one glance, takes stock [-50-] of the new arrival's powers of equitation, and orders a helper to bring in one of the stock-chargers for such riders, a strong old horse, knowing all the dodges of the school, and accustomed, so far as his mouth is concerned, to the most remarkable handling. He comes in, perhaps, with a snort and a bound, but stands stock-still to be mounted - a ceremony which the pupil seems to think consists in grasping handfuls of the horse's mane, and flinging himself bodily on to the horse's back. The stern man in boots advances and gives him proper instruction ; off starts the horse, and takes his position at the end of a little procession which is riding round the school. Then upon the pupil's devoted head comes a flood of instruction. Calling him by name, the riding-master tells him that "Position is everything, sir! Don't sit your horse like a sack! Body upright, elbows square, clutch the horse with that part of the leg between the knee and the ankle, toes up, sir" - this is managed by pressing the heel down - "where are you turning them toes to, sir ? Keep em straight, pray! Tr-r-ot!" At the first sound of the familiar word the old horse starts off in the wake of the others, and the rider is jerked forward, his hat gradually works either over his eyes or on to his coat-collar, his toes go down, his heels go up, he rows with his legs as with oars. When the word "Cantarr!" is given, he is reduced to clinging with one hand to the pommel; but this resource does not avail him, for at the command "Circle left!" the old horse wheels round unexpectedly, and the new pupil pitches quietly off on the tan-covered floor. The six lessons, if they do not make him a perfect Nimrod, are, however, very useful to him ; they give him confidence, and he learns sufficient to enable him to present a decent appearance in the Row. (Until a man has ridden in London, he is unaware of the savagery of the boy population, or of their wonderful perseverance in attempting to cause fatal accidents.) These riding-schools are good [-51-] sources of income to the job-master, and are generally so well patronised that the services of a riding-master and an assistant are in requisition, with very little intermission, from seven AM, till seven P.M. The middle of the day is devoted to the ladies, who sometimes muster very strongly. In the winter evenings the school is also much used by gentlemen keeping their private hacks at livery with the job-master; and being warm, well-lighted, and spacious, it forms a capital exercise-ground. These schools are also much frequented by foreigners, for the sake of the leaping-bar practice, which enables them to prepare themselves for the gymnastic evolutions of "Fox-Ont."
    Having treated of the arrangements in force in London for those who ride in omnibuses, cabs, private carriages, and on horseback, we now come to the preparation for that last journey which one day or other must be made by us all, and which has its own peculiar staff of vehicles, horses, and attendants.
    The black-job or black-coach business (as it is indifferently called) of London is in the hands of four large proprietors, who manage between them the whole vehicular funeral arrangements of the metropolis. These men are wholly distinct from the undertakers; they will take no direct orders from the public, but are only approachable through the undertakers, whose contract for the funeral includes conveyance. They provide hearse, mourning-coaches, horses, and drivers; and one of their standing rules is, that no horse can be let without a driver, that is, that none of their horses must be driven by persons not in their employ. These horses are fine, strong, handsome animals, costing 50 apiece, and are all imported from Holland and Belgium. They are all entire horses, no mares are ever used in the trade, and their breeding - for what reason I know not - is never attempted in this country. They are mostly of a dull blue-black colour, but they vary [-52-] in hue according to their age; and, as their personal appearance is always closely scanned by bystanders, they are the recipients of constant care. A gray patch is quickly painted out; and when time has thinned any of the flowing locks of mane or tail, a false plait, taken from a deceased comrade, is quickly interwoven. They are for the most part gentle and docile, but very powerful, and often have to drag their heavy burdens a long distance. The black-job masters manufacture their own hearses, at a cost of forty-five pounds each; but mourning-coaches are never built expressly for their dreary work. They are nearly all old fashionable chariots, which, at their birth, were the pride of Long Acre, and in their heyday the glory of the Park; but which, when used up, are bought for the black-job business, and covered with japan, varnish, and black cloth; are re-lined with the same sad colour; and thus, at an expense not exceeding thirty-five pounds, including the cost, are changed into mourning-coaches, likely to be serviceable in their new business for many years.
    Among other items of information, I learned that Saturday is looked upon as the aristocratic day for funerals, while poor people are mostly buried on Sunday; that there is a very general wish among undertakers that cemeteries should be closed on Sundays; that very frequently no hearse is employed, the coffin being placed crossway under the coachman's seat, and hidden by the hammercloth ; that in cheap funerals one horse has often to convey from eight to twelve passengers; and that, after the ceremony is over, the most effectual thing to stanch the flow of mourners grief is often found to be a game of skittles at the nearest public-house, accompanied by copious libations of beer.