Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 2 - The Cab Horse

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IT would at first sight seem to be an easy task to arrive at the number of London cab horses.
    Every cab has to be licensed, and the number of licences is given annually in the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's Report. A year or so ago 11,297 were granted in the London district, and as there are two horses to a cab in proper working we have only to double the 11,297 to obtain the horse power; and further, as a cab horse is worth 30l., we have only to multiply by that amount to get - an exaggerated notion of the facts of the case.
    The genus 'cab' comprises two species, the 'hansom' and the 'clarence,' the first having two wheels, the other four; but these species are divisible into several varieties, especially the clarence, which varies from the not particularly sumptuous down to the positively disgraceful. As it is with the vehicles, so it is with the horses, and so it is with the men.
    It is in the night-time that we find the lowest grade of horse, cab, and man; but as these are seen by the few we may look to the next variety in the scale. This is the Sunday cab, particularly the sort [-30-]

[-31-] that appears in the morning. Last Sunday we had a typical specimen at the corner of our street. The cab was hired from one man, the harness from another, the horse from another. And there are cabs in London on a Sunday in which even the driver's badge has been hired, although, of course, this is illegal. 
    The horse was a cab horse for the day. On the Monday morning he would be in the shafts of a coal-cart dragging 'prime Wallsend' at a shilling a hundredweight; and in front of the Wallsend he would spend the week till Saturday night, when he would again be hired out and turn his attention from coals to cabs. The cab itself is at night work all the week; of the many animals that draw it there is not one that has not toiled in some other trade during some hours of the day; and so far from its having two horses it never really has one. In fact, we have here a variety of cab horse that is not a cab horse at all.
    Cab horses can be conveniently classified in a series of sevenths, according to the number of days of the week they spend in the cab shafts. There are some that go cabbing one day a week, some two, some three, some four, some five, some six. The six-day variety is the genuine article; he does nothing but draw cabs, for no true cab-horses - or, at least, but a very, very few - work seven days a week, he is the commonest horse; next to him coming the four-seventh animal. This horse appears in a cab on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays only; on Friday he is engaged in taking home the washing, that is his easiest day's work; on Saturday he is very much more engaged in taking home washing; and on Monday he [-32-] has his hardest day in collecting the washing it takes him two days to deliver. Another variety is the three-sevenths horse, who, as a rule, appears in a cab on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and works miscellaneously during the other four days. All these odd fractional horses come out on Sunday, when the regular cab horse is at rest. There are, however, some regular cab horses doing Sunday work, and these have their day's rest generally on Tuesday.

    Of the 11,297 licensed cabs 917 were reported during the year as unfit for use, and we may take them from the total; we may also remove a proportion of the night cabs worked under the curious conditions already alluded to, and the really good cabs under repair, and for other considerations make other deductions, until we find that London on any one day had never more than 9,000 workable cabs. Of these, about two out of three have the two horses, the rest averaging hardly a horse apiece. This gives us 15,000 horses at the outside, and averaging these at 30l. we find that they are worth 450,000l.
    Curiously enough, there were in the year 15,336 licensed cab-drivers, so that there was practically a horse for every man, the surplus of men over cabs being easily accounted for by the fact that the percentage of cabs at work is greater than the percentage of men. Of the 15,000 men about 14 per cent, were convicted during the year for offences ranging from cruelty to drunkenness, in addition to those convicted of the minor offences of loitering and obstruction and including most of these there was a large per-[-33-]centage appearing on the masters' books as having proved themselves untrustworthy. Clearing away this regrettable fringe, we should be left with a little more than a cab a man.

    The London cab trade is at a standstill, or rather it is declining. During the last three years the London trains have increased at the rate of 8 per cent., while the omnibuses have increased at the rate of' 17 per cent. Instead of increasing, the cabs have decreased. In 1888 - when the London hackney carriage list stood higher than it has ever done since Captain Bailey, fresh from Raleigh's Guiana expedition, started the first four carriages at London's first cab-stand, the Maypole in the Strand - there were 7,396 hansoms and 4,013 four-wheelers ; there are now 7,376 hansoms and 3,921 four-wheelers.
    This state of affairs is due in some measure to the cost of cab-riding as compared with that of other means of locomotion; but it is due in a greater degree to the uncertainty that exists regarding the fare that will satisfy the cabman. It is not the sixpence a mile that people object to, or even a shilling a mile, but the 'living margin'; and so long as a cabman has to depend more or less on charity - for that is what the voluntary addition to his fare amounts to - so long will the crowd flock to railway, tramway, omnibus, and railway omnibus, in which they know exactly what they have to pays and can pay it without injuring any delicate susceptibilities. The pressure on the cabman is, however, great; he is rarely his own master; he has to pay the owner so much a day for the hire of the horse and [-34-] cab, and he has to make what he can out of the public, the owner varying the cost of hire in accordance with the man's opportunities, the idea being that the capitalist should make his profit in the summer and give the worker a share in it. But this plan of trusting to squeezability is not a success. While the cab-list diminishes there is an increase in both wings of the opposition, not only in the omnibuses and cars of the commonalty, but in the livery broughams and private carriages, whose hirers and owners are the cabmen's best friends. And consequently the only horses in London that do not increase are the cab horses.

    Our cab horses are generally Irish, many of them being shipped from Waterford. They come over unshod, in order that they may do no damage, and to keep them quiet they have their lips tied down; and what with this lip-tying, and the sea passage, and the change of climate, it takes them about eight weeks to get into working order, during which they are gradually drilled into shape, first in double harness and then in single harness, round the squares and quiet thoroughfares.
    As a rule, they are four years old when they arrive, they cost 30l., they last only three years, and they are then sold for 9l. to go into the tradesman's cart; but horses are rising in value, and cost more to buy and fetch more to sell than they used to do. This, of course, refers to the bulk of the horses, which, as in the omnibus service, are mostly mares. There are some that cost more, some that cost less; some that last longer, some that do not last as long; and on the cab-rank [-35-] there is a fair sprinkling of British horses and a few foreigners, but the thoroughbreds of whom we have heard are as rare as the doctors, warriors, and members of the Athenaeum Club who are said to drive them. 
    A cab horse is well fed; hansom horses average a sack of corn each a week; and they want it, for in the six days during the season they are driven over two hundred miles. There is nothing out of the way in a day's work of forty miles; and this with a weight of half a ton behind, including the cab and driver, but not the passengers. The way in which the horse is worked varies in different yards and with different men. There are over 3,500 cab-owners in London, and as some of them own a hundred and more cabs, there must be a large number who have but one or two cabs, and perhaps two or three horses, when the horses have a hard time of it. Many are worked on the 'one horse power' principle, in which the cab, generally a four-wheeler, goes out at eight in the morning and comes back at eight at night. The four-wheelers that frequent the railway stations have two horses, the first going out at seven in the morning and returning about two in the afternoon, the second going out to stay at the station till ten, and then perhaps loitering about the theatres with a view to picking up a last fare. This participation of the railway cab in theatre work is a sore point with the ordinary cabman, who has not the entry to the railway platforms. One company there is with an express due in a little before eleven for which the cabs have to wait, and greatly would it please the unprivileged cabmen of our streets [-36-] if the other companies would each bring in a late express under similar conditions.
    There are some cabs 'double tide working,' going out at eight o'clock in the morning, returning at seven at night, and going out again immediately with another horse and man and not returning till six next morning, when, after two hours for cleaning up, they are off again on their day-journey. In the 'long day working' usual among the larger masters the cab goes out at nine o'clock, returns between three and five for a fresh horse, and comes home at midnight; while some are at work from noon till two o'clock next morning; but in these larger yards the invariable rule is that both horse and man have one day's rest in seven.
    When a horse is bought by the cab-master it is occasionally numbered, but oftener named from some trivial circumstance connected with its purchase, or from some event chronicled in the morning newspapers. A whole chapter might be written on the names of the London cab horses, which are assuredly more curious than elegant. Three horses we know of bought on a hot day were Scorch, Blaze, and Blister; three others bought on a dirty morning were Mud, Slush, and Puddle; two brought home in a snowstorm were named Sleet and Blizzard; four that came in the rain were Oilskin, Sou'-wester, Gaiters, and Umbrella. Even the time of day has furnished a name, and Ten- o'clock, Eight-sharp, and Nine-fifteen have been met with, though perhaps Two-two owed more to the aesthete than the horologer. Some horses are named from the peculiarities of the dealer or his man, and in [-37-] one stable there were at one time Curseman, Sandy-man, Collars, Necktie, Checkshirt, and Scarfpin. The political element is, of course, manifest, and in almost every stable there are Roseberies and Randies, Salisburies and Gladstones, Smiths and Dizzies. Some stables are all Derby winners, some all dramas, some all songs, some all towns, it is the exception for a horse to be named after any peculiarity of its own, unless it be an objectionable one; and it would never do to give it a Christian name, with or without a qualifying adjective, which might lead to its being mistaken for one of the men in the yard.
    The favourite colour for a cab hot-se is brown; the one least sought after is grey. A grey horse will not do in a hansom, unless for railway work where the cabs are taken in rotation and the quality or colour of the horse is of no consequence. Why clubland should object to grey horses is not known, but the fact remains that a man with a grey horse will get fewer fares with him than with a brown one. One explanation is that the light hairs float off and show on dark clothes, but this is hardly satisfying, and it seems safer to put the matter down to fashion. Anyhow, a hansom cabman will not take out a grey horse if he can help it, unless it be an exceptionally 'gassy' one, gassy being 'cabbish' for showy. But not so a four-wheeler man; if he can have a grey horse he will, the reason being that if ever a housemaid goes for a cab she will, if she has a choice, pick out the grey horse. At least, so says the trade, which may, of course be prejudiced or romancing; but the prejudice or the romance is known all over London. The curious chance may be owing to the  [-38-] 

 [-39-] proverb that 'the grey mare is the better horse,' which, like many other proverbs, is merely an allusion gone wrong.
    Some horses, like these 'gassy' greys, begin their cab-life in a hansom and end it in a four-wheeler; but this is not done by the large masters, who keep their horses distinct, and clear them out to Rymill's or Aldridge's for dispersal. Some masters drive their own cabs, and naturally take good care of their own property; but with the bulk of the cabmen the horse is a machine, hired out as one might hire out a tricycle, and returned in a sufficiently sound state to avoid comment. The man finds the horse and cab ready for him in the morning; he leaves his licence as security for his return; and he drives ed in search of fares. When he comes back he simply hands the cab over as it stands, pays up - or not - at the office, and hurries out of the yard. Some there are who will look over the horse before he is put into the shafts, and follow him into the stable on their return, and treat him more as a friend; but there are not many of these when we come to percentages. But as a horse that suits one man will not suit another - for horses differ as well as the men - it is usual to give the old hands the same horses every day. It is curious how dependent the cabman is on his horse; every day horses will come back with whom, according to the cabman's account, 'it is impossible to earn any money,' and next day these horses will be taken out by other men who will be loud in their praise, and drive them for months afterwards until the day comes when they are returned with contempt and the man will demand a fresh horse 'to  [-40-]

  [-41-] change his luck,' much as a card-player will take a fresh chair.
    London has 600 cabstands, exclusive of those in the City and on private ground, such as the railway stations. A few of these are always full; a few have never had a cab on them even though they may have existed for years. The 600 cabstands on an average afford accommodation for eleven vehicles each. The rest of the cabs are either carrying passengers or else plying empty along such streets as Piccadilly, where they are a nuisance to all but those who want cabs. The same thing may, however, be said of the cab-stands, and, considering the convenience that 'crawlers' afford, it is only the very strenuous reformer who would abolish them entirely, if it were possible to do so.
    Out of the 15,000 cabmen, about 2,000 are convicted every year for drunkenness, cruelty, wilful misbehaviour, loitering, plying, obstruction, stopping on the wrong side of the road, delaying, leaving their cabs unattended, &c., &c. The cabman who 'knows his business best' is the one who can crawl judiciously without getting into trouble with the police, resulting for a first offence in the famous 'two-and-six and two,' which  means half-a crown fine and a florin costs.

    At many of the stands there is a 'shelter,' which is much larger inside than a glance at the exterior would lead one to suppose. The shelters are generally farmed from the Shelter Fund Society by some old cabman. They are the cabman's restaurants, and the cabman, as a rule, is not so much a large drinker as a large eater. [-42-] At one shelter lately the great feature was boiled rabbit and pickled pork at two o'clock in the morning, and for weeks a small warren of Ostenders was consumed nightly.
    The two-wheeler improves every year. There are many hansoms now in London as good in every way as private carriages, and these will often have a fifty-guinea horse in their shafts. The four-wheeler improves but microscopically, and, though it becomes no worse than it used to be, it touches a depth which is by no means desirable. Most cabs are varnished twice a year, some are varnished but once, and that, of course, is just before inspection day, when the new annual licence is applied for. On that morning many a newly-varnished mockery will journey gingerly to Clerkenwell, and just satisfy the inspector's lenient eye, returning triumphantly with the inside and outside plates and the stencilled certificate on its back, which show that the vehicle has passed muster, and that the owner has paid 2l. for a licence to work it in the London streets. Besides the 2l., the owner has to pay fifteen shillings carriage duty to Somerset House; and, for a licence and the badge to drive, the cabman has to pay to the police five shillings.
    The cabman has to pass an examination as well as the vehicle, but the vehicle is examined every year, while the cabman is only examined once, and then not in personal appearance, though there may be a bias that way, but in an elementary knowledge of London topography. The knowledge required is not very great, and 1,500 candidates apply in a year, but it is interesting to note that out of every 100 candidates 34 are  [-43-]

 [-44-] 'ploughed' - a much higher percentage of rejections than exists among the vehicles.
    The cabman takes his licence to the owner- whom he desires to make his 'master.' He takes the cab out on trust, leaving his licence as a deposit so long as he remains in the same employment. The engagement is terminable at any time, and when the man changes masters his old master has to fill in on the back of his licence the length of time he has been in his service. At the end of the year the man takes the endorsed licence accounting for his year's work to New Scotland Yard, and there gets a clean one covering another twelve months.
    The amount paid by the man for the day's hire varies with the vehicle, the master, and the season. It is much less really than it is nominally, owing to the numerous occasions on which allowances are made for bad luck and bad weather. Continuous wet is not cabmen's weather; what they like is a showery day, or, what is better, a fine morning and a wet afternoon, or a series of scorching hot days when people find the other means of conveyance too stuffy for comfort. Although the amount is frequently stated to be more, the average for hansoms during the last year over several yards was nine shillings for the first three months in the year, then a rise every week of a shilling a day to the end of May, when it remained at the maximum of eighteen shillings till the second week in June, when it dropped a shilling a week down to the nine shillings at which it will remain for the rest of the year. The height of the London cab season is thus from the Derby week to the Ascot week, the one day being the Thurs-[-45-]day after the Derby. If you wish to go to the Derby in a hansom you pay 3l., of which 1l. is extra profit, it being estimated that the man would have taken 2l. if he remained in London. And, curiously enough, the distance to and from Epsom is the average day's journey of a London cab horse.
    The weight he draws is in inverse ratio to his strength. The hansom weighs from eight to ten hundredweight; the newer ones weigh about nine hundredweight and a half, and cost a hundred guineas; the four-wheeler does not cost as much, and is heavier. The hansoms carry three persons, including the driver, the four-wheelers take six, besides the luggage; and yet the hansom horse is, if anything, the stronger of the two. In general work the hansom has but one passenger, the four-wheeler rarely less than two; and altogether the clarence horse has much the worst time of it. The cabs are licensed to carry so many passengers, but there is no limit to the weight of the luggage, and it seems nobody's business to keep down the load, which, for the light class of horse used, is often great. 
    The packing of four-wheelers, particularly at low-class weddings and funerals, is occasionally alarming. Passing through Wandsworth not long ago, the writer saw a miserably weedy bay mare toiling up the East Hill with a four-wheeler in which was a wedding-party of five ample people inside, a 16-stone woman on the box, three large men on the roof, and three hobbledehoys behind; and this up a long gradient of 1 in 25 which the tram company dare not attempt, preferring to leave a gap in their system between the bottom and [-46-] top of it. Luckily a wedding-party such as this does not come often and does not last long, but it deserves mention as one of the unpleasant experiences of a cab horse's life.
    The every-day cab horse lives in a mews, a row of stables on a ground floor opening out on to a long courtyard roughly paved with that pitching which lets gallons of wet and slush soak between it, so that many of the stones rest on a film of black mud that squeezes up at every shower. Were it not for the embarrassing fact that a fragrant mews is invariably healthy, the sanitary authorities would probably have insisted before this on the paving of these stable-yards being much more closely laid. In many cases much of the drainage is between the stones into the earth, and not into dry earth, but into clayey ground saturated with washings of hundreds of horses. A prominent object in these yards, the stones of which are clean enough on the surface, is the manure heap, which, so far from being a source of income, has now to be paid for to be taken away. All over London horse owners are growling about this manure question. At one time the manure was worth threepence a horse a week; happy is the man who can nowadays get a farthing a week per horse for it; many give it away, and there are a large number who are obliged to pay for its removal as trade refuse. Most of the stables have been converted for cab purposes, but some have been specially built, and there are one or two yards in which the stables are in storeys and the horses are upstairs on the second and third floors.
    Some cab-stables are very disorderly; some, whether [-47-] with straw or peat litter, are quite patterns of neatness. On a Sunday morning most of the London cab horses are at home. Quiet as they might be in the shafts, they are a restless lot when together, and after the inevitable Saturday pail of bran mash, it is a common practice to give them their Sunday provender uncut, in order to keep them quiet by giving them something to do. They are as a rule fed well, so as to get the maximum of work out of them during their short career; although there is, of course, a limit beyond which food is wasted so far as efficiency is concerned. Some of the horses find their work too much for them before a year is out; some last five or six years ; some spend the year round at work; some are turned out to grass for a couple of months.
    If the cab horse could choose his track he would have neither asphalt nor granite blocks; good macadam is good enough for him, though wood is better, if very wet or very dry and not quite bare of gravel. Like all town horses he comes oftenest to grief where the roadway changes, and he suffers from much the same ailments as the omnibus horse, with a rather greater partiality for picking up nails. When he dies in the shafts he is worth as many shillings as he cost pounds; but, as we have hinted, he usually retires from the trade fractionally, and makes his last appearance as a fare-earner in that shabbiest of all vehicles, the London Sunday morning cab.
    Bulking the London cabs together, we can estimate the turn-out complete, cab, horse, and harness, at 100l.; and 9,000 of these mean 900,000l. The 6,000 additional horses at 30l. each yield 180,000l. The stable [-48-] accommodation, freehold and leasehold, the fittings and sundries, and plant and working cash, would certainly be cheaply bought for 170,000l., and that gives us a million and a quarter to work the London cab trade, which is surely quite enough.