In my role as a tour guide, I get to explore every hidden corner of London, though after nearly 5 years I sometimes feel like I am still just learning the ropes. Every day, every neaighbourhood reveals new secrets, new shortcuts, new quirky bits of history and new ways of getting from A to B.
Last week I had the pleasure of taking out two lovely tourists from the American state of Florida. There were a few mobility issues and so we did what I do comparatively infrequently, hail a black taxi or Hackney Carriage as they are known in the trade.
‘Hackney’ is derived from the village name Hackney (now part of London). Hackney supplied horses from its surrounding meadows. The word was once thought to be an anglicized derivative of French haquenée — a horse of medium size recommended for lady riders.
Hackney in the old days must have quite a repuration as the place-name, through its fame for its horses and horse-drawn carriages, is also the root of the Spanish word jaca, a term used for a small breed of horse and the Sardinian achetta horse.
The first documented hackney coach—the name later extended to the newer and smaller carriages—operated in London in 1621.
It’s easy to think that governments of days gone by were largely tyrannical but despite the relative lack of checks and balances of a modern democracy, to a greater or lesser degree many did actually try to govern equitably for the standards of the day. It is hard to believe that during the mid 16th century there was a such a demand for hackney carriages that in order to put in certain safeguards, “An Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney-Coachmen in London and the places adjacent” was approved by Parliament in 1654. It was to remedy what it described as the “many Inconveniences [that] do daily arise by reason of the late increase and great irregularity of Hackney Coaches and Hackney Coachmen in London, Westminster and the places thereabouts”.
The first hackney-carriage licences date from a 1662 Act of Parliament establishing the Commissioners of Scotland Yard to regulate them. Licences applied literally to horse-drawn carriages, later modernised as hansom cabs (1834), that operated as vehicles for hire. The 1662 act limited the licences to 400; when it expired in 1679, extra licences were created until a 1694 act imposed a limit of 700, which was increased by later acts and abolished in 1832.
Electric hackney carriages appeared before the introduction of the internal combustion engine to vehicles for hire in 1901. In fact there was even London Electrical Cab Company: the cabs were informally called Berseys after the manager who designed them, Walter C. Bersey. Another nickname was Hummingbirds from the sound that they made. In August 1897 25 were introduced, and by 1898 there were 50 more. During the 20th century, cars generally replaced horse-drawn models, and the last horse-drawn hackney carriage ceased service in London in 1947.
London Taxi drivers are probably the most qualified drivers in the world and take their craft very serious. To become a licenced driver one needs to take The Knowledge. It was initiated in 1865, and has changed little since. It is claimed that the training involved ensures that London taxi drivers are experts on London, and have an intimate knowledge of the city and are the safest form of transport.
The London taxicab driver is required to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger’s request or traffic conditions, rather than stopping to look at a map, relying on satellite navigation or asking a controller by radio. Consequently, the “Knowledge of London” is the in-depth study of a number of pre-set London street routes and all places of interest
It is the world’s most demanding training course for taxicab drivers and applicants will usually need to pass at least twelve ‘appearances’ (periodical one-on-one oral examinations undertaken throughout the qualification process), with the whole process usually averaging 34 months, to pass.
Even within 6 miles of Charing Cross, taxi drivers are tested on 25,000 streets but also details and locations of squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings.
The Knowledge includes details such as the order of theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, and the names and order of the side streets and traffic signals passed on a route. With such great skills, it is no wonder one often sees those memorising the countless streets to be driving around London on mopeds in order to get the knowledge. It also explains the pride taxi drivers have in their profession that makes them stand apart from cities with low standards of drivers or the dreaded Uber. In London, Uber drivers generally stand out as being amongst the worst drivers on the roads.
These days the black taxi are one of the icons of London along with red double decker buses, red telephone and post boxes and the catchphrase ‘Mind the gap’. As part of the move towards more environmentally sustainable transport, London Transport has been moving away from fossil fuels and today even the famous red buses are increasingly powered by electricity.
Whilst out with my two charming Floridian friends in our black taxi cab, we got talking to the very friendly driver, Danny. Danny informed us that as it happens we were travelling in a little bit of history, the last ever produced London Black Taxi that is powered by the internal combustion engine. Perhaps in 50 or 60 years it might one day be in the London Transport museum.
During our ride from The George Inn to the Tower of London, Danny told us he wasn’t just a driver but also one of those tests people on The Knowledge so we had a real expert. He was also nice enough to give me a free tin of Diet Coke which was much appreciated in the very warm and sunny weather.
Danny was definitely amongst the friendliest taxi drivers I’ve met in the last 4 or 5 years and as he said he would be following my blog I hope he sees this post and maybe gets in touch!
And if the car wasn’t cool enough all ready, then check out the grill on the front of the car. Can you make out the Union Flag in the metal work?
Hope to see you again one day soon Danny and thanks for helping to make it such a memorable day for my two wonderful tourists.