They are an icon of London; not as famous as those famous red symbols such a telephone boxes, post boxes, double decker buses or soldiers on guard and they are certainly less common than the iconic London black taxis but if you wander around London long enough, just a short distance from many tourist attractions you might see a green hut.
These green huts aren’t for a spin-off of Dr Who but are in fact places that serve food and drink and they have a surprisingly long history. The idea for the shelters came in the late 19th Century when George Armstrong, a year before he became editor of The Globe newspaper, was unable to hail a taxi during a blizzard because the drivers, who then rode horse-drawn hansom cabs, were huddled in a nearby pub. He teamed up with philanthropists, including the Earl of Shaftesbury, to find a way to keep drivers on the straight and narrow and particularly to keep them from being drunk (well too drunk) from safely driving their passengers around the city.
The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was born in 1875 with the construction of the first hut in St John’s Wood. This hut is still standing 150 years later though many of the further 60 huts built have since been knocked down.
Each hut was built no bigger than a horse and cart, in line with Metropolitan Police rules because they stood on public highways. They provided shelter and sustenance for hackney-carriage (black-cab) drivers and had strict rules against swearing, gaming, gambling and drinking alcohol.
That there aren’t as common as they used to be is down to numerous reasons but the decline started around World War I. Drivers and their horses and vehicles were drafted, plunging the taxi trade and the shelters into decline.
Many became unused, unloved and unprotected with the oak huts suffered rot and ruin. Some were destroyed by bombs during World War II, while many were later bulldozed in street-widening schemes.
Whilst the taxi drivers would eat and drink inside, originally the horses would be tethered to tenders on the outside. Some of these still remain though the marble troughs from which they drank have largely been relocated.
There are now just 13 remain left with each being Grade II listed, which means they are considered buildings of special interest and every effort should be made to preserve them. They are owned by the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers (WCHCD), a guild for those who earn their living through the trade. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund is responsible for upkeep and maintenance, issuing annual licences to those who run them.
The shelters’ Grade II status means restoration is intricate and expensive. Refurbishment costs around £30,000 and replacement materials must match the originals. Even down to the precise shade of paint, Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green, for those who are interested.
Shelters have also been hit by noise restrictions in residential areas, and none currently operate at night – most open around 07:00 and close by 13:00.
The shelters are unique and each one had and indeed still have their own quirks and clientele. The Gloucester Road shelter was nicknamed ‘The Kremlin’ because it was frequented by left-wing drivers. The since-bulldozed Piccadilly hut was the site of Champagne-fuelled parties in the 1920s and dubbed the ‘Junior Turf Club’ – after an exclusive gentlemen’s club nearby – by (non cab-driver) aristocratic revellers who smuggled in booze.
According to local legend, a man claiming to be Jack the Ripper once visited Westbourne Grove shelter. The Warwick Avenue shelter is frequented by musicians and actors who live nearby.
My favourite shelter at Russell Square is also a favourite of Paul Weller, the legendary front man for The Jam and he likes his egg and bacon sandwiches. I’ve been going to it for decades since it is on the route of both my Sherlock Walking Tour and Bloomsbury Literature Tour. It’s also just a minute or so away from my old University, SOAS.
The Russell Square shelter is run my Jude Holmes, I don’t think she is a descendant of Sherlock but you never know who you bump into in these lovely Bloomsbury Squares so maybe I should ask her.
Like the other green huts, you can be served breakfast (sausages, eggs, bacon), sandwiches and hot drinks, with the occasional pie or lasagne cooked by the owners at home and reheated in the skinny kitchens. In the summer time you can find all manner of light snacks and cooling drinks.
Don’t think you will be able to blag your way inside though as non-cabbies aren’t allowed to sit inside and eat unless issued with a rare invitation but can order through a window hatch.
If taxis are your thing then here is a post about a slightly special taxi. My ride in the last ever petrol London Black Taxi