Cabbies get a raw deal at Westminster


The sitting magistrate at the Westminster Police Court in 1870 was a Mr Woolrych and it would be fair to say he didn’t much like Hansom cab drivers. These vehicles were the Victorian equivalent of the modern black cab with the ‘knowledge’ of the city streets and the license to trade upon them. There were rules about routes and about charges and about the places where cabs could ‘stand’ and wait for customers. In the eighteenth century there even seems to have been a one-way system in place in the City of London.

So cabs were regulated and this supposedly protected the public and the drivers themselves. But given that complaints brought for and against cabbies were usually heard by the capital’s magistracy, who sat alone and with considerable summary powers, the drivers often found themselves at the mercy of the justice’s prejudices.

This was especially the case when the complaints about cabbies were brought by ‘the better sort’ and where the drivers were attempting to prosecute someone of a social station above them (which was of course, often).

In December 1872 Westminster Police Court was thronged with cab drivers as two separate cases unfolded that concerned them.

First up was Harris Seaton, a driver who brought a charge against the Reverend Graham of Hawkhurst Lodge in Sydenham, for not paying his fare. There were some unusual circumstances behind the clergyman’s fare dodging. It had been raining hard when Seaton picked up his fare outside Burlington Arcade on Piccadilly a month previously. As they approached Hyde Park Corner the reverend requested that the driver stop and raise his window so he might get some air.

By now it was ‘raining and hailing’ and Seaton was concerned that his carriage would get wet making it serviceable for any other customers that night, so he refused. The Rev. Graham insisted but Seaton stuck to his guns, ‘as he did not wish to damage his master’s property and wet the cushions’. Angry, the clergyman alighted from the cab and walked off without paying. Seaton  had summoned him for the fare (1s) and so the pair found themselves in court.

The vicar complained that he had no air and ‘he was nearly stifled’. He had an umbrella with him and would have kept the cab dry with it. It was only a short ride (200 yards from Piccadilly), so he had hardly avoided much of a fare anyway he insisted. The magistrate sided with the reverend Graham. He thought it reasonable to allow him some air (so long as he took precautions to protect the can from damage), and if wilful damage was caused, well then the driver might prosecute him for that, but not for the fare. He dismissed the case much to the annoyance of the assembled cabmen in the public gallery.

If they were unhappy about Mr Woolrych’s decision making in the case of the fare dodging vicar then the next case did little to cheer them up.

Three cab drivers answered summonses charged with leaving their vehicles unattended at a cab rank on Stockbridge Terrace, Pimlico. Cabbies were supposed to remain with their cabs and be ready to pick up fares but it seems that on a fairly regular basis drivers vacated their cabs to go and get some refreshment.

A fellow magistrate, Mr Newton, had found cabs unattended before so he reported it to the police who set a watch on the stand. On the evening of the 28 November 1872 three drivers pulled up, left their cabs tethered and went into a nearby public house. They were observed going in and not reappearing for 25 minutes the court was told.

‘During this time’ Mr Woolrych was informed, ‘cabs were wanted and drivers could not be found, and among the gentlemen that complained was Sir Edward Cunyngham’. When the drivers came out fo the pub the PC on watch confronted them and was given a mouthful of abuse by two of them. The drivers’ solicitor defended them saying they had only been inside for a few minutes and it was reasonable that they sought some much needed sustenance. He also calimed that none had sworn at the constable.

Mr Woolrych thought it outrageous that the drivers should behave like this and fined them 4s 2d each, or threatened  them with five days in prison. They paid.

If I was the magistrate I’d have been inclined to make sure I didn’t need a hansom cab anytime soon.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 12, 1872]

P.S In 1876 Sir Edward Cunyngham, was accused along with two other men  (Charles de Chasterlaine and Nathan Wetherall, with conspiracy to defraud. Sir Edward was locked up in Newgate for want of bail and he died before he could be tried at the Old Bailey. The other two men were convicted and sent to gaol.

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