In 1875 the Adelphi theatre in the Strand was staging a production of Nicholas Nickelby. Dickens’ third novel had been turned into a play almost as soon as it had appeared in print and the author didn’t profit from the misappropriation of his work. By 1875 Dickens was dead anyway and the story of Nickelby, the impoverished schoolmaster and the quite awful Wackford Squeers, was a popular standard for Victorian audiences and the Adelphi had been amongst the first theatres to put it on.
Once the show was over the Aldelphi’s manger, a Mr Chatterton, went on to enjoy an evening of the opera at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane before meeting up with a friend for drinks. Chatterton finally left the Albion Tavern at just after midnight and he and his chum, Mr Webster, asked a linkman to fetch them a cab.
It was a dreadful night, pouring with rain and it took the man about a quarter of an hour to secure a hansom cab for the friends as he’d had to go all the way to the Haymarket to find one. Chatterton helped the other man into the cab (which suggests to me at least that he was a little the worse for drink) before clambering in himself. The driver (John Dredge) got down from his seat to ask them where they wanted to go.
‘Clapham Road, near the Kennington Church’ Chatterton told him.
While this was only a journey of about 3 miles it did involve going south of the river and would probably have taken half an hour (and of course another 30 minutes for Dredge to get back into town and home). Under the bylaws governing licensed cabs he had to be home by 1 in the morning (or a pay a fine at the rate of 1s 6d an hour), so given how late it was he was reluctant to ‘go south of the river’ at that hour. However, if the money was right he was prepared to carry the gentlemen.
‘I am not obliged to go that way, and shall not go unless you pay be liberally’, Dredge told them, ‘what are you going to give me?’
Chatterton didn’t want to get into an auction with a cabbie so decided to find an alternative way home. ‘If you won’t go there’ he insisted, ‘drive me to the station in Bow Street’.
This infuriated the cab driver. Bow Street was literally just around the corner from the pub. ‘Oh that’s your game is it?’ he told them, ‘The road is as much mine as your to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’. Webster tried to reason with him but Dredge was having nothing of it; he clearly felt the gentlemen were taking the mickey because they were tipsy. Chatterton was not at all amused however, and called a policeman who took the cab driver’s number.
Ten days later Dredge was summoned to appear at Bow Street Police court before Mr Vaughan. Cab drivers had a poor reputation for insolence and magistrates rarely missed a chance to punish them for it. Despite Dredge insisting that he thought the two men were drunk but now apologising for being mistaken and for ‘having cast such an imputation’ the justice decided to throw the book at him.
He said it was evident that Dredge’s intention was to ‘extort more than his legal fare’ and the ‘public were not to be exposed to such a system’. So, as a ‘warning to other cabmen’ he fined him 40s (or a month in prison) and suspended his license for a month.
Dredge was stunned, and so was the theatre manager. Surely Mr Vaughan didn’t mean to deprive the man of his livelihood as well as fining him the equivalent of £120 today (about two week’s wages at the time). The Bow Street magistrate was unmoved by either man however, and insisted his mind was made up and the penalty would stand.
I suspect this decision would have filtered down to Dredge’s fellow drivers but not necessarily with the effect that the justice wanted. London cab drivers are unlikely to have reacted well to being told what to do, or to one of their own being treated quite so harshly.
[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, May 12, 1875]
for other stories featuring London hansom cab drivers see: