“Surely there is not a moment to be lost,” I cried, “shall I go and order you a cab?”A Study In Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the classic images we associate with Sherlock Holmes is the Hansom cab. This 2-wheeled, black carriage drawn by a single horse held 2 people comfortably, and it features prominently in the ACD Holmes canon. Starting from A Study In Scarlet, cabs play an important role in Holmes’ adventures. The word “cab” is used 46 times in that book, and of course, most of us know that the culprit in this tale was the cab driver himself.
BBC Sherlock fans are familiar with the black London cabs that serve as the modern equivalent. But what were Victorian Hansom cabs like? And why are they called “Hansoms”? How did one hail them, and how much did it cost?
Most importantly for our purposes, did women of the time use them?
I found more than I ever thought I wanted to know about Victorian London cabs from a fascinating thesis called Cab Cultures in Victorian London: Horse-Drawn Cabs, Users and the City, ca 1830-1914 by Fu-Chia Chen, PhD (2013, University of York, Railway Studies.) Dr. Chen takes an in-depth look at the development of the cab in Victorian Britain, and also challenges assumptions commonly made about the riding culture—including exploring the relationship between cabs and various marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities, women, and the poor. Just assume that the info in this post is from this source, and if you’re a history nerd, check it out online—it’s available for download.
History of Hired Cabs in Britain
Before 1831, if you didn’t have your own carriage and you didn’t want to walk somewhere, you could hire a hackney coach. These were 4-wheeled carriages drawn by a pair of horses. The word “hackney” comes from a French word that means “ambling nag,” and these carriages became popular to hire from about the mid-1600’s.
The hackney coach business was tightly regulated by the government as far as number and type of coaches allowed, and basically created a monopoly with the excuse of “keeping the streets safe and uncrowded.”
But all that went away in 1831 with the London Hackney Carriage Act. This dissolved the monopoly, and within a year, a different type of carriage was soaring in popularity: the “cabriolet” or, as we now call it, the cab.
The cab was a lighter, quicker, sportier carriage than the hackney coach. It had only 2 wheels, and only needed one horse to pull it. It was considered a vehicle for the adventurous and young, since people thought it was a lot harder to get in and out of, especially for older people. But since they were easier to get through narrow and crowded streets, they became really popular, really fast for hiring in London.
The Hansom Cab
In 1834, an inventor named Joseph Aloysius Hansom filed a patent for a new kind of cab with 2 huge wheels and only one seat. Another bloke named John Chapman came along and made another big improvement to the design: he moved the driver’s seat up top and to the rear of the carriage, and this made it a lot safer and easier on the horse as well.
It was a big success, and at first, only wealthier people could afford riding in one. But soon, the streets became crowded with Hansom cabs. In fact, they were so successful that a lot of makers copied the design in spite of the patent and tried to justify it by painting a “not” in front of the words “Hansom’s patent safety cab.”
Gotta love capitalism.
Throughout the late Victorian period we are interested in, there were anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 licenses given for cabs in London per year. As convenient as they were for those who could afford it, for the thousands of Londoners who had to travel on foot, they made it more difficult and more dangerous to get around.
By 1891, there were about 15,200 cab drivers in London. That’s more than the number of people working for the railroads or at the docks! Plus, there were a bunch of support businesses like coach builders, saddlers, horse breeders and dealers, vets, watermen, and stable keepers, etc., who relied on the cab trade for their livelihood—an estimated 50,000 people by 1865!
The Life of a Cab Driver
It wasn’t an easy life! A cab driver was out in all kinds of weather and they never could know if a customer was going to try to cheat them or would be unreasonable or demanding. Even though there were legally-set minimum fares, disputes between drivers and riders were common.
In 1893, a driver might earn between 15-18 shillings per week. But their actual earnings depended a lot on the seasons—the dead of winter was, well…dead. But midsummer could be crazy busy.
Plus, out of those earnings, a driver had to pay for the upkeep of their horses and the cab itself, as well as tolls and licensing fees and other business expenses. Horses cost around 30£, and you needed 2—to switch out at least once during the day. And they only could work for about 2-3 years because they would get sick or injured or just plain worn out by the work! (If you like having your heart ripped out, stomped on, and pulverized, read the novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell for a look at the life of a London work horse during that time period.)
Cabs didn’t last a whole lot longer—maybe 6-8 years—and they cost around 40-50£. A second-hand carriage was about half that, but also wouldn’t last as long. There were maintenance expenses too, especially before the required government inspections.
There were certain bridges in London that required 2 shillings per horse to cross, and a lot of people would take a cab across to avoid paying the toll, leaving the cab driver to pay instead.
If you wanted to drive but couldn’t afford to buy your own horses and cab, you could work for a proprietor. You might make about 9 shillings a week, but you had to pay rent for the cab and horses to the proprietor. Anything beyond that was yours to keep, but it was very hard for most drivers to ever earn enough to become an owner themselves.
Though most cab drivers were men, there were a few female cab drivers, and probably more who crossdressed as men in order to drive. An 1875 article in the feminist newspaper Women and Work declared that “Cab-driving is certainly an original employment for women.” We don’t know how many women actually worked as cab drivers, but the newspapers always found it fascinating to come across one.
Riding In a Cab
Cabs were pretty much the only public transportation in Victorian London that was available anytime of the day or night. And there were no timetables or routes to keep track of. You could hire a cab by distance or by time. So if you wanted to go from point A to B without stopping, distance would probably be the cheaper option because a driver could charge you an extra 6 pence for every 15 minutes you kept them waiting. If you needed to make any stops along the way, pay by time was your better deal.
You could also share your cab by having the driver stop somewhere and pick up a friend. By later in the 1800’s, you could also arrange to share a cab with a stranger.
If you wanted your driver to wait longer or go faster or otherwise go above and beyond the minimum of the laws, you could offer to pay extra. You could also request things like the driver getting a fresh horse. Both these scenarios feature at times in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
A good driver would know all the shortcuts and fastest ways to get around the city. And because the cabs were small, they could fit into narrow or crowded roads easier than other types of carriages or transportation.
They were also fast. A driver was encouraged to go at least 6 miles an hour whenever conditions allowed, which may not seem terribly quick to us now, but was a little faster than the 5mph that omnibuses and other horse-drawn carriages could manage. Plus, you didn’t have to worry about stopping every so often to pick up more passengers.
(A lot of this sounds like the advantages to taxis and ride-shares today, doesn’t it?)
Cabs were a great option for those in the middle class who needed to be able to quickly get around to their jobs—such as news reporters or stockbrokers or legal clerks, or for middle and upper class people who were going out for a night’s entertainment.
But they also served as makeshift ambulances until late in the century when ambulances became more common as a separate service. And they were commonly used by the police as a way of getting around the city to do their duties. (Hello, Lestrade!)
Another way cabs could be used was to convey messages or packages. You could send a friend or a servant with a message in a cab to get it across town at an efficient pace. You could even send a trunk or other package or item with the cab driver to be delivered somewhere else. But as cheaper options such as the penny post, the telegraph, and eventually the telephone became available, using the cab to send messages became a lot less popular.
Sherlock Holmes uses the cab as a way to spy on others, and in other Victorian fiction, the cab functions as a meeting place where people can talk in relative privacy.
A cab also carried a sense of adventure and a bit of risk. Accidents involving cabs were not uncommon, and it wasn’t until the end of the century that a cab driver had to possess any driving qualifications in order to get a license. There are tales of crimes happening in cabs or by cab drivers, and even stories of urban bandits (both male and female) holding up cabs to demand ransom.
Plus, it wasn’t always easy to find a cab. The weather and time of year could make cabs scarce. So could crowded, popular areas where there were simply too many people and too few cabs. Sometimes, cab drivers would go on strike (good for them!), and the whole city would be incapacitated because so many Londoners were so deeply dependent on the cabs for safe, efficient, and convenient travel.
Women and Cabs
So now we come to it—what was riding in a cab like for Victorian women? Once again, there is a perception that Victorian women weren’t allowed to go anywhere by themselves, and that certainly riding in a Hansom cab would be off-limits for a proper Victorian woman.
But in reality, many women preferred riding in a cab because it was safer than walking and provided much more privacy than a public coach or omnibus.
Drivers were forbidden to add passengers that the person hiring the cab didn’t ask for, and they couldn’t even let someone ride on the back springs of the cab. So to Victorians, the cab was considered a domestic space, an extension of home, that they could control for the length of the ride. Late Victorian cabs even tried to reinforce this image by providing grooming supplies such as a comb, mirror, and brush as extra amenities to their passengers. (Ew!)
Chen says in his thesis that the inclusion of these kinds of little extras that appealed directly to women passengers points to the fact that women were far more involved in public life in London than a lot of people believe.
However, from primary sources, it does seem that especially in the mid-1800’s there was a big push to try to convince women that riding in cabs, especially alone, was dangerous and improper. Publications emphasized the “unprotected female” and the risk a woman traveler faced of being mistreated or cheated by the cab drivers.
But it doesn’t seem like most middle or upperclass women were listening too hard. There was a section in The Times for items left in a cab to try to be returned to their owners. And either a LOT of gentlemen were suddenly sporting reticules, purses, and bonnets, or there were a LOT of women cab riders.
There are also accounts that cab drivers would often look out especially for women and help them when needed.
Chen suggests that the reason so many men made such a big deal about the adventures and risks of riding in cabs, and emphasized the supposed dangers and impropriety of women riders, was to justify their own mobility. He points out that transportation and personal freedom have always been linked.
He says specifically about Holmes:
“This pleasure of transgression and exploration, coincidently (or not), was the specialty and passion of Doyle’s renowned hero—Sherlock Holmes. As Holmes claimed more than once, he did not work for money, but for the job itself, and for the delightful experience that only this job could offer.”
So basically, Victorian men wanted personal freedom for themselves to make themselves feel more powerful and heroic. Obviously, they needed to convince women, the elderly, and other “lesser” people that riding in cabs was dangerous and improper—otherwise, it would ruin this story they wanted to tell about themselves.
But women enjoyed the adventure and risk as well, as this quote from an 1857 Punch article, “Mary Ann’s Notions” declares:
“I like to be amused, but there’s nothing to amuse one now, unless one takes a Hansom, and goes away into the wilds at the east-end, places you never heard of, there’s fun there, but it’s a bore to go so far.”
I think a female Holmes and Watson would strongly argue that finding adventures throughout the city of London was anything but a bore. For them, it would offer relatively safe and quick and private transportation and a degree of personal freedom and independence they could not, at the time, have experienced any other way.
Next time: One more post to go before the launch of A Study In Garnet, book 1 of my new Ladies of Baker Street series. Chapter 1 will be available January 29, but first, we are going to take a look at what the weather was like on the day Holmes and Watson met!
(This is an ongoing series about the historical case for how canon Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could have been women. It is leading up to the launch of my new web novel series on Patreon, Ladies of Baker Street—a sapphic/wlw, Victorian women adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.)