John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. — George P. Landow.]
or some little time I have been confined to the house. Instead of going abroad after breakfast, I stay in the dining-room, and I generally manage to limp to the dining-room windows. Now just opposite these windows is a cabstand. I used to think that cabstand a nuisance, but the truth now dawns upon me that there is a compensation in most things. It is only some weeks ago that I was awoke from a slumber, tranquil, but perhaps too deep, through a late supper and potations [drinking], with a burning pain in the ball of my great toe, and considerable constitutional disturbance. It so happened that the worthy and rubicund [red-faced] vicar called on me that next morning, accompanied by his churchwarden, hardly less worthy, and a shade more rubicund, on the subject of the parish charities. When I mentioned to them my dolorous state by various gestures and lively expression, they testified their sympathy and even their gratification. The reverend and the approximately-reverend gentlemen explained to me that I was indubitably suffering from my first attack of gout. They had suffered from it themselves, and welcomed me warmly into their honorable fraternity. The spectacle of an additional sufferer seemed to afford them a deep-seated satisfaction. The family doctor confirmed their unwelcome augury [divination]. He knocked off hot suppers and hotter potations, and put me on a light beverage of lithia water [mineral water containing lithium salts] and cognac [French brandy]. He also ordered me to take abundant rest, which I do on the arm-chair, unless I hobble to the window. I am not, I candidly confess, a man of intellectual resources. I rarely look into any books beyond my business book, and, a very little, into a betting-book. The "Daily Telegraph" kindly manufactures all my opinions for me, and a game of cards is my best enjoyment of an evening. But the D. T. exhausts itself, and I can't very well play at cards in the daylight. So I fall back upon my resources, which frequently resolve themselves into the cabstand.
A London cabman's shelter. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
When I go and look at them after breakfast, it appears to me that the cabman's lot is life is not an unhappy one. His work is not hard; he lives out in the open air; and though he says he has hardly enough to eat, I am quite sure that he gets a little more than is quite good for him to drink. He can go to sleep comfortably on his box, and if it rains he can get inside the carriage. Sometimes the floor of the cab is extemporized into an al fresco [outdoor] dining-table. There is a great deal of horse-play among these fellows. I observe one old man who is in the habit of going contentedly asleep on his box. It is a favorite device for some one to lift up the body of the cab from the ground, shake it, and let it dash upon the earth. One's first notion is that the somnolent driver will have his neck dislocated, or get concussion of the brain, but somehow he seems to hold on. Now this is not all an uncommon type of cabman---a man of extreme animal nature, whose only notion of enjoyment is to drink and sleep in the sunshine. But there are some sharp fellows among them. There is one man who has often a book with him, who has a very sharp pair of spectacles and a distinctive nose of his own, and an expression of countenance which shows him as acute and cynical as any of his betters. I have no doubt but that man has formed opinions of his own on most subjects of human interest, and could maintain them well in an argument. As a rule, the cabmen are content with their newspaper---many of them, indeed, cannot, or do not care to read---and very rarely you see any of them with a book. On the shady side of the street they often seem to enjoy themselves very much, engaging in chaff or talk, reading the newspaper, and every now and then disappearing into a public, to get a penny glass of the vile stuff which they know as London beer. Still business is business, and however grateful may be the charm of leisure, the cabman has a certain sum of money to make up, and he has a quick, alert eye to detect a possible fare in the least roving glance or indecisive movement of a pedestrian.
Standing much, as podagra [gout] permits, at my window, I know some of the cabmen very well by sight. Some of them I know personally. If I want a message sent, or a cab for any inmate of the house, I merely beckon or tap at the window, and there is a brisk competition. If you want to send a telegraphic message, you had better use a cab, as it is much quicker and no dearer than a messenger. I always take first cab, unless the horse is bad or the cab dirty. In an astonishing number of instances the horses are bad and the cabs dirty. Every now and then we have paragraphs, and even leaders, in the papers, and I have even seen some prospectuses of limited companies. But the cab mind is slow to move. Only now and then do I see a really superior carriage on the stand. I prefer the carriages that don't ply on Sunday, and I do so because I prefer the man who practically says, "I myself am something better than my trade; I don't mean to be used up as if I were an animal, but claim rest for mind and body, even though I have to make sacrifice for it." That is a sort of manliness to be encouraged. They change the cab-horse very often, but not the cabman. Without doubt there is in the world a prevalent feeling in favour of the muscles and bones of the horses which does not extend to the muscles and bones of human beings. Now, among these cabmen there are some exceedingly pleasant and civil fellows, and a few who are very much the reverse. There is never any close inquiry into the character of these men, and the result undoubtedly is that they number a greater amount of blackguards than any business in London. I remember having to convey a very pretty girl, at a time when my frame was lighter and my heart more susceptible than at present, across one of the parks, and a mile or two in the suburbs. I asked him the fare, which was a weak-minded thing, as I ought to have known it and have had the money in hand. "The fare is six shillings," he answered, with intense emphasis on the word fare, as indicating a wide margin of personal dues and expectations. I am ashamed to say that at that verdant time I gave him the six shillings and something over that for himself, whereas eighteen pence would have covered his legitimate demand. One of these fellows in the last Exhibition year, while making an overcharge, caught a Tartar. The fare announced himself as Sir Richard Mayne, and requested to be driven to Scotland Yard. There is one fellow on this stand whom I never employ. When I took him to the Great Western Station he made an overcharge, and then maintained stoutly, until he was nearly black in the face, that I had expressly stipulated with him to drive fast. Such a stipulation would have been abhorrent to all my habits, for I pride myself on always being a quarter of an hour before the time. I acquired this useful habit through a remark of the late Viscount Nelson, who said that being a quarter of an hour beforehand had given all the success which he had obtained in life. I thought this a very easy way of obtaining success in life, and have always made the rule of being a quarter of an hour beforehand, in the remote hope that somehow or other the practice would conduce towards making me a viscount. Up to the present point, however, the desired result has not accrued. With regard to this particular evilly disposed cabman, I have a theory that he is a ticket-of-leave [license given to a convict under imprisonment to go at large and labor for himself] man. If not so already, he is sure eventually to descend into that order of society.
Cabmen bully ladies dreadfully. A large part of their undue gain is made out of timid women, especially women who have children with them. A lady I know gave a cabman his fare and an extra sixpence. "Well, mum," said the ungracious cabman, "I'll take the money, but I don't thank you for it." "You have not got it yet," said my friend, alertly withdrawing the money. Impransus Jones did a neat thing the other day. He got into a cab, when, after a bit, he recollected that he had no money, or chance of borrowing any. He suddenly checked the driver in a great hurry, and said he had dropped a sovereign [gold coin worth a pound] in the straw. He told the cabman that he would go to a friend's a few doors off and get a light. As he was pretending to do so, the cabman, as Jones had expected, drove off rapidly. Thus the biter is sometimes bit. According to the old Latin saying, not always is the traveler killed by the robber, but sometimes the robber is killed by the traveler. When Jones arrived at Waterloo Bridge the other day, he immediately hailed a cab, albeit in a chronic state of impecuniosity. The cabman munificently paid the toll, and then Jones drove about for many hours to try and borrow a sovereign, the major part of which, when obtained, was transferred to the cabman. There is a clergyman in London who tells a story of a cabman driving him home, and to whom he was about to pay two shillings. He took the coins out of his waistcoat pocket, and then suddenly recollecting the peculiar glitter, he called out, "Stop, cabman, I've given you two sovereigns by mistake." "Then your honour's seen the last of them," said the cabman, flogging into his horse as fast as he could. Then my friend felt again, and found that he had given to the cabman two bright new farthings [a farthing was worth one quarter of a penny] which he had that day received, and was keeping as a curiosity for his children. There is something very irresistible in a cabman's cajolery. "What's your fare?" I asked a cabman one day. "Anything your honour pleases," he answered. "You rascal; that means, I suppose, your legal fare, and anything over that you can get." "No, your honour, I just leave it to you." "Very well, then; there's a sixpence for you." "Ah, but your honour's a gentleman," pleaded Paddy, and carried off double his proper fare.
A certain amount of adventure and incident happens to cabmen, some glimpses of which I witness from my window, on the stand. Occasionally a cabman is exposed to a good deal of temptation, and the cabman who hesitates is lost. For instance, if a cabman is hired in the small hours of the morning by disreputable roughs, and told to be in waiting for a time, and these men subsequently make their appearance again, with a heavy sack which obviously contains something valuable, and which might be plate, I think the cabman ought to give information in the proper quarter unless he wishes to make himself an accomplice. There is a distinct branch of the thieving business which is known as lifting portmanteaus [large traveling bags] from the roofs of cabs and carriages, sometimes certainly not without a measure of suspicion against the drivers. A cabman, however, has frequently strict ideas of professional honour, and would as soon think of betraying his hirer, who in dubious cases of course hires at a very handsone rate, as a priest of betraying the security of the confessional or the doctor of the sick chamber. Even cabmen must have severe shocks to their nerves at times. For instance, that cabman who found that he had a carriage full of murdered children; or suppose two gentlemanly-looking men having taken a cab, and the driver finds that one is gone and that the other is plundered and stupified with chloroform. Very puzzled, too, is the cabman when he stops at an address and finds that his fare, perhaps the impecunious Jones, has bolted in transitu, or, if he goes into a city court, has declined to emerge by the way of the original entrance. "A queer thing happened this afternoon to me sir," said a cabman. "A gentleman told me to follow him along the High Street, Marleybone, and to stop when he stopped. Presently I heard a scream: he had seized hold of a lovely young creature, and was calling out, 'So I have found you at last, madam. Come away with me.' She went down on her knees to him, and said, 'Have mercy on me, Robert. I can't go home to you.' 'Stuff and nonsense,' he says, and lifts her up in his arms, as if she had been a baby, and bundles her into the cab. 'And what d'ye want with the young woman, I makes bold to ask?' says I. 'What's that to you?' he said. 'I'm her husband, drive sharp.' I took 'em to a big house in a square, when he gives me half a sovereign, and slams the door in my face." "I suppose, cabman," I said, "you sometimes get queer jobs, following people, and things of that kind?" "Sometimes, sir, and I know men who have seen much queerer things that I have ever seen, though I've seen a few. When a man's following some one, perhaps a young fellow following a pretty girl, and he doesn't like to be seen. I don't mind the lads being after the girls, that's natural enough, but there are worse doings than that in the way of dodgings." He told me several things that might have figured in a volume of detective experiences. There were some gentlemen, he said, turning to lighter matters, who could make themselves very comfortable for the night in a four-wheeler. There was a gent that was locked out of his own house in the race week, and found several hotels closed, who took his cab for a night, and made himself as comfortable as if he were in his own bed (which I rather doubted), from two in the morning till seven. He charged him two shillings an hour all the same. One night he took a gentleman and lady to a dinner-party in Russell Square. They forgot to pay him. He waited till they came out at twelve o'clock, and charged them ten shillings. He could carry a powerful lot of luggage on his cab. Had it full inside, and so much luggage that it might have toppled over. Asked him what was the largest number of people he ever carried. He said he had carried seventeen at a go once. He was the last cab at Cremorne once, but the fellow did it for a lark. He had five or six inside, and a lot of them on the roof, one or two on the box, and one or two on the horse. He might have lost his license, but he made nearly thirty shillings by it. The longest journey he ever took was when he drove a gentleman down to Brighton in a hansom. He had repeatedly taken them to Epsom and also to Windsor. He did the distance to Brighton in six hours, changing horses half-way. There was a little romance belonging to the stand, I found out. Did I see the handsome girl who came every now and then to the stand to the good-looking old fellow in the white hat. He was the proprietor of four cabs, and was always driving one. She stayed home and took the orders. I found afterwards that she was a very good girl, with a well-known character for her quick tongue and her pretty face. I was assured by an officer that the fair cabbess was at a Masonic ball, and a certain young duke picked her out as the nicest girl in the room, and insisted on dancing with her, to the great disgust of the people who were with him. I heard another story of the cabstand which was serio-comic enough, and indicated some curious vagaries of human nature. There was one cabman who had a handsome daughter who had gone wrong, or, at all events, got the credit of it. She used continually to come down to the stand, and give her old father a job. He used to drive her about, dressed as splendidly as he was shabbily, and he would take her money as from any other fare, and expect his tip over and above.
If cabmen were satisfied with their legal fares many people would take cabs who do not now care to be imposed or annoyed. I generally give twopence or threepence on the shilling additional, which I think is fairly their due, but I sometimes get mutterings for not making it more. The cab trade is more and more getting into the hands of a few large proprietors, some of whom have seventy or eighty cabs. The tendency of this must be to improve the cabs. When the cabs make their average profit of ten or twelve shillings a day, this must be a lucrative business. The driver does well who makes a profit of thirty shillings a week or a little over. All the responsibility is with the cab proprietor, and he generally keeps a sharp look-out after the men, and will give them uncommonly scanty credit. As a rule, though the rule is often relaxed, they must pay down a stated sum before they are allowed to take out the cab. The sum varies with the season, as also does the number of cabs. There are some hundred cabs less in November than at the height of the season. The hansom business of course forms the aristocracy of the trade. With a good horse, a clean carriage, and a sharp, civil driver, there is nothing more pleasant than bowling along on a good road, with a pleasant breeze coursing around. The night-trade is the worst in horses, carriages, men, and remuneration to those concerned. Some of these cab horses were once famous horses in their day, which had their pictures or photographs taken, and won cups at races. There are also decayed drivers, who harmonize sadly and truly with decayed animals. They say there are one or two men of title in the ranks, and several who have run through good fortunes---men who have come to utter smash in the army or the universities, the number of whom is probably larger than is generally supposed, and come to cab-driving as their ultimate resource, and only more congenial than quill-driving. There is a good deal of interest felt in cabmen by many religious and philanthropic people. Their experience and strong mother wit, their habits of keen observation, and consequently of marvelous acuteness, make them great favorites with those who study the humours of the street. Archbishop Tait, when he was in London, used at times, we believe, to collect as many as he could in some stables at Islington and preach to them. It is easier, however, to get at cabby than to make a durable impression on him. It would help, however, to humanize him if some of us were more humane and considerate towards his "order."
Last modified 24 November 2012