‘Onest Guv’nor: In Defense of the London Taxi Driver

By Sean Farrell, Taxi Driver, London

“Foul-mouthed, rude, obnoxious, bigoted, argumentative, extreme right-wing, money grabbing thieves . . .” and that’s just the good guys – upset a London taxi driver at your peril you and will become a fully paid up member of the endangered species list.

But are we really like this? No, of course we are not, “we’re all angels, ‘onest guv’nor”.

Don’t take my word for it, take the late Bob Payton, founder of the Chicago Rib Shack; he called us and the police “the only true professionals in Britain”. Whilst we accept his praise, it’s a bit much lumping us with the British bobby, after all, some of them carry guns, and we have to resort to other methods to deal with cyclists (or moving targets as I prefer to think of them).

Are we really the demonic force we are made out to be or are we the victims of a bad press after a newspaper reporter fails to get a cab home?

In fact our greatest supporters are not the indigenous population but foreign tourists and foreign business people. It is these who can compare the London taxi trade with taxis from their own countries and other places from around the world and a surprising number of people recognise just how good we actually are.

It could be said that there is not much difference between driving a cab in London than driving one in New York – except that we speak in English and have to rely on our brains to get us from one part of the city to another and not rely on a numerical grid system.

The licensed black cab trade of London is unique for two reasons, our history and the “Knowledge”.

London was the first city in the world to have a licensed taxi trade and the licensing can be blamed on a little known English playwright called William Shakespeare.

His productions at the Playhouse at Blackfriars were so popular that all the carriages that arrived to pick up and drop off the theatre-going public would cause a “stop” – in modern day parlance a traffic jam.

Just to show that red tape is not a modern phenomena, it took the
authorities about forty years after Shakespeare’s death to introduce licensing.

On June 24th 1654 (during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth) the Court of Alderman of the City of London authorised the use of 200 licenses for hackney coachmen (there were no women drivers but following the death of her husband a widow could take over the vehicle licence which allowed her to rent the coach out to a licensed driver – a rule still in force today).

Although the licensing reduced the number of stops in the City, there were still a few unlicensed coachmen working, it was the Watermen of the Thames who complained bitterly. Until the arrival of the Hackneys the only way to get from one part of the City to another or to Westminster was by boat and which would include the then hazardous act of trying to row under London Bridge (built for wise men to go over and for fools to go under).

The Watermen frequently complained about their drop in income but the writing was on the wall though many, such as Samuel Pepys would “take boat to White Hall . . . and so home by coach”.

The initial licenses were revoked after just three years following accusations that ex-cavaliers were being favoured instead of the Roundheads who had fought for Cromwell. Following the Restoration of the Crown in 1660 licenses were again issued but there were continual disputes and the process was continually suspended, amended and revoked until the time of William of Orange since which time the licensing has been continuous.

The history of the cab trade is more certain than the cornerstone of the present system – the Knowledge. Nobody knows when it was introduced, though Phillip Warren, cab trade historian, has researched the matter and his book The History of the London Cab Trade which is available from Amazon [ASIN: B000Z7GJIU; Taxi Trade Promotions (1995)].

The theory is that it as introduced in the 1850’s following the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace and the influx of tourists (we needed them then as well).

London had been expanding rapidly and urbanisation had stretched the boundaries from the docks at Wapping in the east to Kensington in the west London was the largest and most populous city in the world at the time, and the authorities, which were now the lately formed Metropolitan Police, ensured that anybody plying the streets for hire as a hackney would at least knew where they were going.

One hundred and fifty years later we are forced to go out “and do the Knowledge”. Jack Rosenthal (another playwright but not as popular as that chap Shakespeare) summed up the Knowledge in his play of the same name, “All the Knowledge requires is that you commit to memory, every street within a six mile radius of Charing Cross; every street and what’s on every street, every church, synagogue, mosque; theatre, cinema, restaurant. You name it – you’ve got to know it.”

It is said that there are about 17,000 streets within six miles of Charing Cross and countless points (places of interest). The process can take two or three years and will take over your life completely. You get no diploma at the end of it, just a tin badge which is worthless outside London.

Unlike the cabbies of New York we do not pay for a medallion, it is all done on merit – give the badge up and you might get a “thank you” from the person behind the counter at the licensing office. Three years of frustration, out in all weather, being knocked off by blind car drivers or skidding on ice . . . all because of a few tourists to the Great Exhibition.

I described the knowledge as the cornerstone of the taxi trade in London, remove it and the whole edifice will come tumbling down around us. There is not a single driver out there who regrets doing the Knowledge, it is what makes us unique, our public can climb into any cab in any one of the 650 square miles of London knowing that the driver will not only know where they are going and how to get there but will get them there safely.

“Foul-mouthed, rude, obnoxious, bigoted, argumentative, extreme right-wing, money grabbing thieves . . .”, even a cab driver can have a bad day but if we were all like that we could not have stood the test of time.

Next time you get into a cab in London, spare a thought for 350 years of history and a few tourists in the last century who made it all possible.

Reprinted with permission from CabbieBlog.

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