The good old London cab. They've been (officially) plying the streets since 1662. But did you know these things about Uber's arch nemesis...
1. They're made in Coventry
Step out of Coventry station and chances are there'll be a black cab to greet you. Although these vehicles aren't unique to London, Coventry has more than its fair share — probably because they're manufactured here. These days, the Chinese-owned LEVC factory focuses on electric cabs. But black cabs have been manufactured in Coventry since 1954, when Carbodies started making the FX3 taxicab. The FX3, by the way, came in black as standard — the colour stuck.
Top tip: it's cheaper to ride in a black cab in Coventry than it is in London.
2. London's first electric taxi cabs ran in... 1897
That's right, while we're slapping ourselves on the back for the 'revolutionary' electric taxis churned out of Coventry, Walter C. Bersey's London Electrical Cab Co. ran back in 1897. The fleet of 'Hummingbirds' was so-called because of the gentle noise they made, and their black and yellow livery. Said the Dundee Evening Telegraph, "It has been ascertained by test that [the battery power] is sufficient for running 50 miles — about day's work — although not continuously at the highest speed." The company went bust just three years later. London wasn't yet ready for the electric revolution.
3. 'Hackney carriages' have got nothing to do with Hackney... right?
So. The highly-reputable Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable suggests cites a long-held belief that the 'hackney' epithet was derived from the French word haquenee — which means 'trotting horse' (the kind of horse that used to be hired out). Taxis, too are hired out (and used to be pulled by horses) — so there's your etymology.
BUT the book also suggests that actual Hackney in actual east London was once such a green and pleasant land, that it was FAMED for its horse-grazing pastures, and the French nicked 'haquenee' from there, sometime after they invaded in 1066. That's another theory, anyway. When Peter Watts delved into this for Londonist, he also touched on the idea that the Dutch or Spanish may have invented the name — before coming to the firm conclusion that nobody really knows. To be honest, does anyone still call it a hackney carriage these days?
4. The whole 'bale of hay' thing isn't true. But it used to be... Sort of
A favourite nub of London 'trivia' goes: it is illegal for London cabbies to drive around without a bale of hay in their boot. This is, of course, nonsense — we've seen inside the boots of black cabs, and what with all the Harrods bags, there's no room for grassy comestibles. Thing is, this law DID used to be true. Kind of: The London Hackney Carriage Act 1831 states that cab drivers faced a 20 shilling fine for not providing victuals for their own horses. The law wasn't repealed until 1976.
5. There was a strange spate of cabbie murders in the mid-1940s
The newspaper archives are riddled with stories of murders in taxi cabs, including that of music hall artist Florence Dudley, shot dead in the back of a cab outside Fenchurch station by her driver in 1912. But the mid-1940s saw a bizarre and grim pattern of cabbies being murdered. These included the so called 'Cleft Chin' murder of cabbie Edward Heath, by an American paratrooper and a female dancer in January 1945; the October 1945 killing of Frank Everett; the death of 'Russian Robert' Ruben Martirossof, shot dead in his cab on 1 November 1945; and the murder of 'the Jolly Cabbie', Joseph Desmond — again, shot dead in his cab on 6 October 1947. Oddly, three of the four murders either took place in, or were linked to, Notting Hill.
Featured image: The Tatler, 9 November 1949. Image © Illustrated London News Group. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.