Another book review so soon on this blog? Well, yes. This book from Shire Publications, Victorian and Edwardian Horse Cabs by Trevor May, is short, just 32 pages long, but it is filled with many facts and rare images of interest to lovers of history. In Jane Austen’s day most people walked to work, town, church, and market square, or to their neighbors. Six miles was not considered an undue distance to travel by foot one way. The gentry were another breed. They either owned their own carriages or hired a public horse cab. These equipages were available as early as the 1620’s.
Hackneys, or public carriages for hire made their first significant appearance in the early 17th century. By 1694, these vehicles had increased to such a number that a body of Hackney Coach Commissioners was established in London. The commissioners dealt out licences, which was a bit of a joke, for a mere four inspectors were responsible for over 1,000 vehicles.
Most of these licensed hackney coaches were purchased second hand. All that an enterprising person needed to establish his own hackney coach business was enough money for a used carriage and three horses, two that worked in rotation, and one that could be used as a replacement in case of injury or illness. The death of a horse could lead to a cab owner’s financial ruin. Another important ingredient was housing for the horses.
By, 1823, the lighter horse cabs began to replace cumbersome hackney coaches in great quantity, and by the mid 1830’s, the hansom cab set the new standard for modern horse cabs. Aloysius Hansom, an architect, designed the first carriage. When Hansom went bankrupt through poor investments, John Chapman took over, designing an even lighter, more efficient cab, one whose framework did not strike the horses on their backs or sides whenever a carriage ran over an obstacle in the road.
Commercial cab firms tended to be small, even as late as 1892. Only one or two proprietors provided a large number or variety of equipages, like Alfred Pargetter, whose concern advertised removal carriages, cabs, and funeral coaches for hire. While cabs were licensed, their drivers were not and the road could present a dangerous obstacle course. The video clip below shows how adroitly horses and carriages managed to avoid each other with seemingly few rules (mostly towards the end of the clip). Notice how some lucky individual horses pulled relatively light loads compared to other horses forced to pull heavy carts.
These two video clips, one from 1903 and the other from 1896 (unbelievable!) show the end of an era, for by 1914, motorized vehicles were rapidly replacing the horse-drawn cart.
I recommend this book to anyone with an insatiable appetite for a pictorial history on a particular topic. Trevor May is an expert on the Victorian era, and he has managed to squeeze more information about horse-drawn cabs in this short book (more a thick pamphlet) than I have read before. The images are simply splendid.