As you drive your taxi around the streets, have you ever wondered about the origins of your livelihood?


When were the first taxis, and what did they look like? What role did the hackney carriage and the Hansom cab play, respectively, in the story of London’s iconic black cabs?

And would a driver of one of these early prototypes have faced the same outgoings – such as fuel, maintenance, and taxi cab insurance – as you do today?


Taxis have existed, in some form or other, since the 17th Century. For nearly 400 years, Britain – or London, initially – has had a system for ferrying paying customers from point A to point B.


Check out this quick guide to the Hansom cab, and pick up some fun facts to tell your passengers.


Capital gains

It all started, as you’d probably expect, in London. The very first vehicles that could be hired to take a paying customer somewhere were the horse-drawn carriages known as ‘hackney carriages’.


Incidentally, the origins of the term ‘hackney carriage’ are not quite as simple as you might think.


The name may seem to come, all too obviously, from the London area of the same name. And this is possible: however, Hackney was historically an area of marshland, and not particularly suitable for keeping horses.


Another explanation links the name to the French word haquenée, meaning ‘medium-sized horse’. The word came over to England with the Norman Conquest and, by the 14th century, was in common use to describe a horse for hire.


Anyway – back to the very first hackney cabs. The idea of horse-drawn carriages for hire took off during the early 17th Century.

At this time, many wealthy Londoners were struggling to maintain their own horses, coach, and driver. An obvious way to capitalise on this investment was to make these coaches available for hire.


It’s believed that, by 1625, London had around 20 hackney carriages for hire. Most of these were based at inns and hotels.


The following decade brought a key innovation which now seems such a familiar part of the industry. In 1634, one Captain John Bailey introduced the first taxi rank. 


Bailey was himself the owner of four Hackney carriages, which operated from the Maypole on The Strand, near the centre of the city. Londoners in need of a ride knew that this was somewhere they could reliably find a waiting carriage.

The rank wasn’t the only innovation that Bailey brought to the fledgling industry. He also had the bright idea of standardising his charges, with set tariffs for trips to different areas of London.

Bailey also made his drivers follow certain rules and regulations, and decorated his carriages in striking designs so that they could be easily recognised. Arguably, it was thanks to this forward-thinking carriage owner that taxis moved from a small-scale local business to an efficient and highly commercial industry.


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New kid on the block

There followed almost two centuries of continuity on the taxi landscape, with relatively little change. Four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriages continued to ply their trade around the capital.

By the middle of the 18th Century, more than a thousand hackney carriages were using the London streets, resulting in major congestion. These four-wheeled vehicles were also expensive to run, as they needed two horses to pull them.


Change came, however, in 1823, with the arrival of a newer, faster carriage. Hailing from France, the newcomer had just two wheels and was, as a result, lighter and nimbler.


Indeed, it could be pulled by just one horse, drastically reducing an owner’s outgoings. As well as sporting just two wheels, the new design had a hood instead of a fixed roof.


This lighter carriage was known as a ‘cabriolet’ – thought to come from the French word ‘cabriole’, meaning ‘somersault’. The name was a clear reference to the vehicle’s light weight and agility.

From there, of course, we soon got the abbreviation ‘cab’ and its driver, the ‘cabbie’.


The next stage of development came thanks to Joseph Aloysius Hansom, a York-based architect and designer. As an architect, Hansom designed a few notable Victorian buildings – including Birmingham Town Hall, Arundel Cathedral and St Walburge’s Church in Preston.

Of most interest to us here, however, is his design for a new type of horse-drawn carriage.
Just before Christmas 1834, Hansom registered for a patent for his design for a 'Patent Safety Cab'.


And indeed, this new two-wheeled cab did include a number of innovative safety features – including larger wheels and a lower cab, meaning both fewer accidents and less wear and tear.


‘Hansom’ rewards

Patent duly registered, the first Hansom cab was in operation in 1835, having taken its maiden drive in Hinckley, Leicestershire, where Hansom was living at the time. The cab then got a few modifications before being exported worldwide.

By the late 19th Century, the Hansom cab was a familiar sight on the streets of Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York, not to mention many British cities.

Faster and safer, the Hansom cab edged out the Hackney carriage as the preferred transport-for-hire. It was also a more convenient vehicle for its passengers – the folding wooden doors protected them from the worst of the weather, while a roof hatch allowed them to communicate with (and pay) the driver without leaving their seats.

Incidentally, this era also saw the introduction of the taximeter – a device that used clockwork to measure distance travelled, and could thus come up with an accurate per-mile fare. Indeed, the new device got incorporated into the vehicle’s name, resulting in the new designation ‘taxi cab’.

Given its relatively light weight, safety and convenience, it should come as no surprise that the Hansom cab remained the most popular for-hire vehicle in many cities, including London, until the early 1900s. Its eventual fading from popularity then was due to the fast rise of the motor car.


Today, though, it’s easy to see the links between the Hansom cab and today’s modern taxis. Both take paying customers from A to B in a way that is safe and convenient for both driver and passengers. Both are able to accurately calculate fares; both are nimble and well-suited to driving in the busy cities of their era.


As such, we salute the Hansom cab, forerunner of the modern taxi.


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