Hansom cab c1884Hansom Cab - 4 wheeler
Hansom Cab - Standard 2 wheeler (1884) and 4 wheeler.

The history of the London taxi dates back to 1639 when the Corporation of Coachmen obtained a licence to ply for hire in London. By 1654 Parliament limited the number of carriages plying for trade in London and Westminster to 300, increased in 1661 to 400 and 700 in 1694. Passenger safety concerns led to the introduction of 'Conditions of Fitness' in 1679.

The first coaches are thought to have been second hand two seaters drawn by a single horse. The majority of the horses were of a breed called Hackneys (derived from the old French word haquenee - an ambling horse or mare) which are prized for their stamina and soundness and for their ability to eat up the miles at a trot. The French carriage or cabriolet de place (hence cab) first appeared in London around 1823. In 1834 Joseph Harrison patented a two wheel cab design with the driver sitting on top of the passenger compartment. This design was improved by John Chapman in 1836 by moving the drivers open seat behind and above the hooded passenger compartment. The driver could then talk to the (two) passengers through a window in the roof. Around this time four wheel cabs were introduced which let a third passenger sit next to the driver.

Regulation of the approximately 4500 London cabs passed to the Metropolitan Police Public Carriage Office in 1850. Originally located in an annex to New Scotland Yard in Whitehall called 'the Bungalow'. It moved to 109 Lambeth Road in 1919, remaining there until 1966, when it moved to 15 Penton Street, Islington.

A Bersey Cab Bersey cab and Charging Station
A Bersey Cab and a Bersey cab and Charging Station

The first London horseless carriage taxi was introduced by Walter C. Bersey, General Manager of the London Electric Cab Company of Juxon Street, Lambeth on 19th August 1897. As the company name suggests the cabs were battery operated and had 3� horsepower Lundell motors and electric lights inside and out. The Prince of Wales rode in one in November 1897.

The cabs, which had a top speed of 9 mph, had a removable battery box sling under the passenger compartment to allow the exchange of the 4 x 80 volt batteries - this was necessary as the batteries needed recharging every 30 miles. Initially twelve two ton vehicles were built by the Great Horseless Carriage Company to Bersey's design with coachwork by Mulliner (more famous for Bentleys). The cabs had a yellow and black livery and initially considered both smooth and quiet. They gained the nickname of 'hummingbirds' by the public. An improved version with more powerful batteries were constructed by the Gloucester Railway Wagon Company.

From the operators viewpoint the cabs had a poor reliability record and were expensive to maintain with excessive tyre wear, and needing expensive replacement batteries. Added to this their reputation suffered after the first ever drunk driving conviction was handed out to 25yr old driver George Smith who on 10th September 1897 drove his electric cab onto the pavement and into the front of 165 Bond Street (George was fined �1). Thirteen days later a 9 year old child, Stephen Kempton, was crushed to death after his coat got caught in the chain drive after he had jumped onto the outside of an electric cab. The company ceased trading in August, 1899 with the fleet, which had grown to 77 vehicles, being sold off. The Metropolitan Police stopped licensing this type of electric cab in 1900. A single Bersey is preserved at Beaulieu.

The first petrol driven cab licensed for use in London was in 1903 and was a French built Prunel operated by the Express Motor Service Company. It was in effect just a mechanised two-seat Hansom body with a 12hp Aster engine and chain drive transmission replacing the horse and the reins being replaced by steering column and control handles.

Prototype Vauxhall Hansom Cab 1905 Image Source: Makkes Garage
Prototype Vauxhall Hansom Cab 1905
Image Source: Makkes Garage

In 1906 the Metropolitan Police drew up design and construction regulations including the famous 25ft turning circle. By 1914 there were 8397 motorised cabs on London Streets with 45 different manufacturers having had designs approved. One popular make in the first quarter of the 20th century was an other French design the 2 cylinder Unic, which was imported by Mann & Overton.

A tram passing the General Motor Cab Co, Brixton Road
A tram passing the General Motor Cab Co, Brixton Road

In 1946 the last horse-cab was withdrawn from service and driver handed in his licence in 1947, the same year as the UK's first radio cab service in started in Cambridge.

The Following article appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

A good idea at the time: Electric hackney carriage (Filed: 21/11/2000)

David Burgess-Wise looks at motoring innovations of the past

SORRY, ecologist Adrian Lawton, but your claim to have launched Britain's first electric hackney carriage (Motoring, November 14) comes just 103 years too late. Mind you, environmental concerns played a part even then, as this newspaper was on hand to record. It has been estimated that at the end of the last century, as many people died as a result of disease caused by "emissions" from horse-drawn transport as are killed today in motor vehicle accidents (green fundamentalists please take note). So when electrical engineer Walter Bersey inaugurated his London Electrical Cab Company on August 19, 1897, The Daily Telegraph declared: "The new cabs will be undoubtedly a vast improvement from every point of view, as compared with those drawn by the insanitary horse. There is no animal more subject to disease, and his presence on the wooden pavements of the City is responsible for most of the disease germs which every breeze sweeps up in myriads from the filth-sodden streets."

Bersey, who had begun experiments with electric traction in the 1880s, saw no future for petrol cars, with their "constant vibration, objectionable odour and unavoidable heat and noise". His taxi fleet operated out of a depot near Lambeth Palace, where discharged battery packs (which gave a range of 50 miles at 9mph) could be replaced inside five minutes. His fleet totalled 75 cabs at its peak in 1898, and the former hansom cabbies who drove them had to undergo Britain's first-ever driving test, nearly 40 years before this became compulsory for private motorists. The police test included driving the cab safely up and down Savoy Hill, the steepest hill in central London. The steering wheel took over 20 turns from lock to lock, so turning in the street must have been a leisurely business!

Passengers, who included the Prince of Wales, found the Bersey electrics far more comfortable than horse cabs: "The only noise is a slight dreamy hum, like that of the insects in a shady avenue of lime trees on a hot summer afternoon."

However, the Bersey cabs were handicapped by their heavy 14cwt battery packs. Tyre trouble was constant, and the electric cabs were withdrawn from service in 1899. When motor cabs reappeared some four years later, they were petrol-driven.

The Daily Telegraph