Taxidermy 1

[Farmer reporting on one of the wonders of the big city:]

"They calls 'em taxidermy cabs" he said, "because they skin ye."

Terry, Ellen (1847-1928)

Terry, Ellen 1

[The leading English actress of her time, Terry suffered from acute memory loss late in her life but this did not affect her popularity.]

She was always delightfully sweet to me, though I often wondered whether she really knew who I was. One day, just before Christmas, I saw her driving down the King's Road in a hansom. I happened to be carrying a large bunch of lilies which I had just bought, so I hailed the hansom and made it pull up, and thrusting the flowers over the apron of the cab, I said "Here, Miss Terry, these are for you, with a happy Christmas." "Oh how kind! Thank you, thank you! Who are you?" "Never mind who I am," I answered, trying to get away. "No, no. I know your face quite well. Tell me your name," she insisted. So at last I said, "My name is Ernest Thesiger." "Oh no it isn't," she said.

Thames Watermen

Thames Watermen 1

The first cab drivers in London were the "watermen" who rowed passengers up and down the Thames. Up to the late 1500's, the Thames was the main thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. The diarist Samuel Pepys commuted by water from his home to his job at the Admiralty, using boats belonging to a large operator named Cropp:

"[February 2, 1660.] In our way we talked with our waterman, White, who told us how the watermen had lately been abused by some that had a desire to get in to be watermen to the State, and had lately presented an address of nine or ten thousand hands to stand by this Parliament, when it was only told them that it was to a petition against hackney coaches; and that to-day they had put out another to undeceive the world and to clear themselves, and that among the rest Cropp, my waterman and one of great practice, was one that did cheat them thus."

With no effective police force, seventeenth-century London was prone to riots and mob violence. Anyone who could prove that they had influence over a large section of the populace could therefore extort favours from Parliament, and this is what Cropp and his confederates evidently hoped to do by means of their petition.

The mostly illiterate watermen were only too glad to support a petition which they thought would curtail their hated rivals. The watermen had been losing business to the hackney coaches and sedan chairs for decades. In 1636 one waterman complained "They deserve to bee both thrown in the Theames, and but for stopping the channel I would they were: for I am sure that where I was woont to have eight or tenne fares in a morning, I scarce now get two in a whole day."

The most eminent waterman was the so-called "Water Poet", John Taylor (1580-1653). Taylor had served in the Royal Navy and saw action at the battle of Cadiz in 1597. On his return home he worked for hire on the Thames and was active in the Waterman's Company, the professional guild. He made a comfortable second income by dedicating verses to noble patrons and by engaging in publicity stunts which he afterward wrote about in pamphlets (in one stunt, he took a trip from London to Queensborough in Kent in a paper boat). By the time he died he owned a London pub.

Taylor remained loyal to his original calling and denounced hackney coaches in verse and prose on behalf of his fellow watermen, although he was pessimistic about their future. He wrote in 1623:

"I do not inveigh against any coaches that belong to persons of worth and quality, but only against the caterpillar swarm of hirelings. They have undone my poor trade, whereof I am a member; and though I look for no reformation, yet I expect the benefit of an old proverb, 'Give the losers leave to speak....' This infernal swarm of tradespellers (hackney-coachmen) have so overrun the land that we can get no living upon the water; for I dare truly affirm that in every day in any term, especially if the Court be at Whitehall, they do rob us of our livings, and carry 500 fares daily from us."

Nevertheless, although their numbers were greatly reduced, watermen continued to survive, and their trade added a few terms to the language:

Ark ruffians. "Rogues who, in conjunction with watermen, robbed, and sometimes murdered, on the water, by picking a quarrel with the passengers in a boat, boarding it, plundering, stripping and throwing them overboard, &c." (Lexicon Balatronicum)

Jack-in-the-Water. "An attendant at the waterman's stairs, etc., willing to wet his feet, if needs be, for a 'few coppers'" (Brewer). In London there were many sets of steps or "stairs" leading down to landing places on the Thames where watermen could pick up or let off passengers. The jack-in-the-water would earn his money by helping to land the boat and assisting passengers in or out.

Tom Toppers. Slang term for a Thames waterman, from a popular song (Hotten).

Tom Tug. Another slang term for a waterman, this time from a play (Hotten).

"Ark Ruffians" were not the only hazards to travel on the Thames:

"It is well known that there was formerly a rude custom for those who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they passed, in the most abusive language they could invent, generally, however, with as much satirical humour as they were capable of producing.... [Samuel] Johnson was once eminently successful in this species of contest; a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, 'Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.'"



Tips 1

The custom of tipping goes back to at least to the early 1700's (judging by references in the Oxford English Dictionary), but until the late 1800's London cab riders were very loathe to tip their drivers. One writer, expressing a common sentiment, claimed that "I never pampered them [cab drivers] with bonuses above their legal fares, and I learned every distance as if I had been an Ordinance Surveyor" (All the Year Round, Feb. 26, 1860, p. 414).

Up to the early 1850's, when the legal fare was set at a shilling for the first mile and eightpence for each additional mile, London cab drivers could usually count on an involuntary four-penny tip by "not having change" for two shillings. To counteract this, one of Henry Mayhew's informants advocated lowering the per-mile charge to sixpence so that fares could be paid in round shillings or sixpences. The per-mile charge was actually lowered to sixpence in 1853.

Earlier in the century, at the behest of Joseph Hume, M.P., the British government minted a four-penny coin, sometimes called a "groat", partly to deprive cab drivers of the opportunity of extorting a couple of extra pennies on a two-mile fare. Until the coin eventually went out of circulation, Joseph Hume "was extremely unpopular with the drivers, who frequently received only a groat where otherwise they would have received a sixpence without any demand for change." As a result, the cabbies contemptuously called the coin a "Joey".

By the 1880's, the climate had changed considerably ("Fancy offering a modern Hansom cabman a Joey!" exclaimed J.C. Hotten). In 1888 an etiquette book written for Americans visiting England advised: "London "cabbies" are a hard-worked set of men, and, as a general thing, have to earn the day's hire of a cab -- about seventeen shillings -- before they can clear any profit for themselves. If any men are deserving of a tip, it is they."


Tips 2

"I say, Taxi, I've only got enough change to pay the exact fare. D'you mind taking a cheque for the tip?"

Tips 3

A taxicab driver charged with using violent language protested that the complainant, a woman, was "no lidy."

"Indeed," said the magistrate, "I wonder if you know a lady when you see one."

"Of course I do," answered the driver indignantly. "Why, only the other day I saw one, she gave me a pound note for a shillin' fare and walked away. ''Ere, mum,' I says, 'what about yer change?' 'Don't be a blinkin' old fool,' says she; 'keep it an' get drunk enough to kiss yer mother-in-law.' Now," he added triumphantly, "that's what I calls a real lady."

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Revised November 11, 1998