20 November 2020
The History Of The Taxi In The UK
Part 1: The Horse Age
Hackney cabs in the UK can actually be dated back to the 1600s, long before the black cabs we know today roamed the streets. Back in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, coaches pulled by horses were the main way to get around, and were mostly owned by the rich and wealthy. The term Hackney is often believed to have derived from the Norman French word “hacquenée”, meaning a horse that could be hired.
However, as these coaches aged, they were often sold off to less well-off merchants, who used the facility as a mode of transport for Londoners. Of course, these came at a cost, and were quick to gain the reputation of being overpriced and of poor quality. This is a perception that is still held by some today.
To counteract these accusations, the world’s first taxi rank was set up in Strand. This was set in in 1634 by Captain John Baily. He set up 4 coaches to work on the rank, ordered them to wear identical uniforms, and added set prices to be charged for each journey.
Inspired by Baily’s success, other taxi drivers began to copy the idea for themselves, each to varying quality. Although many took Baily’s idea, few aspired to his high standard of quality. Thus riding a hackney coach was a gamble, you wouldn’t always know if you were going to get good service for a fair price. In 1654, Parliament passed the first regulatory bill for taxis, dubbed the “Ordinance for the regulation of Hackney-Coachmen in London and the places adjacent” (what a mouthful!), in order to regulate these taxis.
During the 1760s, over 1000 taxis were operating across London, and they’d been given the nickname “Hackney Hell Coaches” due to the erratic behaviours the drivers were known for. However, soon came the introduction of the 2-wheeled French cabriolet in the early 1800s, of which the name “cab” derives from. The cabriolet describes cars which have a convertible roof, and it led to the introduction of the hansom carriage. These were much faster than the four-wheeled hackney coaches that came before it.
Part 2: Electricity and the Taximeter
Today, the idea of electric vehicles still seems futuristic, even though many electric cars are driving down our streets. However, the very first motorised taxis in London (introduced in 1897) were all run by electricity. They were nicknamed Berseys after their designer, Walter C. Bersey, and 50 Berseys were up and running within the first year. However, the Berseys proved to be very costly and unreliable. They were called off by 1900, just 3 years after their initial launch.
The taximeter was invented in the late 1800s in Germany by Friedrich Bruhn, with the first taxi designed with such a machine created in 1897. At first, they were all placed outside of the cab, before later being mounted inside the vehicle where they could be more easily viewed by the driver and passenger.
In 1903, petrol taxis were introduced to the streets of London and quickly gained popularity. As the use of taximeters inside the vehicles was becoming more frequent, in 1906 itbecame mandatory for all taxis to be equipped with one. Turning circles were also introduced that same year, and as part of the same regulations that made taximeters mandatory, each taxi had to be able to turn in a tight circle of 25 feet.
The vehicles officially began to be recognised as taxis that same year of 1906, with the very name being derived from the taximeters installed in the vehicles.
Over the following years, the taxi industry rose in popularity, but it was hit by several hardships over the years. The first came in 1911, when many drivers went on strike. Following that, fuel shortages in 1913 nearly caused the taxi industry to collapse, and then came the first world war, followed by the second world war.
However, between the wars, the first Austin taxi was built in 1929, and has remained the most popular taxi cab to date. Due to their success, Austin then went on to produce the familiar-looking FX3 Black Cabs. These first ran on petrol, but soon converted to diesel when the former proved to be uneconomical.
Part 3: Austin FX4
Many of the black cabs you see roaming the streets today are known as the Austin FX4. First produced in 1958, these vehicles still serve as the design basis for most modern taxis even today. These vehicles stood the test of time and remained in production for over 40 years, and they’ve unofficially became one of the icons of London and the UK, along with the likes of Big Ben and Tower Bridge.