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Sherlock Holmes' Town Transport

A potted history of the Hansom cab

     The Hansom cab, as favoured by Sherlock Holmes as a method of getting around the city, is, or rather was, a horse-drawn carriage. Designed and patented by one Joseph Hansom, an architect from York, in 1834. Hansom realised that there was a need for a lighter, more manouverable, type of transport than the Hackney carriage at the time.

     The Hackney carriage was much more cumbersome, being a four wheeled carriage, drawn by a pair of horses, and seating six people. By contrast, the Hansom was much lighter, only two wheels, and only needed one horse to pull itís load of two passengers and driver.

     Being much more manouverable, able to turn round in itís own length, speedier, and able to cope easily with the congestion that was already becoming notorious in London at the turn of the century, the Hansom rapidly became popular. The fact that for a given journey they were quite a bit cheaper than the Hackney did no harm for their reputation either.

     Of course, as today, many journeys were undertaken by just one or two people, (Holmes and Watson for example), and often the Hackney carriage was only a third full, making the Hansom cab a better bet. However, they were not totally enclosed, the front of the cab had just folding doors which protected the occupants feet and legs from mud etc. and they soon gained a reputation as being a bit ďracyĒ, it was not done for ladies to travel alone in them.

     The original Hansom cab, as designed by Joseph Hansom, was to combine speed with safety, having a surprisingly low centre of gravity, which made cornering safe. This design was altered by John Chapman, who felt that it was not sufficiently practical. However, although the design was altered, the patent held, and the name Hansom cab was retained.

     The cab, as previously mentioned, sat two passengers comfortably, three at a squeeze. The driver sat behind and above the cab on a sprung seat, giving him visibility and control. The passengers were able to communicate with the driver through a trapdoor just behind their heads in the roof. The occupants would also pay the driver through this trapdoor. He would then operate a lever, releasing the door so they could get out. Problems with non-payers even then!

     Over the years the cab was modified, with the addition of a glass window above the doors to enclose the passengers, and a curved fender mounted in front of the doors to stop flying stones etc. thrown up by the horseís hooves. Depending upon which illustrations, films, and TV shows you have seen you will probably have seen Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson use all these varieties.

    At the height of their popularity there were around 3000 Hansom cabs in use in London, and they had spread to many other cities and large towns in the UK. They were also popular in Europe, being particularly well represented in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Berlin. By the late 1890ís they had been introduced to the United States, where they were in common use in New York City.

    The Hansom cab remained popular until the 1920ís, when the internal combustion engine had found itís way into cheap, reliable transport for the masses. Surprisingly however, the last Hackney cab licence was not issued until 1947. Quite a success story, I wonder if Sherlock Holmes envisaged them lasting so long?

Chris Haycock

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