Moving Tradition

Anglia ma królową, charakterystycznych policjantów, drogi, po których pojazdy poruszają się lewą stroną oraz jeżdżące po nich specyficzne taksówki.

Everybody recognises them. Usually black, old fashioned-looking – although most of them were recently built. In some ways they are like the Volkswagen Beetle or Pontiac cruiser – they remind us of times gone by.

When talking about taxis in London – ‚older times’ describes perfectly the beginnings of paid transport services. Do you realise that the tradition of taxis goes back to the 12 century? It was then that permission to transport people for money was given for the first time. The licences to transport passengers then was for boats on the river Thames.

And as time went by people needed transport around the city, not only along the river. Richard II understood that need very well and issued a royal authorisation for carriages to carry people. The first carriages were called ‚hackney’ – the name comes from the horses that pulled the carriages. The name is worth remembering as it is still used today. The first true taxis appeared at the time when Shakespeare staged his plays in London. Carriages were a popular means of transport to the Playhouse at Blackfriers to see ‚Romeo and Juliet’ or ‚Hamlet’. These carriages caused the first traffic jams when dozens of them stopped at the same time in front of a theatre.

For that reason special licences for carriage drivers were issued and the first problems of a free market economy appeared when the watermen on the Thames complained about the drop in their income.

Not surprisingly as the city grew transport in London developed rapidly as well. And the vehicles changed as well. Around 1820 the first horse drawn French hackney cabriolets came onto the streets of London. These later became a motor vehicle cabriolet, or cab for short.

Although London was the pioneering city in taxi transport, motor cars appeared in London later than in other cities. When the limit was raised to 20 mph in 1903 London had around 11,000 horse cabs. Ten years later only 2,000 remained while there were 1,000 motorised cabs. The last horse drawn cab was licensed in 1947. Why do London cabs have that unique look? English conservatism and pragmatism is the answer. A cab must seat 5-6 persons, so it can’t be an ordinary private car. The driver must have his own compartment separated from his passengers. That ensures safety for both parties. As for the height of the vehicle, it has to be high enough to carry a gentleman wearing a top hat. Despite its size the cab is easy to drive. They can ‚turn on a sixpence’ which means a turning circle of 7,62 metres. This is very important in the old and narrow streets of London.

A cab does not work without a driver. He is the person who drives the vehicle and takes care of it. His financial standing is investigated to ensure the owner has enough money to maintain his taxi properly. By law cabbies are required to be courteous at all times which is not always true as cab drivers can have bad days too. No matter his mood though, we can be sure that the driver knows where he is. This is because of the Knowledge – a London topography exam. It was introduced around 1850 during the Great Exhibition. London, a city that had developed tremendously, attracted many visitors. The Knowledge requires that cabbies know every street, pub church and synagogue six miles around Charring Cross. There are about 17,000 streets in this area! It takes about 2-3 years to acquire the Knowledge, and after that – the licence. Today there are about 22,500 cab drivers in London.

And how many have the Knowledge is the Question My Dear Watson.

Krzysztof Baran


authorisation zezwolenie
to pull ciągnąć
to stage wystawiać (sztukę)
traffic jam korek uliczny
drop spadek
income dochód
compartment przedział
top hat cylinder
turning circle promień skrętu
financial standing stan majątkowy
courteous grzeczny
tremendously mocno
to acquire posiąść