Dotted around London, these 13 tiny green sheds are reserved for those with ‘The Knowledge’, writes Ella Buchan for BBC Travel.
“We’re a Victorian institution,” black-cab driver Henry announced proudly, tugging on his tartan cap. It was a grey mid-morning in London and I was squeezed in a small green shed behind a narrow, U-shaped table. Surrounding me were a cluster of taxi drivers who slurped on mugs of tea and shovelled in forkfuls of scrambled egg and sausage.
This diminutive shed in Russell Square is where the keepers of London’s secrets gather – the black-cab drivers whose minds are mapped with every inch of the city. It’s one of 13 cabmen’s shelters remaining in the capital, and only licensed drivers who have passed The Knowledge test – memorising every street, landmark and route in London – are allowed inside.
The idea for the shelters came in the late 19th Century when George Armstrong, a year before he became editor of The Globe newspaper, was unable to hail a taxi during a blizzard because the drivers, who then rode horse-drawn hansom cabs, were huddled in a nearby pub. He teamed up with philanthropists, including the Earl of Shaftesbury, to find a way to keep drivers on the straight and narrow – and off the drink.
The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was born in 1875, building the first hut in St John’s Wood. It still operates today, though many of the further 60 huts built have since been knocked down. Each hut was built no bigger than a horse and cart, in line with Metropolitan Police rules because they stood on public highways. They provided shelter and sustenance for hackney-carriage (black-cab) drivers, with strict rules against swearing, gaming, gambling and drinking alcohol.
Then came World War I. Drivers and their vehicles were drafted, plunging the cab trade – and the shelters – into decline. “We lost people, cars and horses,” said Gary, one of the cabbies I chatted to at Russell Square. Unused, unloved and unprotected, the oak huts suffered rot and ruin. Some were destroyed by bombs during World War II, while many were later bulldozed in street-widening schemes.
Now just 13 remain, with 10 in operation. Each is Grade II listed, which means they are considered buildings of special interest and every effort should be made to preserve them. They are owned by the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers (WCHCD), a guild for those who earn their living through the trade. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund is responsible for upkeep and maintenance, issuing annual licences to those who run them.
“The cab trade is very lonely,” said Colin Evans, a cabbie of 44 years and trustee of the fund. “These are places where you can go and have a tea or coffee with your mates. If drivers don’t support them, they will be lost forever.”
Gary, who often comes here for a tea and a grumble because “everyone’s in the same boat”, added: “I’ve been driving a cab for more than a few years and only recently started using the shelters. I decided, use them or lose them.”
Most serve breakfast (sausages, eggs, bacon), sandwiches and hot drinks, with the occasional pie or lasagne cooked by the owners at home and reheated in the skinny kitchens. Non-cabbies aren’t allowed to sit inside – unless issued with a rare invitation – but can order through a window hatch. “We bring in more money that way,” said Jude Holmes, who runs the kitchen at Russell Square. “I can serve hundreds of people while a driver sits with one cup of tea.”
As we sat there, a relentless drizzle outside drew more cabbies through the door, each greeting the others like family members.
“My little gang comes in every day,” Holmes said. “I worry a bit if I don’t see them. It’s like their second home. Sometimes they even make their own tea.” She added that newer drivers are often too intimidated to come inside, preferring to order bacon sandwiches at the window. “It can feel a bit cliquey at times,” Gary admitted.
The kettle bubbled, teaspoons clinked against china, and bacon spluttered and sizzled in a pan as talk turned to the cabbies’ biggest bugbears. Being ‘bilked’, for example, when a fare runs off without paying. Struggling to find a public lavatory when on the job is another common groan (the shelters don’t have loos).
Most drivers have other gigs, as musicians, artists, TV producers, even actors. But, they told me, once a cabbie – always a cabbie. “If you retire, you die,” Gary deadpanned.
The anecdotes poured faster than the tea. There’s the tale of ‘Fat Ray’, so huge he squeezes himself behind the wheel each morning and doesn’t budge until he gets home. “He couldn’t come in ’ere,” said Henry, sweeping his hand around the shelter. “He’d never fit through the door!”
- One of the 13 green shelters that feed London’s cabbies.