Hackney Coaches or Cabs: Their History

Hackney coaches, which were the idea of a man named Captain Bailey, were originally one-horse chaises. The term was once believed to have been derived from the French word “haquenée” but is now thought to have originated from the London village of “Hackney.” Eventually, nobility began to rent out their outdated and unneeded coaches, often times these were Broughams, and, when that happened, hackney came to mean a four-wheeled carriage drawn by two horses with seating for up to six people. The meaning of hackney changed again in 1834 when lighter cabriolets — two-wheeled vehicles from France — replaced the hackney coaches and the term was then modernized to “hansom cabs.”

Hackney Coaches: Hackney-M-1033-x350

Hackney coach. Author’s collection.

The hackney coach most people are familiar with is the one the famous author Charles Dickens so aptly described in his Victorian era Sketches of Boz.

“[Hackneys were a] great, lumbering, square concern of a dingy yellow colour (like a bilious brunette,) with very small glasses, but very large frames; the panels are ornamented with a faded coat of arms, in shape something like a dissected bat, the axletree is red, and the majority of the wheels are green … The horses, with drooping heads, and each with a mane and tail as scanty and straggling as those of a worn-out rocking-horse, are standing patiently on some damp straw, occasionally wincing, and rattling the harness; and now and then, one of them lifts his mouth to the ear of his companion, as if he were saying, in a whisper, that he should like to assassinate the coachman.”[1]

Charles Dickens, Author's Collection

Charles Dickens. Author’s collection.

Another less exciting description of hackney coaches appeared about the same time as Dickens’ description stating:

“Coaches stationed in the streets or other public places and bound to carry such persons as require their services, for certain rates of hire according to the distances travelled. They have generally been licensed by authority and subjected to certain regulations, intended to prevent strangers and others using them from fraud and imposition. It may be doubted, however, whether these regulations have had any good effect; ad whether the public would not be as well accommodated, at least in all large towns, by throwing the business open, and trusting to competition to rectify abuses. As respects London, nothing can be said in favour of its hackney coach establishment. Speaking generally the coaches are the dirtiest, most disagreeable vehicles that can well be imagine, and the horses and drivers are but little superior; forming a striking contrast to t he elegance and commodiousness of the private carriages, the excellence of the horses, and the neatness of the servants.”[2]

In 1625, 20 hackney coaches were available for hire at London inns. They proved so popular, the demand for hackneys grew by leaps and bounds, until 1200 hackneys were available for hire in 1823, the same year that Madame Tussaud was touring with her waxworks in Bristol. Almost immediately the crown began to control and regulate hackneys, which makes them (or taxis) the world’s oldest regulated public transportation system. The first proclamation in 1635 was “to restrain the multitude and promiscuous use of coaches about London and Westminster,”[3] as hackneys were blamed for the horrid street congestion. In 1662, other laws were passed requiring hackneys to have a license and a numbered plate. This was followed by a regulation as to the size of the horse that could pull a hackney, and, later, during Queen Anne’s reign, the type of language that could and could not be used by coachmen.

Anne of Great Britain, Author's Collection

Anne of Great Britain. Author’s collection.

Various other issues occurred with hackney coaches. Early in the eighteenth century, thieves, known as chiving lays, who were unwilling to attack stagecoaches, robbed the carriage boot or cut through the backs of hackney coaches, snatched passenger’s wigs off their heads, and decamped with them. Problem with hackneys occurred after hackneys became known as hansom cabs. Riders complained drivers did not know where they were going and the “Knowledge of London’ was instituted to force coachmen to recall streets, restaurants, hospitals, clubs, colleges, churches, government buildings, theaters, and parks, within a six mile radius of Charing Cross railway station.

It wasn’t just drivers that were problematic. At one point, hackneys were banned in Hyde Park. It first began in the mid-1690s after several unruly women hired a hackney and then “behaved disgracefully and insulted some very distinguished people driving in their private coaches.”[4] The ban was eventually lifted but reinstated in 1711 after more bad behavior, and this time the ban lasted until 1924. Because of passenger problems by the 1850s there were also regulations for them. For instance, there was a law in place that if a passenger refused to pay a fare or defaced or injured any hackney coach in any way, the person “may be punished, unless reasonable satisfaction be made of the same, by imprisonment for 1 calendar month.”[5]

There have been many types of hackney’s over the years. For instance, comparing hackney coaches over a thirty year period the Kentish Gazette stated those of 1750 “were plain, aukward, clumsy things, hung by leathers; [whereas] at present [1783] they are tatty, and almost as handsome as those belonging to people of fashion.”[6] There was also the growler used as hackney cab that was a bare bones, four-wheel, enclosed carriage drawn by two horses and driven by a coachman. It was different from a cab, hansom cab, or cabriolet, because of its four wheels, and it was different from coaches because it was smaller and barely held four passengers.

The Growler-x350a-wiki

Electric hackneys appeared in the late 1800s, and when automobiles became available, the hackney changed again. The hackneys of the early 1900s were French manufactured cars, known as the Unic. Historically, hackneys had four doors, but today vehicle designs are changing to enable the accommodation of people in wheelchairs. There are also fuel-cell powered taxis, and although the horse-drawn hackneys are no longer the major way to hail a ride, they still exist in parts of the United Kingdom and operate much as they did hundreds of years ago.

A Hackney Today at Heathrow Airport, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A hackney today at Heathrow Airport. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Dickens, Charles, Sketches by Boz, p. 54.
  • [2] McCulloch, John Ramsay, A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical, of Commerce and Commercial Navigation, Vol. 2, 1852, p. 645.
  • [3] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 123, p. 223.
  • [4] Moore, Henry Charles, Omnibuses and Cabs, 1902, p. 189.
  • [5] McCulloch, John Ramsay, p. 645.
  • [6] “A Comparison Between the Year 1750, and that of 1783,” in Kentish Gazette, 9 July 1783, p. 4.

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