Signalling and Shouting to Cabbies in the Victorian Era

Traveling in a horse-pulled cab was not a quiet or relaxing affair in the Victorian Era. Such trips involved the tremendous din generated by the clip-clop of horses and the vehicle’s rattling, creaking, squeaking, jingling, and thundering as it progressed through London’s noisy cobblestone streets. To be heard, cab passengers often shouted as loud as possible, which was why it was “observed that most people when making a cab voyage are decidedly prone to be taciturn.” Yet, no matter how much passengers in the interior of a cab repressed conversations or tried to remain uncommunicative, they found at certain points they were forced to carry on a conversation consisting of signalling and shouting to cabbies (drivers) sitting in the box outside.

cabbies - signaling and shouting to them

Hansom Cab. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was true passengers could give cabbies orders to take them somewhere, and and if well-known like Madame Tussaud‘s wax museum, cabbies could drive their passengers straight to their destination without any requirement for conversation. But if passengers were traveling somewhere unknown to the cabbie or needed to visit the suburbs that was a different story. This fact was noted by one passenger who stated:

“It behooves you to have your head and the greater part of your body out of the window, and to howl unintermittintly [sic], ‘To the right!’ ‘To the left!’ ‘No, no, not up there—stop! you can’t get through — you must turn back!'”

Of course, such an experience was “highly disagreeable” to any passenger because even the loudest speaking passengers could not be heard without “immense exertion” and many went hoarse from trying. On new “macadamised” streets (roads that were layered and compacted to bind everything together) it was particularly difficult for cabbies to hear passengers. So, when drivers wheeled passed destinations, passengers desperately tried to get their attention. Sometimes umbrellas were used in an attempt to touch the driver. But often that did not work as windows could not be lowered, which then resulted in muffled cries or whistles that could not be heard.

One passenger noted his futile attempts to talk to the cabbie driving his cab and stated:

“[I] was wholly incapable of making myself heard though trying till I was black in the face, and presenting so alarming an appearance to passers-by, that they would stop in their walk expectant of my demise by suffocation, I have sometimes sunk back in  my seat, and … have suffered inexorable Fate to conduct me whither it would.”

Typical Hansom Cab Fares, Author's Collection

Typical hansom cab fares. Author’s collection.

Because it was so difficult to provide directions when cabs were in motion, one person offered two ingenious suggestions has to how conversation could better be accomplished. First, he suggested the idea of a “speaking tube” be installed. It would pass from the passenger to driver and its mouth would be located close to the ear of the driver so that directions would not have to be shouted to the driver. If passengers did not like the idea of putting their lips to a device used by other passengers, the second suggestion was declared even more practical. It was to apply “check-strings” to a driver’s left and right arm and then by a mere tug, directions right or left could be given and both strings could be pulled to stop the carriage. This solution required nothing more than “a couple of holes bored in the wooden division which separates the two front windows … and a piece of worsted cord passed through each.”

If either suggestion was ever adopted it was on a small scale. However, supposedly that was not the case with open hansom cabs (previously called hackneys). Such cabs established methods of signalling between the cabbies and their fares, thereby doing away with “anxious struggling and shouting, even if shouting were efficacious … [and] even in the instance of those who [had] voices to shout with.” Signalling was said to be best accomplished with certain indicative movements understood by both passenger and driver. These signals were claimed to benefit both driver and passenger because cabbies were less harried and passengers arrived at their destinations much quicker, which thereby created an atmosphere “conducive to a good temper, a tranquil expression of countenance, and the dignity of personal repose.”

A hansom cab in London in 1877. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • All the Year Round, Vol. 2, 1869

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