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Hi, I’m David, the Capital Cabbie. I’ve been a London licensed taxi driver since 1978. I am also a qualified London green badge tour guide which I gained from the Museum of London and the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers.

I studied the ‘Knowledge’ which is the gold standard qualification to become a London taxi driver and I drive an iconic, classic London black taxi.

A London black taxi is the perfect vehicle to carry out one of my greatest passions in life, tour guiding. Because of its ease of accessibility and manoeuvrability around the narrow streets of London, I can deliver a private London black taxi tour that will be informative, interesting and sometimes, I'm told, funny. I will share my knowledge and anecdotes with you that I have gained throughout my years of driving through London's streets and show you some hidden gems that aren't on the usual tourist map.

​Join me to drill down and explore what London has to offer.

The 'Knowledge'

The knowledge is a process that turns ambitious individuals who want to serve and transport Londoners, visitors and sightseers around the city’s complex system of thoroughfares, into professional, safe drivers with a knowledge base second to none.  I think it’s fair to say that it’s recognised globally as the gold standard in taxi driving.

In today’s fast evolving world of digital and visual technology the use of a Satnav is a very useful tool, providing the signal and reception are good, not always the case in busy built up cities.  So, all that training and studying that knowledge students undergo, which is self-funded and takes approximately three years to complete with an incredible drop out and failure rate is a testament to their hard work and dedication to be awarded the accolade of wearing the coveted Green Badge which must be worn at all times by a London licensed taxi driver.

After a thorough and probing application to the authorities to check if the applicant is a fit and proper person to drive the public, criminal checks etc followed by an interview, the student undertakes a drive around London on a moped, still the best form of transport for this purpose, to familiarise themselves with London’s 25,000 streets, roads and alleyways; that’s the easy part! Next, knowing what’s on those streets, anything that a passenger may require: hotel, churches, restaurants, hospitals - the list is endless. 

The progress of the student is assessed by examiners who will test the student by asking them to take them from point A to point B by describing the streets and turns to get to the destination.  This can be quite terrifying for the student sitting in an office fully suited and booted trying to impress the examiner. 

Generally, the examiners take no prisoners and will let the student know, in no uncertain terms, if they have made any mistakes.  These assessments are called appearances and are a form of monitoring to chart the progress of the student. When the examiners feel that the student has attained the required level of competence, all that’s left to do is to have a special driving test!

The Green Badge tour guiding qualification

The History of the Iconic London Black Taxi and the Knowledge

The iconic London taxi has been a familiar sight on London’s streets since as long as Old Father  Thames. It represents a symbol of trust, honesty and reliability, from the men and women who drive professionally for a living to transport the public.  These 21,000 taxi drivers devote at least three and a half years of their lives to study the Knowledge to ensure they can attain the gold standard in taxi driving, which is recognised worldwide.

The first stone London bridge was built in the 12th Century and incurred a toll and could take hours to cross. The only other way of crossing the river Thames was by ferry or water taxi, for example from Southwark where lots of London’s industry, entertainment and inns were situated to the more prosperous and genteel north side of the Thames, where there weren’t so many stews (brothels).

Around the 17th Century, taxis were referred to as ‘Hackneys’. This term does not relate to the area of London but to a French word ‘Hacquenee’ which is a compact small breed of horse with a wide stepping trot. When harnessed they were ideal to pull coaches to transport people or goods. Most of the carriages were owned by the aristocracy and the merchants in the city. To replace them would be expensive when they became old so to offset the cost of replacement the owner would hire them out to the stablemen and footmen in their employment who would go and ply for hire from the inns, taverns and stews.

 In 1636 a retired sea captain, John Bailey revolutionised the taxi trade. Captain Bailey bought a fleet of taxis, dressed the drivers in livery, instigated set fares and introduced plying for hire off the streets. He also established the first official taxi rank in the Strand called the ‘Maypole’. This was a huge success for the public and other cabmen would drive by slowly past the rank to see if there was a gap in the rank for them to get on.

After the Civil War, one of Oliver Cromwell’s first acts was to pass legislation to provide the setting up of the fellowship of Hackney coachmen. This was in recognition for their services to Cromwell as an artillery train during the conflict between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers.

The running and licencing of Hackney coaches was put in the hands of the Court of Alderman and the City of London. After a while the Fellowship was disbanded due to disagreements and mistrust between the Alderman and the Fellowship.

By 1694, licencing was re-introduced for 400 drivers, since then there has been continuous uninterrupted licencing. This makes London’s taxi industry the oldest regulated land transport system in the world. During Cromwell’s time we saw the setting up of taxi ranks, the introduction of fare scales and the 6-mile rule, which has now changed to 12 miles. This related to the 6 miles of communication between the chain of defence set up around London before the Civil War.

By 1760, there more than 1000 licenced taxis on the roads and with the advances in technology and design there were various models of taxis on the market until 1823 when David Davies designed the Cabriolet and this is where the term Cab derives from. The driver would sit on the back of the carriage whilst the two seated passengers inside were propelled by a single horse. By 1836 Davies introduced the Clarence or as it was nicknamed the ‘Growler’ because of the sound of the carriage going over the cobbled roads. This time the driver sat on the front and it could seat four passengers.

By 1843, the London Hackney carriage Act gave responsibility and overall control of the trade to the commissionaire of police. This meant that not only did the proprietors have to be licenced but also the drivers by displaying their metal badge with their identification number on it; much as the same way we do today.

In 1851, London hosted the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace that covered an area of 20 acres was a temporary structure and showcased the innovative inventions and designs of the Victorian era.  In 6 months it attracted six million visitors but alas there were complaints from the public about the ineptitude of the cab drivers. Once the authorities were aware of this problem they put in place an examination for all new applicants to become licenced cab drivers: ‘The Knowledge’. The applicants were expected to know the area within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross, 113 square miles. This included all streets, public buildings, shops, restaurants, places of worship, in fact anywhere that a passenger hailing a cab would want to go.  The candidate would have to undertake regular stringent exams during this learning process to ensure they were a fit and proper person to obtain a taxi driver’s licence. The Knowledge could take in excess of three years. Basically this system of examination has not changed, thus proving that a London Cabbie still has the ‘Knowledge’.

In 1897, the first self-propelled vehicle was introduced. It was an electric powered cab with huge batteries which could only travel at 5 miles per hour and its range was limited to say the least.  It was an unmitigated disaster; only 13 were ever licenced. I do hope that the newly launched LTEVC fares better. By 1906, the first internal combustion engine had arrived: the ‘Prunel’. Soon, other manufacturers followed with their versions of the horseless carriage.  In 1903 there were 11,000 horse drawn cabs on the road; in the space of ten years less than 2000 had survived. In 1907 the first taxi meter was installed. 

At the outbreak of WW2 the government requisitioned around 2,500 taxis to be converted to auxiliary firefighting engines, ambulances and army personnel carriers. After the war production of taxis started again and in 1948 Austin produced its first diesel powered taxi the FX3, a three-door vehicle with a front passenger compartment open for luggage. In 1958 the four door FX4 which came with a heater in the back and a rear-view mirror fixed on the bulkhead. I can’t recall if there was heating in the front besides it was too draughty and leaky to notice anyway. In total 75,000 FX4s were produced.

In 1997 the TX1 was produced which was a dramatic improvement in design and reliability.  Its reliable Nissan engine and gear box were excellent and well suited for the London cabbie. One of the innovative features was that for the first time there was a wide deep panoramic windscreen for the driver to see through as opposed to the narrow flat letter box windscreen of previous taxis.  In 2002 the TX1 was replaced by the TX2 and then the TX4 in 2007. There have been other manufacturers who have supplied London with taxis including Mercedes, the Metro Cab and Asquith.  It remains to be seen whether the new LEVC electric hybrid taxi lives up to the expectations of the London cabbie and the travelling public.

Today’s cab driver has all the essential modern technology to ensure that the passengers’ experience of travelling is smooth, safe and comfortable. The taxi still retains some of the quintessential quirkiness that makes London taxis so unique, like the 25 foot turning circle and being able to sit in the back of the taxi without having to remove your top hat!

 

David Burnetts

‘The Capital Cabbie’