John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
t has often occurred to the Thumbnail Sketcher to inquire how it happens that a man first comes to drive a cab; but as he has consulted no one but himself on the matter, he has not yet met with a satisfactory reply. He presumes that a lad is seldom educated with a view to his being a cab-driver---certainly a neophyte has no apprenticeship to serve---yet the calling demands the exercise of considerable practical talent if it is to be conscientiously followed. A wholly inexperienced man cannot jump on the box of a Hansom and drive an irritable fare at a reasonable pace down Cheapside at three o'clock in the afternoon. Before he can do this with any degree of safety he must have enjoyed a considerable practical experience of his art. A cab-driver, moreover, must possess some scientific acquaintance with the inner structure of the horse, in order that he may know the exact number of kicks in the stomach that that noble animal can endure without suffering a lasting injury. He must know the precise number of miles that his horse can travel before it sinks exhausted, and he must know to a grain the smallest amount of sustenance upon which the animal can accomplish them. He must be a tolerably expert physiognomist [one claiming to read inner character from outerward appearance], and must be able to tell at a glance whether a fare is to be bullied or wheedled into an over-payment. When he attempts to overcharge an elderly lady, he must be able to determine at a moment's notice the truth or falsehood of the remark, "There is a gentleman in the house who will settle with you," without bringing the question to a practical issue. He must be furnished with original readings of the more obscure sections of the Cab Act, and he must be prepared to defend his views before competent tribunals without the assisstance of counsel. He must learn to comport himself with dignity under the trying circumstances of a summons for abuse, extortion, or assault; and he must be always prepared with plausible reasons for evading undesirable fares. He must be able to determine who will submit to extortion and who will resent it; and he must be intimately acquainted with the nearest cut to the obscurest streets; and he must be prepared to look with an eye of suspicion on all fares who require to be set down at the Burlington Arcade, the Albany, Swan and Edgar's, Waterloo House, and all the other edifices which a person may enter from one street and leave by another; and he must know exactly how long he is to wait at such addresses before he is justified in coming to the conclusion that his fare has bolted by the other exit. Altogether his profession demands the exercise of various mental accomplishments, and the Thumbnail Sketcher cannot help thinking that a thoroughly expert London cabman deserves a far higher intellectual position than that which his envious fellowmen usually award him. These considerations, which are the usual and only result of the Thumbnail Sketcher's investigations as to the means whereby a man becomes a cabman, tend rather to surround the question with fresh difficulties, and to make the problem more difficult of solution than ever. Under these circumstances he has no alternative but to leave the question where he found it.
The Thumbnail Sketcher would like to have an opportunity of noticing the demeanor of a cabman during his first day on a cab, and contrasting it with his behaviour after six months' experience. The day upon which a man first launches into his adopted calling is always a trying occasion to himself and an interesting one to his friends and acquaintances; but this must be particularly the case with a cabman who has not usually enjoyed that preliminary technical familiarization with the details of his craft with which most beginners are furnished. The barrister who takes his first brief into court has had, or is supposed to have had, the benefit of some years' theoretical experience in the art of conducting a simple case; the surgeon who undertakes an operation for the first time on his own account has probably undertaken a good many on other people's account during his state of pupilage; a young soldier is not placed in a position of responsibility until he knows something of his work; and a curate has crammed himself with religious platitudes before he attempts his first sermon. So with the followers of humbler callings, who have usually served a seven years' apprenticeship before they are allowed to exercise them on their own account. But a cabman is launched into the London streets with no better Mentor than his own intelligence can afford him, and if this fails him he will probably go headlong to destruction. His cab will be smashed in no time; or he will run over little children and be tried for manslaughter; or he will be summoned for loitering, or for overcharge, or for furious driving; and, moreover, he will allow himself to be swindled in all directions. And all this goes to prove the Thumbnail Sketcher's proposition that an expert London cabman deserves a higher intellectual position than that with which he is usually credited.
This old gentleman is a specimen of a class who look out principally for old ladies with little children. He is very careful with old ladies---he helps them in and out with much devotion; while to little children he is fatherly---not to say motherly---in his attentions. The fact that his pace never exceeds four miles an hour is a special recommendation to the class of customers for which he caters. He has two or three regular customers, who know where to find him; and as he is a quiet, civil old gentleman enough in his way, he never gets into much trouble. He gets drunk perhaps twice a year, but as he always does it at home, his professional reputation does not suffer. His customers belong to a class which most cabmen avoid---old ladies without any luggage; and he customarily declines, as far as he is able, the very fares which younger and more enterprising cabmen are too glad to get. The busy City gentleman who is in a hurry to catch a train, the lawyer dashing down to Westminster, the "swell" keeping a dinner appointment at his club, these are not for him. Neither is he to be found in the streets after the theatres are closed. He neglects the opportunities that bring the best harvest to the cabmen's garner, but he has a snug little practice of his own, that brings him in a decent living in the course of a year.
The preservation of a cheerful exterior under other people's misfortunes is the special attribute and distinguishing characteristic of the light-comedy cabman. His mission in life is probably to cheer the desponding, enliven the depressed, to reassure the hopeless, and generally to persuade mankind to look at misfortune from a humorous point of view. The breaking down of a brougham, full of ladies, in Seven Dials, affords him an opportunity of showing how exceedingly amusing such an accident always is, if the people principally interested can only be brought to look at it in the right light. If the accident is at night, and if the ladies are in evening dress, the fun of the thing is materially increased, and if it happens to be raining, his sense of humour is gratified to the full. A gentleman who has had his hat blown off, or a lady whose dress has been ruined by a mud-splash, enables him to indulge his cheerful disposition to make the best of things; and his behavior at a house on fire vindicates his power of rising superior to (other people's) misfortune in a surprising degree. He is a master of the art of traditional chaff, but he is not great at original remarks. His power of rising superior to misfortune breaks down only when it is applied to his own case.
The Thumbnail Sketcher's experience among cabmen goes to show, that if they are not universally civil and respectful in demeanour, and moderate in their demands (and they certainly are not), the old conventional foul-mouthed blackguard is far less frequently met with than he was ten or twelve years ago. People are more ready to take out summonses than they were ten years since, and perhaps complainants meet with more consideration in police-courts than they did formerly. The filthy, foul-mouthed, howling vagabonds who used to be the terror of old ladies, seem almost to have died out: perhaps they have retired into private life on their ill-gotten savings. You meet with them now and then, waiting outside suburban houses where evening parties are; but they generally prowl at night, and respectable ladies are seldom exposed to their mercies. Cabmen of this class always make their horses suffer for any shortcomings on the part of their fares; indeed, it may be taken as a general rule that if a cabman drives furiously away after having been discharged, he does not consider that he has been liberally dealt with by his customer.
The smartest class of cabman is the man who has passed his previous experience as a helper in a livery-stable, and who, being of a nomadic turn of mind, prefers the free-and-easy condition of a Hansom cabman to the more dependent, though perhaps more remunerative condition of a domestic groom. He drives a smart cab, and his horse is always up to the mark. He is particular with his brass-work, and, in short, he is a good specimen of what a cabman should be, but seldom is. He does something with races, and contrives, perhaps, to make a little money, which he eventually invests in a small "livery concern."
The next is the civil-spoken man, who "leaves it to you,sir." He has an airy way with him, and an ageeable method of implying that he doesn't drive you so much for remuneration as for the sake of establishing friendly social relations with you. He is almost hurt when you ask him how much he claims; and he turns the matter over in his mind, as if it had never occurred to him to look at it from a pecuniary point of view before. He ends by giving up the solution of the difficulty as a bad job, and throws himself upon your consideration---"leaves it to you, sir." This is an appeal to your liberality which you are not always able to withstand, and on the whole his confidence is not ill rewarded.
The character in the cape is an unfortunate man, who doesn't get on in his profession, and is an apt illustration of the evils which a want of some preliminary experience in cab-driving is likely to bring upon an unintelligent practitioner. He is always in trouble. He never knows the way anywhere. The police are always down upon him. He suffers from rheumatism. His fares are convinced that "this is a man who should be made an example of." The magistrates quite agree with the fares. He parades his abusive language under the ears of the policeman on duty, and he always selects determined men of independent fortune and a taste for petty law as the intended victims of his powers of extortion. His license is constantly suspended, and he has become proverbial among his fellows as a man who never has got on, and never, by any chance, will.
Last modified 24 November 2012