History

 

 
 Acacia Road cabmen’s shelter © City of London   

Acacia Road cabmen’s shelter © City of London

 

A Brief History of London’s Cabmen’s Shelters
(with thanks to the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund for access to their records)

In the nineteenth century London's cab drivers were legally required to stay with their horse and carriage while at a cabstand, come rain or shine. As a result it was difficult for them to get hot meals or shelter, apart from finding a nearby public house and getting someone to guard their cab (for a price).

To help alleviate this problem, and in an attempt to lower the cabdriver’s temptation to drink on the job, the social reformer, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and a group of fellow philanthropists, took it upon themselves to set up the Cabmen's Shelter Fund. Between 1875 and 1914, the Fund built about 60 shelters in London.  Because the shelters stood on a public highway, the police stipulated that they had to be no larger than a horse and cart.

 Horse-drawn hansom cabs waiting for fares outside a cabmen's shelter in Whitehall Place. York & Son image, c. 1887. © English Heritage   

Horse-drawn hansom cabs waiting for fares outside a cabmen's shelter in Whitehall Place.
York & Son image, c. 1887. © English Heritage

 

Despite their basic design and relatively diminutive size, these shelters managed to cater for about a dozen men at a time. Offering drivers a dry (in every sense of the word) place to rest and eat, these basic canteens each had a working kitchen, seats and tables, and a selection of books and newspapers - most of which were donated by the publishers or other benefactors. Gambling, drinking and swearing were strictly forbidden.

It is not known who designed the first cabmen’s shelters (all of which have long since disappeared) but in 1877, it was reported that a new shelter (erected in Palace Yard) was designed by “Messrs Gibson and Maitland, the architects who gained first prize in the Alexandra Palace in October 1875, for the best model of a Shelter”. By 1879, the architect George Aitchison had been elected onto the Committee and was Honorary Architect to the Fund. Among the shelters reported to have been built to his designs were those at Paddington Station, Putney Station, Kennington Church and Holland Park. No examples of Aitchison’s shelters have survived but the shelter photographed at the turn of the century in front of the Law Courts in the Strand [see photo] probably reflected his influence.

 Cabmen’s shelter outside the Law Courts, Strand, 1900 © City of London    

Cabmen’s shelter outside the Law Courts, Strand, 1900 © City of London 

 

In 1881 the committee launched a competition for an improved shelter design, offering a prize of £10. The successful entrants were the firm of Harvey and Clarke of John Street, Bedford Row and the first shelter to be erected to their winning designs was that in Northumberland Avenue (since replaced). Maximilian Clarke was duly appointed in 1884 as Honorary Architect to the Fund, jointly with Aitchison. Clarke was responsible for the form of the cabmen’s shelter as it is known today.

In earlier years, the shelters attracted celebrities. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, frequented the Hyde Park Corner shelter, and the artist John Singer Sargent favoured the shelter near the Ritz Hotel in Picadilly Circus. The Picadilly shelter was nicknamed the "Junior Turf Club" by the aristocratic revellers who patronized it in the 1920s and smuggled in champagne despite its teetotal regulations [see London Illustrated news pic]. Other nicknames include the All Nations (opposite Gloucester Road), The Bell and ‘Orns (in Thurloe Place), The Pier (by Albert Bridge) and The Chapel (St Johns Wood).

Many shelters were bombed during World War II and others fell victim to street widening schemes after the war, but it was probably the advent of the motor car that put most of the shelters out of business. The automobile and radio dispatching gave drivers much greater mobility, allowing them to stop almost anywhere for meal breaks. Once key to London's infrastructure, now only 13 of these shelters remain. If you would like to support the care and maintenance of those that survive, please visit http://cabmensshelterfund.weebly.com/

 Interior of a cabmen’s shelter. The Illustrated London News, 1890 April 19th, p493 Mary Evans Picture Library 

Interior of a cabmen’s shelter. The Illustrated London News, 1890 April 19th, p493 Mary Evans Picture Library