I think I’ve said more than enough on the subject of blue posts and boxes hiding in plain sight in London. Rest assured, I shall not be further waxing lyrical on the subject. No indeed, blue boxes are done and dusted. A closed subject.
Green boxes then…
What They Are
There are a number of strange, green huts dotted around the capital. They lurk at the roadside, largely unnoticed, possibly mistaken for storage sheds or public conveniences unless you pass one when it’s open. Then you’ll smell coffee and bacon and the like and see them for what they are: tea and snack kiosks, Victorian-style.
Mostly they’ll make off-sales to anyone through their service hatches but the true core of their being is the tiny, cramped café space within. For behind the door of each is a claustrophobic transport caff reserved for the niche clientele for whose benefit they were established. For the sheds are cabmen’s shelters, keeping London’s 20k+ taxi drivers fully fuelled up on tea. And they’ve been doing it for quite a while.
How They Got There
The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, which erected them, was established in 1875 by newspaper editor George Armstrong (1836-1907) and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885). A veteran of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, Armstrong was editor of the Globe, based in Fleet Street, while Lord Shaftsbury was a prominent Tory politician and social reformer — a famed campaigner against child labour and reformer of the Lunacy Laws.
The fund’s purpose, as given on the register of the Charity Commission, is “to supply cabmen with shelters in which they can have protection from wind and rain, snow and frost in winter and from the sun in summer”.
The reason for this charitable gesture towards London’s cabmen was that, back in the nineteenth century, their vehicles were horse-drawn hansom cabs. And the regulations governing taxi licences forbade them from leaving a horse and cab unattended. Not so much because it might wander off — cabs had brakes, although they’d not have stopped a determined horse — as because someone might steal the cab and masquerade as a licensed cabbie. This made sitting on the taxi rank in anything but the most clement weather pretty miserable, particularly since the driver sat on top of the cab, exposed to the elements.
In practice, cabbies would often pay a boy to watch over the cab, while they nipped off to the nearest pub. Of course this meant that if you wanted a cab you had to first learn from the boy which pub they were in, then find it and then drag your cabbie out of the hostelry while he’s three sheets to the wind and hope to God that the horse knew what it was doing, as a drunk cabbie might take you anywhere. Or nowhere, if too insensible.
Indeed, it was exactly the latter situation that prompted George Armstrong to want do something about it. Which, to his credit, he promptly then did. It seemed to Armstrong that a convenient shelter on the taxi rank, supplied with newspapers — by which he naturally meant the Globe — but most importantly no booze seemed just the ticket. They had to be small though, no larger than the footprint of a horse and cab, as they would be standing on the public highway and could not be an obstruction. The Metropolitan Police were very clear on that point.
And So, It Begins
The first was erected in Acacia Avenue, St John’s Wood in 1875 at a cost of about £200, St John’s Wood being where George Armstrong lived.
By 1914, a further sixty shelters would be erected within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. From 1882, newer versions were marginally larger and functioned as both waiting room and private café, keeping cabbies fed on tea and bacon rolls. The Blitz and post-war road-widening culled the majority of the shelters but thirteen have survived to the twenty-first century, still administered by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund (formally registered as a charity since 1966).
Each shelter is run by a tenant, who rents it in return for sole use of that shelter to ply their trade to the cabbies. In keeping with London cabbie stereotype, the survivors can only be found to the north of the Thames.
“Wot, go sarf o’ the river? At this hour? Yer ’avin’ a bleedin’ larf.”
Sadly, the first shelter is not amongst the baker’s dozen of survivors although there is one about 300 m south-east, down Wellington Road. It stands in the side street called Wellington Place, next to St John’s Wood Gardens and a stone’s throw (or an impressive six) from Lord’s Cricket Ground. Like many of the shelters, it rejoices in a nickname; this one is called the Chapel.
Note the rail running around the shelter at about thigh height. This betrays the nineteenth century origin of the shelters: it’s there to tie your horse to. Not that anyone has done that in a while. The original horse-drawn clientele is also the reason why the service hatch at the end appears to be stupidly high.
The internet seems pretty insistent that all thirteen remaining shelters are Grade II listed structures. Historic England — the body responsible for listed buildings, following the division of English Heritage into two last year — does not seem nearly so convinced. Certainly it has listings for nine of the shelters; the remaining four I could find no record for. This could be because they’re not listed or because the online list is out of date.
Of those that definitely are listed, one of the oldest can be found due south west from the Chapel in the vicinity of Little Venice. It stands in Warwick Avenue, overlooked by early Victorian townhouses — the area was mostly developed in the 1840s.
The shelter was built in 1888 to an 1882 design by the architect Maximilian Clarke (1851-1938). In 1915, Warwick Avenue tube station was opened, mostly below it, providing a new source of custom for the cabbies as prospective customers emerged, blinking into the daylight. Still, even half-blinded, they could find a cabbie without effort…
The road layout has altered since the days of horse-drawn hansom cabs and the shelter now stands isolated on its very own patch of old-fashioned paving setts, with a kerb and pedestrian pavement around it in every direction.
The All Nations
Another shelter of the same age and design stands on Kensington Road at Hyde Park Gate, a short distance west from the Royal Albert Hall and close to the site of the 1850 Great Exhibition. It rejoices in the nickname of the All Nations, referring to the diverse visitors the exhibition attracted to London.
St George’s Square
A shelter of a different design was erected in 1893 in St George’s Square, just off Lupus Street in Pimlico. It’s not entirely original, though, as its listing indicates that it was restored after fire damage.
A similar shelter sits on the Chelsea Embankment, close to the Albert Bridge. It has borne several nicknames including the Pier (it is close to Cadogan Pier) and the Kremlin (its clientele in the 1970s formed a clique of particularly left-wing cabbies). This was one of those for which I could not find a listing but it is probably of similar age to its Pimlico twin. Like its sibling it has undergone significant rebuilding, having been taken out by a lorry in the 2000s. Both now stand well back from the roadway and sport no rails for the tethering of horses.
The Bell and Horns
1897 appears to have been a good year for cab shelters as three have survived from the year that Dracula was published, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (the first British monarch ever to rule that long) and William McKinley became President of the US. One of these stands outside the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it boldly occupies the middle of the road. Although erected in 1897 it was built to Clarke’s 1882 design and is surprisingly intact; very little alteration has been made.
A second 1897 shelter of the Clarke design now stands in Russell Square. This is probably the most widely travelled of the shelters and seems to have wanted to be a mobile taxicab rather than a static cabman’s shelter.
It was originally erected outside the Haymarket Theatre, funded by (and for the convenience of) the newly-knighted Sir Squire Bancroft (1841-1926), a famous theatre manager and actor. The oddly named Sir Squire — one hopes he found his knighthood amusing in its cognitive dissonance — championed realistic stage sets and became the primary instigator of the “drawing room-comedy”. Although the Historic England listing gives the shelter’s construction year as 1897, a plaque on its side says that Sir Squire presented it four years later, in 1901. I don’t know the reason for this discrepancy.
In any event, it didn’t stay long in Haymarket but was instead moved to Leicester Square, which then contained a major taxi rank. It remained there until 1987, when Leicester Square was being pedestrianised. It made no sense to leave the shelter where cabbies could no longer get to it, plus of course it was in the way of the work. The shelter was removed, renovated, and placed on the west side of Russell Square instead. There it stood for twenty five years —during the latter part of which time I walked past it regularly and never noticed it — until just before the 2012 London Olympics. Then it was refurbished again and moved the tiny distance from the square’s west side to its northwest corner. There it stands today, serving both cabbies and the public, with signs proudly proclaiming ‘cheap tea’. As its nearest competitor is the Café Russell in the square’s gardens, cheapness of beverage is a distinctive selling point.
Another 1897 Clarke shelter stands in Hanover Square, not far from Oxford Circus. Its Historic England listing notes that it is ‘one of most elaborate surviving examples’ of its type. Is it? I don’t know. Partly this is because, having now read quite a few, I am starting to suspect that Historic England listings are composed mostly using guesswork and partly it’s because of this:
Crossrail, the new east-west underground rail route through the centre of London, is the largest current construction project in Europe. It should come as no surprise therefore that it causes some disruption. Indeed, it’s the reason the Moorgate Dragon is on holiday, as you may recall. Crossrail is digging some pretty deep holes in Hanover Square and the cabmen’s shelter stands within their site. This gave Crossrail an interesting choice: make arrangements to keep the shelter open or find their access routes continually blocked by black cabs.
The closure of the shelter would also have inconvenienced a different group of people, namely those poor homeless souls who shelter from the elements each night beneath the portico of St George’s Church in the square. For many years the church has given them small sums of money, with which to buy food from the cabmen’s shelter. More recently, concerned that the cash was buying drugs and alcohol instead of bacon butties, the church has taken to issuing £2 “refreshment coupons” and redeeming their value to the shelter.
Sadly, although access to the shelter is still provided, this is only during the hours it is open. I chose to visit mid-afternoon and so both shelter and the blue door leading to it were quite closed.
A shelter of a different design stands in Temple Place, between the Strand and Victoria Embankment. It is, according to its listing, “a rare, quite unaltered, example of these shelters,” and was erected around 1900. While it may not have been altered, it has been moved — but only a few yards down the hill, away from the lobby of a hotel built in the 1960s (the hoteliers paid through the nose to get it moved).
This shelter, unimaginatively nicknamed the Temple, could be about to move again if and when construction begins on the Garden Bridge (a proposed pedestrian bridge-cum-park with trees growing along its length). The shelter is right in the way of where the bridge’s northern approach would be, leading Westminster City Council to decide back in 2014 that they’ll nudge it round the corner into Surrey Street when the time comes.
Kensington Park Road
A shelter of similar design was erected in Kensington Park Road in 1909 under the supervision of M. Starmer Hack, architect to the fund, who presumably designed it and its Temple Place sibling. The Kensington Park Road shelter has resolutely stayed where it was put, serving tea and snacks to cabbies right up to 2012, when it was hit by a lorry. Fortunately, it was rebuilt and returned to normal service in 2014.
The three remaining shelters are ones for which I could not find the listing. Two of them look to be of Maximilian Clarke’s 1882 design but, as we know that was used for decades afterwards, it’s not much of a guide to their age. Fortunately, one of the pair has a photo on RIBApix—the image website of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)—which tells us it was built in 1890. It stands in Grosvenor Gardens, a stone’s throw from Victoria Station:
The other is in Embankment Place, just off the Victoria Embankment. It stands near the steps of the Hungerford footbridge and close to Embankment tube station. This means that I have walked past it hundreds, probably thousands of times over the last twenty years and never so much as noticed it.
The last of the surviving cabmen’s shelters is in Pont Street, just off Sloane Street, a smidgin south of Knightsbridge. There, in the midst of a region swamped with the sort of expensive designer shops that will only let you inside if they think you can afford it, an old green, wooden hut sells cheap tea and sarnies and only lets cabbies through its door.
Not that the shelters have always been scrupulous about restricting their clientele to cabbies…
Hyde Park Corner
A shelter on Hyde Park Corner was frequented by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who would take books of photographs and regale the cabbies with stories. In return, they presented him a set of pipes and a pipe rack before he set of his 1921 expedition, which would sadly prove to be his last. Shackleton died at sea of a heart attack in 1922 but his letter of thanks hung on the wall until 1962, when the shelter was removed for construction of the Piccadilly Underpass.
The Junior Turf Club
Also in the 1920s, a shelter in nearby Piccadilly originally known as the High Ground became better known as the Junior Turf Club on account of an invading clientele of aristocratic champagne-drinkers calling in on their way home from a wild night out. This no doubt boosted the shelter’s takings but eventually led to a confrontation with the council.
In its view, the shelters operated as ‘private clubs’ subject to membership rules but these were clearly being flouted —they were serving anyone and alcohol was being drunk on the premises. Either they were private or they were not, the council argued, and if not then they could pay business rates — i.e. local government business tax — like any other café or bar. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was appalled and its rules were more tightly enforced.
Jack the Ripper
Much earlier and rather more macabre was a visitor to the Westbourne Grove shelter in September 1888 who called himself “Dr J. Duncan.” Behaving rather oddly, he confessed to the shelter’s tenant, Thomas Ryan, that he was Jack the Ripper. Ryan largely assumed the man was drunk and attempted to persuade him to accompany Ryan to church that evening, followed by a temperance meeting. Duncan agreed but then stepped outside, promising to return within an hour. Unsurprisingly, he was never seen again.
So, there you are: cabmen’s shelters. Sixty-one were built, thirteen remain. Some are intact, some are rebuilt, some have moved. And they come in various different styles.
And then, there’s this:
The above stands in Dean’s Yard, a private square in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. There has never been a cabmen’s shelter there, although there was one in nearby Old Palace Yard, directly outside Parliament and sponsored by both of its houses.
The Dean’s Yard shelter is the brainchild of Ptolemy Dean, the abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric, who in 2012 needed a way to site a “hideous waste compactor” without ruining the ambience of a rather lovely square that comprises part of the old pre-Dissolution monastery. The photo above was taken just moments after an abbey staff member had finished bunging black bin bags through its doors.
As a final thought, I wonder if, when cabmen’s shelter tenants meet, they say things like, “I ’ad that cabbie, who ’ad that bloke in the news in the back of ’is cab, in ’ere the other day. What’s the world comin’ to, eh?”