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The Hansom Cab – A horse-drawn carriage which once dominated the streets of Britain during the late 19th century

David Goran

The Hansom was designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom in 1834. Mr. Hansom was an Architect and had won the competition to build Birmingham Town Hall but due to the contractor filing for Bankruptcy, Hansom was left with large debts. In order to allay his financial position, he invented ‘The Patent Safety Cab’ which at first had the driver sitting on the roof, however, later modifications put the driver at the rear of the vehicle.

Temple Underground station in 1899, then owned by the District Railway with horse drawn hansom cabs in the foreground. source

Temple Underground station in 1899, then owned by the District Railway with horse-drawn hansom cabs in the foreground. source

 

Queensland National Bank building, Brisbane, ca. 1872. source

Queensland National Bank building, Brisbane, ca. 1872. source

 

Queensland National Bank building in Queen Street, Brisbane, ca. 1889. source

Queensland National Bank building in Queen Street, Brisbane, ca. 1889. source

 

North on Ruthven Street, with the Club Hotel to the right, ca. 1908. source

Hansom cabs on North on Ruthven Street, with the Club Hotel to the right, ca. 1908. source

Originally called the Hansom safety cab, it is a kind of horse-drawn carriage and it was designed to combine speed with safety, with a low centre of gravity for safe cornering. Hansom’s original design was modified by John Chapman and several others to improve its practicability but retained Hansom’s name.

The cab had no axle, the wheels were fixed to spindles, which were attached to the suspension, and this enabled the cab to be very fast and manoeuvrable. Further refinements were made over the decades which followed including a driver operated lever to open the doors. One of the main manufacturers of the Hansom cab was a firm called Forder who were based in Hinckley, Leicestershire where Triumph motorcycles are made today.

 

New South Wales Survey Office, Castlereagh Street, Sydney Dated c.1885. source

A hansom cab in front of the New South Wales Survey Office, Castlereagh Street, Sydney Dated c.1885. source

 

London Chartered Bank, Brisbane, ca. 1889. source

London Chartered Bank, Brisbane, ca. 1889. source

 

Lands and Works Offices, Brisbane, ca. 1875. source

Lands and Works Offices, Brisbane, ca. 1875. source

 

Horsedrawn cabs at Cairns wharf, ca. 1912. A steamship is anchored offshore. source

Horse-drawn cabs at Cairns wharf, ca. 1912. A steamship is anchored offshore. source

 

Hansom cabs and the four wheeled Growler on the west side of Parliament Square. source

Hansom cabs and the four-wheeled Growler on the west side of Parliament Square. Source: Leonard Bentley/Flickr

Hansom cabs enjoyed immense popularity as they were fast, light enough to be pulled by a single horse (making the journey cheaper than travelling in a larger four-wheel coach) and were agile enough to steer around horse-drawn vehicles in the notorious traffic jams of nineteenth-century London. There were up to 7500 hansom cabs in use at the height of their popularity and they quickly spread to other cities (such as Dublin) in the United Kingdom, as well as continental European cities, particularly Paris, Berlin, and St Petersburg. The cab was introduced to other British Empire cities and to the United States during the late 19th century, being most commonly used in New York.

 

From 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thompson and Adolphe Smith. source

From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thompson and Adolphe Smith. source

 

Construction site at the new Queensland National Bank, Brisbane, 1883. Hansom cabs are parked in the street outside the building. source

Construction site at the new Queensland National Bank, Brisbane, 1883. Hansom cabs are parked in the street outside the building. source

 

A hansom cab parked in front of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1904. source

A hansom cab parked in front of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1904. source

 

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War Office, Pall Mall. Source: Leonard Bentley/Flickr

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers were able to give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could also pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could also operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab itself, as well as by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

 

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The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. Source: Leonard Bentley/Flickr

 

A hansom cab on display in the Mossman Collection at the Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, England. source

A hansom cab on display in the Mossman Collection at the Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, England. source

 

Hansom cab, c. 1900, used in Washington, DC - National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA. source

Hansom cab, c. 1900, used in Washington, DC – National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA. source

 

Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. source

Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Source: Lee Wright/Flickr

The cabs were widely used in the United Kingdom until 1908 when Taximeter Cars (petrol cabs) started to be introduced and were rapidly accepted; by the early 1920s, horse-drawn cabs had largely been superseded by motor vehicles. The last licence for a horse-drawn cab in London was relinquished in 1947.

In the height of popularity there were around 7,500 Hansom Cabs in circulation. The number of Hansom Cabs grew once it was introduced across the other cities in the British Empire and the United States during the late 19th Century.