It was a hansom! I had seen it before in daylight some days previously. I remembered that a man sitting in front of me on the top of an omnibus had turned to look at it, and had made some remark about it to a friend. A hansom! Once king of the London streets, once the gondola of the Strand, and now… there it stood beside the kerbstones with its queer air of being wrong way up, a sedan chair slung between two huge wheels, the horse glooming in the collar, the driver sitting perilously at the back, with his long whip in a metal slot near his right hand.
This was the wonderful HV Morton, writing in the 1930s, about possibly the last hansom cab in London.
Hansom cabs were ubiquitous on our streets between the late 1830s through to the early 20th Century when the combustion engine sealed the fate of all horse-drawn transport. The cab was designed and patented in 1834 by Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882). He sold his patent for £10,000, but was never paid, one of a litany of business failures which dogged the Yorkshire architect throughout his career. Hansom’s idea was to design a safer mode of public vehicle for hire and he came up with what at first must have seemed a bizarre configuration of passengers in the front with the driver sat behind, high above his clients. Cabbie and fare communicated with each other through a hatch in the roof of the cab.
A major tourist attraction in the world’s great cities – Paris, New York, Rome – is to take a carriage ride around town. What a shame we don’t do this in London with hansoms. Instead, all we have are those rather dangerous looking rickshaw-tricycles, more redolent of the Far East. Quite fun, no doubt, but not for me.