The Hansom Mr. Holmes

A hansom cab.
A hansom cab.

Jeff Nunokawa, a Princeton professor, observed on Facebook: “Nothing says New York like “Jeopardy!” in the cabs.”

And nothing quite says Sherlock Holmes’ London like hansom cabs. They’re as much a trademark of the ace detective as are his deerstalker cap and his curved pipe.

Of the 60 recorded cases, 19 mention hansoms. Holmes himself takes a hansom in only eight of these, but there are 17 more cases in which the cab he takes isn’t indicated. But it’s a safe bet that they must have been hansoms.

The streets of Victorian London were dominated by two kinds of vehicles for hire.

The hansom cab was a two-wheeled vehicle, drawn by a single horse, originally patented by Joseph A. Hansom in 1836. Nicknamed “London’s Gondola,” it was the yellow cab of 19th century England.

The driver sat on a raised seat above and behind the passenger compartment. Riders spoke to and paid him through a trapdoor in the roof. Because it had an open front, it offered a panorama of the bustling streets, and that was one of its draws to Holmes’ observant nature. The other was its speed. Being small, light, and nimble, it was able to thread swiftly through “dingy streets and dreary byways.”

To hail one was easy enough. A yeller or a whistle would bring one trotting up, if there wasn’t one already waiting at a nearby curb.

Dr. Watson, it seems, preferred the fashionable cab-whistle many Londoners carried. One blast from such a whistle would call a four-wheeler; two, a hansom. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes favored hailing cabs vocally.

Cabs could be hired by distance or time. At the turn of the 19th century, it cost a shilling for the first two miles; a sixpence for each mile after that.

For all our romantic notion of hansoms, they were neither comfortable, nor very clean. In the event of rain or a need for privacy, passengers could draw a leather curtain across the front, but they were still likely to get wet or soiled by dirt from anything the horse’s hooves threw up from the road.

The other “taxi” of the day was the four-wheeled “growler,” an enclosed, glass-fronted carriage, pulled by two steeds. It got its name from the noise it made as it rattled over the cobbled streets. As it was more spacious, with room for more passengers—four—and baggage, it was often found at railway stations.

Horse-Drawn Vehicles Since 1760Other than the public transport, there existed an almost bewildering array of privately-owned horse-drawn carriages. Arthur Ingram’s “Horse Drawn Vehicles since 1760,” published in 1977, mentions 325, among them the phaeton, the brougham, the barouche, the landau.

h/t: BRAD KEEFAUVER

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