You know, those mysterious huts that allow entry only to cab drivers? I used to fancy they were cover for a network of underground bunkers where cackling taxi drivers plotted world domination and new ways to fuck up traffic at the Nag’s Head. One day, I vowed, the truth would be outed.
This was how I ended up attending a mass sing-along at the cabbies’ hut in Russell Square. It was part of something called the ‘Cabbies’ Shelter Project’, organised by some very nice people who’d obviously been wondering the same thing. No subterranean tunnels were in evidence. Just a kitchenette, the all-pervasive stench of bacon fat and a cabbie called Mark Bird hammering out a knees-up on a keyboard. Joe le Taxi he wasn’t, let alone Travis Bickle.
It was hardly as exciting as my original hypothesis, but what I did discover was that these shelters were the result of a small but rather marvellous gesture of philanthropy. In the early 1870s, London cabmen were legally obliged not to leave their horse and carriage. This meant either paying someone through the nose to keep an eye on the vehicle, or going hungry whenever they reached a pit stop. In 1875, the Earl of Shaftesbury had a solution: to set up shelters across London that would cater for the cabbies and give them somewhere secure to tie up their carriages. By 1914, more than 60 had been built, of which the one I nosed around is one of just 13 surviving examples.
As part of the Shelter Project, artist Kathy Prendergast has produced Hippocampus, a map of the routes cabbies are required to learn for 'the Knowledge', the exam they have been required to take in order to get a black cab license since 1865. Isolated from the familiar A-Z map, the web of pink lines indicating roads looks uncannily like a medical diagram of the brain, and it’s rather beautiful. Green dots, like stray peas dropped into the skull during cerebral surgery, represent the shelters.
They are run as independent concerns, and as far as anyone I spoke to was aware, there is very little view to making a profit. No wonder – even without factoring in their central London locations, the price of a coffee or a bacon sarnie is risibly tiny. Some – like the shelter outside the V&A in South Kensington – are large enough to seat around a dozen people in addition to their kitchen set-up. The no-civvies rule is still enforced (seriously, try buying a cup of tea at one next time you’re in town – the looks you’ll get will guarantee post-traumatic stress.) They’re an evolutionary anomaly, the dodos of the service industry.
Happily, they’ve at least got some kind of protection. All 13 shelters are Grade II-listed, and just about busy enough to stay afloat. The remaining huts, then, have been saved. But what about the black cabs themselves? First there was satnav, which destroyed the point (if not the romance) of the Knowledge, and then came Uber, a service so menacingly efficient it may as well have gone the whole way with the germanisms and called itself Endlösung.
It takes four years to prepare for the Knowledge – that’s more time learning than the average university degree. Can a specialist trade really be written off by GPS consoles and smartphones? It’s depressingly difficult to be optimistic – but in a very small way, initiatives like the Cabbies’ Shelter Project help to remind us of what we stand to lose.