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.