On your way down Sloane Street, if you look down Pont Street towards the Cadogan Place Gardens, you will see one of London’s most understated icons – a green cabmen’s shelter, a quaint anachronism from Victorian days and very, very English
The shelters, which look a bit like a cross between a garden shed and a cricket pavilion, have been a fixture on London’s streets since 1875. In January that year, Captain George Armstrong, an ex-soldier and editor of The Globe newspaper who lived in St. John’s Wood, sent his manservant out into a raging blizzard to engage a taxi to take him to his Fleet Street office.
At the time, most cabbies were driving Hansom Cabs, horse-drawn carriages that were open to the elements for the drivers, who were expected to ‘sit on the box’ in all kinds of weather waiting for a fare. Poor cabbies. The only place of sustenance and comfort was a public house but to visit a pub meant paying somebody to keep an eye on their cab it was illegal to leave them unattended and they were likely to be stolen.
Armstrong’s servant returned an hour later to report that while there were cabs on the rank, all of the drivers were in a local hostelry, staying warm and in no condition to drive.
In line with the Victorian ethos of public service, Armstrong came up with the idea of dedicated shelters for cabbies’ use close to the cab ranks. Together with the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and a few like-minded philanthropists, they founded the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund to construct and run shelters at major cab stands, where the drivers could go and get a hot meal and a cup of tea.
The small green huts were not allowed to be larger than a horse and cart, as they stood on the public highway, and between 1875 and 1914, 61 were built around London. Most were staffed by an attendant who sold ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices’.
Inside, there were seats and tables to accommodate 10-13 men, and books and newspapers donated by publishers and other benefactors. Gambling, drinking and swearing were strictly forbidden.
Only 13 of these little landmarks remain today. Only cabbies are allowed enter the hallowed interior of the huts but anyone can order from the take-away window. Why not sample the great British ‘bacon buttie’ (bacon sandwich) with a cup of tea? It’s one of the most authentic London dining experiences you can have.