Scattered throughout the streets of London, often overlooked, are small green sheds that have been offering shelter and hot food to the city’s cab drivers since 1875.
In those times, cab drivers rode horse-drawn carriages where the passengers sat inside while the poor cabbie had to sit on the top, exposed to the elements. But the drivers couldn’t just park their cabs by the side of the road and grab a quick drink at a public house, because the law forbade them to leave their carriages unattended. Some cabmen therefore employed young lads whose job was to look after the cab while they were away, as well as help carry the luggage and do other menial jobs.
A Cabmen's shelter at Russell Square, London.
The story goes that on one January morning in 1875, the editor of The Globe newspaper, a certain George Armstrong, sent his manservant out into a raging blizzard to engage a taxi to take him to his office at Fleet Street. An hour later, the manservant returned soaked to the skin and announced that all available cabbies were seeking shelter in a nearby pub and drinking merrily, and that none were in a condition to safely drive his master to his office.
In response, Captain Armstrong got together a few like-minded philanthropists, including the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and created a charity called the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund whose mission was to erect dedicated shelters for cabbies’ use.
Between 1875 and 1914, a total of 61 shelters were built, at cost of around £200 each. All were positioned near the busiest cab stands within a 6 mile radius of Charring Cross. Because the shelters stood on a public highway, the police stipulated they could be no larger than a horse and cart. Even with its diminutive size, each shelter squeezed in a working kitchen and seated up to a dozen men at a time. Each shelter was staffed by an attendant who sold food and non-alcoholic drink to the cabbies. The attendant also cooked food brought in by the cabbies themselves. Some cabbies bought their own mugs, and kept them at the shelter. There were seats and tables, and a selection of books and newspapers, most of them donated by the publishers or other benefactors
The Cabmen’s Shelters solved two problems: one, it gave cabbies access to hot food at affordable prices and shelter during unpleasant weather, and second, it kept them away from alcohol during work hours.
Only 13 Cabmen’s Shelters remain today. They are still run by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, and they still cater to London’s taxi drivers. All are now Grade II listed buildings. They are located at:
Chelsea Embankment SW3 – close to junction with Albert Bridge, London
Embankment Place WC2 – close to the Playhouse Theatre
Grosvenor Gardens SW1 – to the west side of the north gardens
Hanover Square, London W1 – on the north side of the central gardens
Kensington Park Road W11 – outside numbers 8–10
Kensington Road W8 – close to the junction of Queen's Gate SW7
Pont Street SW1 – close to the junction of Sloane Street
Russell Square WC1 – Western Corner (relocated to here from Leicester Square)
St. George's Square, Pimlico SW1 – on the north side
Temple Place WC2 – opposite side of the road from the Swissötel Howard
Thurloe Place, Kensington SW7 – in the middle of the road, east of the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum
Warwick Avenue, London W9 – centre of the road, by Warwick Avenue tube station
Wellington Place NW8 – near to Lord's Cricket Ground