Drunken Cabmen

The Victorian hackney carriage drivers – the predecessors of today’s London black cab drivers – were a hardy bunch who were compelled by their occupation to be out on the streets of London in all types of weather.

Come rain, shine, snow or thick, thick fog, the cabmen were to be seen, sitting over their cabs, negotiating their ways along the highways and byways of the Victorian metropolis, and many a theatre-goer or club man was, no doubt, thankful to their dedication in getting them home at night.

A London cabbie sitting over his cab and horse.
A Victorian London Cabbie.


But, like almost all the citizens of Victorian London, the cabmen had basic needs that needed attending to, and in many cases, the only places that could cater to those needs were the public houses.

Unfortunately, the proprietors of many of these establishments would insist that their customers must by a libation before they could make use of the facilities; and, for quite a few cabdrivers, this offer proved a little too tempting, and, in consequence, throughout the 1870’s large numbers of hackney carriage found themselves in court  charged with being drunk in charge of their vehicles.

One newspaper that frequently highlighted the dangers of the London cabmen being drunk was The Pall Mall Gazette, and for this article, I thought it might be intriguing to follow the paper’s campaign to tackle the issue of the drunken cabdrivers of the Victorian metropolis and of the, seemingly, lenient sentences handed out to transgressors by the magistrates in the police courts.


On Friday, 2nd February, 1872, the Gazette used a case that had been heard at Southwark Police Court to call for tougher measures against drunken cabmen:-

“Even the most strenuous advocates of intemperance must admit that it would be for the public benefit if cabmen would consent to pay a little more attention to the cultivation of sobriety as a virtue.

Hardly a day elapses without some cabman being charged at a police-court with drunkenness; yet a cabman who is drunk endangers not only his own life and that of the fare he carries inside his cab, but also the lives of countless foot passengers in the streets.

Drunkenness in a cabman is as inexcusable as drunkenness in the commander of a vessel or the driver of a locomotive engine, and it is necessary for the protection of the public that an offence of this nature should be visited with a punishment severe enough to deter others from committing it; yet, to judge by a case which came before the magistrate at Southwark police-court yesterday, cabmen are allowed a latitude in their cups which is not extended to members of other professions of a like responsible nature.


Felix Fownes was charged with being incapable of taking care of his horse and cab.

A policeman deposed that a little before two yesterday morning Mr. Fownes was driving in a very careless manner in Westminster Bridge-road; indeed his manner of driving was so light and careless that a gentleman inside his cab wisely directed him to stop, and discharged him.


This want of confidence on the part of his fare so profoundly affected Fownes that he nearly fell off his seat, and the policeman finding that he was “very drunk and incapable” took him to the station-house, and by so doing possibly saved his life, and the lives of many innocent persons which might have been sacrificed to his obscure intelligence.


On examining his licence, the magistrate observed that it was marked with two convictions for drunkenness, besides many others for various offences besides drunkenness during the last four or five years.

He, therefore, considered Fownes was not a proper person to drive a public cab, and consequently revoked the licence altogether.

Surely it would have been merciful to the public, if not to Fownes himself, had his licence been revoked on the first occasion on which he was convicted of drunkenness.

Who knows how many street accidents have occurred during the four or five years that Fownes has been permitted to continue and for which he evidently is morally unfit.”

The Pall Mall Gazette, Friday 20th August, 1875:-


On Friday, 20th August, 1875, the paper published details of another case, this time one that had been heard at Clerkenwell Police Court:-

“The inexplicable indulgence displayed towards drunken cabmen is no doubt one cause of the lamentable number of street accidents which occur in London.

At the Clerkenwell police-court yesterday, a cabdriver named Kelley was charged with being drunk and incapable of taking care of his horse and cab.

Kelley was seen on Wednesday evening by a police-constable sitting on the box of his cab in a condition of sublime indifference to passing events – he was, in fact, drunk and asleep, and the reins, which should have been in his hands, were under the feet of his horse.


Tenderly the policeman removed Kelley from the box and deposited him inside his cab, which was then driven to the police station.

Kelley bore the journey remarkably well and without much fatigue, for when the door of the cab was opened on its arrival at the station the police found that the precious charge, who had been placed in a sitting posture on the cushions, was extended on the bottom of the cab, where he had fallen, happily without being awakened from his peaceful slumber.


It must be admitted on Kelley’s behalf that he fully accounted to the magistrate for his helpless condition. “He had,” he said, “unfortunately taken a drop too much, for which he was very sorry.”

The magistrate was sorry too, for he saw by Kelley’s licence that he had been twice previously convicted, and “he had some doubt whether he ought not to suspend the licence.”

This conscientious hesitation, however, on the part of the magistrate was of brief duration, for Kelley’s licence was not suspended, and he was let off with a fine of £3, or in default one month’s imprisonment.

Yet surely, a cabman who has been three times convicted of drunkenness is not a fit person to drive a public vehicle through the streets of London, and no owner of a private carriage would retain such a coachman for one day in his service.”


On Saturday, 30th November 1878, the Gazette was hopeful that a new tougher magistrate at Great Marlborough Street Police Court would prove a little less forgiving than his bretheren had thus far been:-

“There are few more dangerous nuisances in London than drunken cabmen.

Incapable of taking charge of themselves, they are still more incapable of taking charge of their horses and cabs; and it is not surprising that they are a prolific cause of street accidents.

The forbearance shown by magistrates to this class of offenders has often been remarked, and it does, no doubt, go far to account for the frequency of the offence.

It is, therefore, satisfactory to find a newly appointed magistrate, Mr. De Rutzen, taking a somewhat more serious view of cabmen’s drunkenness than is generally taken by his brethren on the bench.


At the Marlborough Street Police Court yesterday, three cabmen were brought before him charged with being drunk while in care of their cabs.

Two of them, who had been fined before for a similar offence, were ordered to pay 40s., or in default fourteen days imprisonment each; and the third, who had not been fined before, was sentenced to pay 20s. or to undergo, a like period of imprisonment.


Mr. De Rutzen at the same time took the opportunity to express his opinion that, “there is no class of people who are more leniently dealt with than cabmen – much too leniently he thinks – for no one is more capable of doing mischief and damage than a drunken cabman.”

This is so far satisfactory; but it may be doubted whether there will be any real reform in public vehicles or their drivers, until the system of licensing is placed on a more satisfactory footing.”


The dangers of cabmen being drunk and incapable whilst manoeuvres their carriages around the streets of London was highlighted by the case of a man who had appeared before Bow Street magistrates, having smashed into another cab.

The Pall Mall Gazette, on Tuesday, 25th March 1879, took issue with the fact that the magistrate appeared to have imposed a harsher sentence on a cabdriver who had damaged property than was previously imposed on cabmen who had endangered the public:-

“A case which came before the magistrate at the Bow Street Police Court yesterday is worth the attention of cabdrivers.

A cab proprietor was charged with being drunk and incapable while in charge of a cab.


On Saturday afternoon he was seen driving along the streets at a furious rate.

There was no doubt as to his drunkenness or as to his incapability, for the reins were flapping loose in his hands, and his lamentable condition was so evident that he was pursued by a crowd of persons shouting “Stop him!” with that eagerness always evinced by crowds when there is a disagreeable public duty to be performed, but nobody ready at hand to undertake it.


At last, however, a gentleman, with an agility and a generosity that do him credit, took the task on himself; and, rushing after the cab, he succeeded in getting hold of the horse’s head.

In the meantime, however, the prisoner, unfortunately for himself, had driven into a hansom cab, knocking over the horse, breaking the harness, and doing damage to the extent of £6 10s.

The magistrate, observing truly that it was “a serious charge,” sent the prisoner, without the option of a fine, to gaol for six weeks, and, moreover, ordered him to pay the cost of the damage done to the cab he had smashed.


The lesson to be learned from this sad story is that drunken cabmen should be careful not to drive into each other’s cabs.

They may destroy the lives of as many pedestrians as they please and smash any number of private vehicles without running any serious risk of imprisonment, but when a cabman injures the vehicle of another cabman, he may expect to meet with the penalty due to his offence.”