Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 27, 1853 --- London's 1st Cab Strike

At midnight, London's cabmen head for home. The strike is on.  The Times reports that "never since the days of Charles II, when hackney carriages were first invented, have the sightseeing and outgoing public been reduced to such an extremity of helplessness."

The strikers are angry over a new law which, among other things, set fares at sixpence a mile, down from 8p. The law was prompted by the countless complaints of fare-gouging from the public during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Fare disputes will also now be immediately referred to the nearest police court. Within days of the new law, a cabman was hauled off to jail when he could not pay a five shilling fine.

The strike plunges London into chaos. The scene at the city's many railroad termini is particularly confusing. Hundreds of travelers, caught unawares, find their luggage piled at kerbside. The coarse, jocular remarks of the idle cabmen only add to the discomfiture of the stranded. The omnibuses still run - although the profiteering operators hike fares 25% - but Londoners "of quality" eschew such declasse transit and take to the pavement. An eyewitness wrote, "Several instances of ladies in high degree in a state of comparative exhaustion were observed." The Times demands that the strike be met with "firm resistance." The Illustrated London News finds the absence of the cabs quite tolerable: "No longer having public stables in their midst, the great highways of the metropolis ceased to be offensive to the eyes and to the noses of the public."

By the second day, while the cabmen remained parked, there suddenly appeared all manner of conveyance. The cartoon here is from Punch and shows a man in evening dress off to the theatre in a wheelbarrow! The government held firm to the sixpence, while agreeing to discuss side issues such as "back fares" on those occasions when a driver was taken far from the central city.

By day three, it was obvious that the strike had failed. Restive drivers, with no income, could not remain parked forever. On Monday morning, London's streets were back to normal and so were the cabs, "All went on as before - neither less extortionate, nor more civil, nor more clean."

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