Horse-drawn hansom cabs, which were operating in New Zealand by 1860, were the taxis of New Zealand cities in the late 19th century.
Drawn by a single horse, they carried two passengers; larger groups hired a two-horse hackney carriage. The driver sat on a high seat behind the cab and was given directions through a trapdoor in the roof.
Joseph Hansom had patented the hansom cab in England in 1834. He based his design on the open cabriolet (a two-wheeled carriage pulled by one horse, from which the word ‘cab’ comes), adding an enclosed carriage. The hansom cab was a light, fast, easily manoeuvred vehicle which became the standard for street hire.
A writer in the New Zealand Herald in 1886 took cab drivers to task for their recklessness: ‘Some steps should be taken to prevent furious driving in Queen Street on Saturday nights when the streets are crowded with people … it is no uncommon thing to see a cabman careering along – driving through long lanes of people at six or seven miles an hour, the only warning being the occasional crack of his whip …[T]his reckless conduct is most conspicuous and gives the impression that such rapid driving is done out of bravado and pure cussedness rather than anything else.’1
Cab driver licences
Local authorities licensed cab drivers, and often set fares as well. There was concern that drivers be of ‘good character’ – but they were sometimes accused of being involved in the sex industry. In 1898 the Auckland police inspector told the city council theirs was ‘the only town in the colony where men of notoriously bad character’ could get cab licences and act as touts for prostitutes, or use their vehicles as ‘wheeled brothels’.2
Cabmen were also criticised for ‘furious driving’. Some were prosecuted for being drunk in charge of their horse and hansom, and leaving them unattended in the street or parked in places other than cab stands.
Hansom cab hit
The mystery of a hansom cab, a crime novel by New Zealander Fergus Hume, became an international best-seller in the 1880s. Hume initially published his book himself, because every publisher he approached ‘refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial would write anything worth reading’.3 The novel – set in Melbourne – went on to sell about a million copies. Hume, a barrister, moved to England and continued to write detective stories, but never had another hit.
A driver’s life wasn’t easy. Exposed to the elements, they had to drive on unsealed roads which were often muddy and always manure-strewn. Seated in their precariously high position, they could see only their horse’s head. In an accident, they had a long way to fall or could be flung over the cab.
Accidents were common, particularly after the introduction of new forms of transport that literally scared the horses on city streets. These included steam and horse trams in the 19th century, and later, electric trams, cars and buses.
There were still a few hansom cabs available for hire in the 1920s.