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Inside a Cabman’s Shelter, The Independent On Sunday

‘It was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny.’

The Knightsbridge Cabmen’s Shelter stands isolated in the middle of Brompton Road. Built in 1875, its green panelled walls and steep felted roof suggest a park-keeper’s refuge, as do the panels’ florid latticework and its crowning dovecote-like chimney. The windows are frosted, and while the un-Knowledged may buy drinks and snacks from a hatch the interior is strictly for cabbies. Like all 13 surviving shelters, it is Grade II listed.

Captain GC Armstrong of St John’s Wood conceived cabmen’s shelters in 1874. The drivers could keep out of the elements and, as importantly, the pub. Booze-free shelters serving tea, coffee and bread and butter, with an attendant to cook food the cabbies brought in, would keep London’s cabs literally on the straight and narrow.

The first was opened in 1875 in St John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100. Rules for customers stipulated no swearing and the publishers of The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World provided seemly reading matter gratis.

By 1908 there were 47 shelters, each costing £200. The Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter? Subverting the ban on alcohol, cabbies gave the shelters pub-like names. Knightsbridge is The Bell and Horns. St John’s Wood, near Lord’s, is The Nursery End.

With the coming of congestion, one-way systems and parking meters, the shelters went into decline but soldiered on with T&GWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon bap was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at £25,000 each.

They take on the characteristics of the areas they are in. The Sloane Street Shelter gleams like a designer emporium. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging The All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. The handwritten cardboard signs on the Embankment Shelter mirror the begging signs of Embankment’s down-and-outs.

But what are they like inside? The Bell and Horns was decorated with Christmas lights the cold night I crossed to the middle of the Brompton Road. Cabs were parked on the rank down the centre of road but no sound came from within. I opened the door.

Inside, it was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny. Two benches ran along the white walls behind two long, thin formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people could pass in the central aisle, if they turned sideways. At the far end the owners bustled in aprons between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney. Cabbies were tucking into supper. They glanced up at me. The tall, dark-haired proprietress turned with a polite but sharp look.

“Yes?”

“Is this just for cabbies or can anyone …”

“Just for cabbies.”

I asked if it was true the shelters had names and a curly-haired cabbie explained. Another mentioned that Peter Raymond of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund and T&GWU had helped the shelters survive. The proprietress brushed past to serve someone, annoyed. I didn’t belong and, with a “Merry Christmas,” squeezed out.

22 February 2004

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