Thursday, 19 July 2018

Joseph Hansom and the Hansom Cab

Until a few years ago, the signs that welcomed visitors to the town of Hinckley in Leicestershire declared it to be the “Home of the Hansom Cab”. This might be thought to be a strange claim to make, given that Hansom cabs had not been seen on the streets of Hinckley or anywhere else for about a century, and most people would have very little idea what a Hansom cab was.

Joseph Hansom was not a native of Hinckley, and his time there was short, given that he arrived in 1834 and left in 1837. He was not an engineer, but an architect who spent most of his long career designing and restoring church and domestic buildings. There is also some doubt over how much credit Hansom can take for the original cab design, and the version that later appeared on the streets had many differences from that designated in the original patent.

It is somewhat ironic that the project for which Joseph Hansom should take most credit does not bear his name, but the unfortunate outcome of that project led to the circumstance that led to the patenting of the Hansom cab which, as mentioned above, is now consigned to history.

Joseph Hansom, born in York in 1803, showed an early interest in architecture and, in 1828, entered a partnership with Edward Welch. Their most famous building was Birmingham Town Hall (recently restored) which was modelled on a Roman temple and is now a familiar landmark in the heart of the city. However, although the design was a triumph, Hansom and Welch made some poor financial decisions and were declared bankrupt in 1834.

Thus forced to abandon architecture for a while, Hansom was invited to manage the business affairs of a local man, Dempster Heming of Caldecote Hall (near Nuneaton), who was in the process of setting up a bank in nearby Hinckley. Hansom lived with Heming’s family at Caldecote Hall, and Heming was later to make use of Hansom’s architectural skills to convert a suitable building into a bank.

However, Heming and Hansom must also have had many discussions on whether it was possible to design a simple carriage that could ply for hire on the streets of a major city such as London. Whether the ideas were mainly Heming’s or Hansom’s is an interesting question, but it was Hansom who submitted the patent for a “safety cab” on 23 December 1834, and it was therefore the “Hansom cab” rather than the “Heming cab” that was to feature so prominently in the lives of Sherlock Holmes and countless other people, both fictional and real.

The basic concept was for a two-person carriage (plus driver) to be pulled by a single horse. Being both narrow when seen from the front and short from front to back, it would take up much less space on a city street than the hackney carriages then in vogue.   

That said, the original Hansom cab was not particularly successful, and Hansom himself gained very little from his patent. The principle was sound enough, in that by equipping the carriage with two large wheels and suspending the passenger compartment between them, the centre of gravity was lowered and the carriage was therefore safer when going round corners. Problems concerned the design of the cranked axle, which passed beneath the passenger compartment, and the positioning of the driver at the front, as his weight placed extra strain on the horse, which could therefore not work for as long a time as desired.

Joseph Hansom built a prototype cab in Hinckley in 1835 and tested it in the town, but he did not open a factory or consider becoming a “captain of industry”, as this was not his main interest in life.

He sold his interest in the invention for ten thousand pounds, to a company that wanted to manufacture it, and this suggests that Hansom made a handsome profit. However, none of the money was ever paid, and he only gained three hundred pounds after he assumed temporary management of the owning company when it got into difficulties in 1839. By this time Hansom had returned to architecture as his chief activity, and he was able to build a new and successful career in this field.

The carriage that was to bear Hansom’s name was the result of many changes and improvements that had nothing to do with him. The design familiar to Sherlock Holmes et al owed more to the inspiration of Frederick Forder of Wolverhampton than to Joseph Hansom, temporarily of Hinckley.

The two most important developments were to replace the cranked axle with a straight one and to move the driver’s position to a high seat behind the passenger compartment. The straight axle passed underneath the rear of the carriage which was cut away to allow for this, and the driver’s weight now balanced the carriage in such a way that less strain was placed on the horse (see picture). This meant that relatively light horses could be used, which could proceed at higher speeds (up to 15 miles an hour) and work for longer before being rested.

The “Forder Hansom” was the model that came to dominate London’s streets and those of other cities. Forder’s patent was registered in 1873 and his company continued to manufacture cabs up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Other developments included the use of stronger and lighter materials and the instigation of driver-controlled doors (via a lever mechanism), so that passengers could not leave until the fare had been paid.

Readers of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes will be familiar with how a Hansom cab operated in its heyday. The passengers (usually two, three at a squeeze) sat side-by-side facing forwards, thus getting an excellent view of where they were going, plus that of the rear end of a sweaty horse! The journey could be a cold one in winter, as there was little protection from the elements apart from the two small doors that came up to about knee height. Later improvements included curtains (and eventually glass windows) that sheltered the passengers from the mud and stones thrown up by the horse and other traffic.

The driver had a perfect view, his seat being some seven feet above the ground. He could communicate with the passengers via a small trap-door in the roof of the carriage, and he could be paid his fare through this as well. Sherlock Holmes would often bang his cane on the roof to attract the driver’s attention.

In their heyday, in the 1880s and 1890s, some 3000 Hansom cabs plied their trade in London alongside horse-drawn trams and buses. They also became popular in many other cities in Britain and abroad, including New York.

However, their numbers declined when motor and electric vehicles grew in number, although it was not until 1947 that the last licence for a horse-drawn cab was issued in London.

So, although the Hansom cab was a huge success in its day, the former claim of Hinckley as the “Home of the Hansom Cab” does need to be put into perspective. As it is, Hinckley does not go overboard in celebrating Joseph Hansom. A short pedestrianised shopping street has been named “Hansom Court”, and that is about it! The signs have been changed – Hinckley now reminds visitors that is it the home of Triumph Motorcycles – which go at somewhat more than 15 mph!

© John Welford

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