When asked what my blog is about, I find the best description is to say I write about things that most people rush past without noticing. The cabmens’ shelter epitomises the blog, case in point.
“You know the ones! Grade II listed green wooden huts, the exact length of a horse and carriage, dotted around central London, Hanover square, Warwick Avenue, opposite Lords.” Why does everyone look at me blankly when I describe something they must pass on their daily commute?
Perhaps the colour is they key to their disguise- the kind of arsenic loaded gloss green which killed a few Victorians off in its time. You might be forgiven for mistaking them for a smart park shed or municipal outhouse. But the truth is they aren’t for the likes of you or I, they exclusively serve black cab drivers with tea, coffee, full English breakfasts, roasts and even Christmas dinners in the week leading up to festivities.
I first came across the shelters in my student years when I worked in Anya Hindmarch’s Pont St store. A Saturday shift came with hangover – standard. My mouth would water smelling the bacon fat wafting out of the cabmens’ shelter opposite whilst I contemplated shelling out a tenth of my earnings on much needed sustenance from the exorbitant café on Sloane St. How I wished they would serve me!
Then last Tuesday I skipped past the one on Russell square and noticed a sandwich board with prices for the general public. I climbed up the steps to the hatch (designed to be level with a horse in the days when Hackney carriages were just that - an actual horse and carriage) and ordered my tea. Two choices; builders or green (popular with the students from nearby UCL), costing 80p – yes that’s right! After asking a few questions about the shelter’s history, Kate (kind proprietress) bent the rules and allowed me behind closed doors to see what the space was really like. Everyone cleared off the moment I entered, cabbies must be a camera shy bunch. But I did managed to persuade Kate and her husband to reluctantly have their photo taken whilst I munched my fruit cake and chatted.
Inside the space is divided into the seating area in one half and a ship shape kitchen in the other. Up to fifteen cab drivers have been seated in there at one time, thought that seems on the cosy side. After Christmas dinner week she has to clean the whole shelter top to toe for two days, can you imagine?! She’s got designs on making curtains and cushions to make the hard seating area more comfortable next year. As I watch her chatting away to all her regulars, I realise what a difference Kate’s joie de vivre must make to a community rocked by the arrival of Uber, which threatens to undermine their very existence.
Sixty one shelters were built around London between 1875 -1914 by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund set up by the Earl of Shaftsbury and one Captain Armstrong. Together they understood the need for shelters, where cab drivers could seek refuge in bad weather and eat hot food without breaking the law by leaving their carriages unattended or fear of having them stolen. They needed to be small as they were built on public highways, hence the exact length of a horse and cart. Just thirteen remain today and are still run by the charity. HRH The Prince of Wales has even visited one for a cup of tea.
Can we just have a few moments to admire a building of tiny proportions, yet so perfectly executed. Painted in Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green and decorated with wooden panels carved with floral designs and the monogrammed letters CSF for Cabmen’s Shelter Fund. A pitched roof, clad in traditional slate or shingles with a decorative vent for the flue to carry away smoke from the stove. Inside, a U shaped formica table folding up and down to allow for easy access. A shining example of the level of detail Victorians designed every last inch of even a modest building with.
Thank you to Kate for bending the rules (interior photography and visits by non cab drivers are usually off limits) and making me laugh like a drain pipe. Lastly, this Christmas she would like to help the homeless in the Russell square area. So if you are a butcher reading this, perhaps you would like to donate a turkey or two for some festive sandwiches. Get in touch!