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The Hansom Cab

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"Very Hansom of You, Mr. Holmes"

A look at the old two-wheeler and its place in
the recorded cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes

by Brad Keefauver

(Originally published in 1982)

"The horse, a quiet god was he,
The source of all technology."
-- V.H. Smith

So it was in the England of Sherlock Holmes.

The steam-driven engines, above and below ground, existed, as did the bicycle. For the most part, however, the horse and its various attachments were synonymous with "transportation." In the county, traps, dog-carts, and wagonettes took Victorians where they needed to go. In London, public transportation was available on horse-drawn trams and buses. And if one demanded more privacy, there was always hackney cabs.

When taking a cab, one had two choices. First was the standard four-wheeler, or "growler." The growler saw its best use by groups of more than two people. But if one or two persons, such as a master detective and his friend doctor, wanted a swift ride through the city, a different cab was more to their liking: the hansom.

The two-wheeled "safety cab" which would later be favoured by such folk as Holmes and Watson was originally patented by Joseph A. Hansom in 1836. His design differed from previous two-wheeled carriages in that the wheels were mounted on two spearate spindles rathe than an axle, allowing the main load of the vehicle to ride lower than previously possible. Although the cab's design was altered before it attained popularity, the name of its creator stuck with it, and the "hansom" cab became a part of Victorian life.

In its popular form, the hansom was a magnificent vehicle. The passenger would ride directly between the large, wooden-spoked wheels, with the driver up behind on a seat that was level with the cab's roof. The driver's reins were threaded through supports on the front of the roof, and a small trap-door near the rear made driver-passenger communication easier. The view from a hansom was immeasureably superior to that afforded by the side windows of a four-wheeler. In addition to the side windows placed conveniently just over the tops of the wheels, the entire front of the cab was open, save for two angled folding doors that covered the passenger's lower limbs. In case of rain or a need for privacy, leather curtains could be drawn across the front at the passenger's discretion.

Use of such hindrances to vision were probably rare when Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street hired one of the cabs. The splendid view of the jostling masses of London had to have been one of the hansom's drawing points to Holmes's observant nature. Certainly another of its attractions to the detective was its speed. The cab's small size gave it an ability to move through traffic that made the hansom the fastest way to get about town.

To summon one up was simple enough. A shout or whistle would bring one trotting up, if there was not already one at a nearby curb. Dr. Watson, it seems, preferred the fashionable cab-whistle many Londoners carried. One blast from such a whistle would call a four-wheeler, two a hansom. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes favored vocally hailing cabs, as can be seen in numerous cases. In one instance, he did whistle for a cab, but it was at a time when the sound of his voice might have brought Moriarty's killers down upon him. In the same case, "The Final Problem," Holmes advises Watson that in such times of danger one should take neither the first nor the second cab to present itself. If a third cab would come, that is, after its driver has seen Watson wave away two others just like it.

Once the hansom was summoned, be it first, second, or third, the small matter of fare came up. Cabs could be hired by distance or time, sometimes at the passenger's choice. The fares for distance at the turn of the century were a shilling for the first two miles, then a sixpence for each mile or part of a mile after that. To travel further than the four-mile radius from Charing Cross, the cost rose to a shilling a mile. Items such as luggage and waiting time cost extra, at a fixed scale of charges.

For such a price, one got not only a ride in a hansom, but the services of that savvy professional known as the cabman. The experienced cab-drivers in the tales of Sherlock Holmes could find you a decent hotel, guide you through an ancient college town, or help you to catch a train. There were benegits to having a cabman as a confidant, Holmes once said, speaking in terms of information to be gained. But he also said that at times it can be an advantage to get about without taking a mercenary into your confidence. When hiring a cab in Holmes's world, your driver could be anything from a murderer to a Pinkerton detective.

While the character of cab-drivers was often dubious, those of their passengers could sometimes be more surely ascertained. Although the hansom was very popular with young people, the reputation of a woman riding in one suffered greatly. Any young lady seen riding in a hansom was judged to be of exceedingly loose morals, probably due to the two-person capacity of the cabs. The insights this gives us about certain women of the Sherlockian Canon are enlightening and sometimes curious.

Irene Adler, while an adventuress, knew quite the way to conduct herself in "A Scandal in Bohemia." When her fiance came for her in a hansom on their wedding day, she sent him on immediately. She then took a much more acceptable landau, an action that undoubtedly did not detract from Holmes's estimation of her as the woman.

Mary Sutherland, the nearsighted typist of "A Case of Identity," did not quite have Miss Adler's sense of propriety, taking a hansom to her groomless wedding. Miss Sutherland's salvation lies in the fact that she was accompanied in the hansom by her mother. Such a companion more than makes up for her poor judgement.

A question is raised, however, in The Sign of the Four when Dr. Watson accompanies Mary Morstan home in a cab. The cab is simply refered to as "a cab," unspecified as to whether it was a four-wheeler or a hansom. Surely it was a four-wheeler, although there are those of low character who may try to argue otherwise. If indeed that cab was a hansom, it has to be assumed that Miss Morstan was in such a state of shock from her adventure that she went mindlessly where Watson led her. Dr. Watson, being also a bit worn out, and a man of habit besides, probably thought nothing of taking a hansom as he always did when his practive had him making many calls.

A hansom was often necessary in Dr. Watson's profession, but it was even moreso in that of Sherlock Holmes. The speed with which it delivered one to the scene of the crime was, at times, vital. Of the sixty recorded cases of Sherlock Holmes available today, nineteen contain specific references to hansoms. Holmes himself takes a hansom in only eight of these, but there are seventeen more cases in which the cab he takes is unspecified. Of these, it is easy to state that the greater number must have been hansoms.

Like the deerstalker cap and the curved pipe, the hansom is a trademark of the Sherlock Holmes legend. Unlike those other two, however, it actually appears in his recorded cases. From the initial promise of A Study in Scarlet ("and we started off together in a hansom") to the reassuring reappearance of "The Adventure of the Empty House" ("I found myself seated beside him in a hansom"), and even up to the last case his chronicler would tell us, "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" ("a smart hansom swept us past a row of ancient colleges") the hansom has always been there. Like the irregulars, like Toby and Pompey, it has a tradition of faithful service to the master of detectives. Such service has made the hansom cab oblivious to progress, as it has earned a place in that realm where time holds no meaning, where, as Vincent Starret has written, "It is always eighteen ninety-five."


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