"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
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
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
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
Back to Hansoms of John Clayton page