London Cabman’s Shelters, Benny Hill & Jack the Ripper!
If I have an appointment in London, I always spend the whole day there as I love discovering new things to write about.
This time I decided to visit a Cabman’s Shelter.
Many thousands of people pass one of these green huts every day without paying them any attention. But they’re some of the most important historical places in London, and if they could talk, they’d all have plenty of interesting tales to tell! There were originally 61 of them, but only 14 remain, and one of them has just closed for renovation. They’re all now Grade ll listed buildings.
I found one in Kensington Road, outside the Kensington Gardens railings. It has parking for around a dozen cabs. It wouldn’t surprise me if their design was copied for Dr Who’s Tardis as there’s room inside the small green hut for a full-sized kitchen and a seating area for about 10 Cabbies to sit and eat.
It’s known as The All Nations because it’s surrounded by Embassies.
Billy and Hazel have had the franchise for four years. They open every day from 6.30am-3pm five days a week. I asked if they’re still speaking and Billy said, Yes, barely!
They didn’t stop working for a second, handing out coffee and bacon rolls through the hatch and serving customers inside the Shelter.
As they worked, they recalled snippets of information and they both told me things about the Hut.
Benny Hill used to live nearly almost opposite and he used to eat there a lot. And Winston Churchill had been another customer.
There are strong black rails all round the hut. That’s where the hansom cab horses were tethered while their owners ate.
The Keepers of the huts used to charge the cabbies a penny to park, or tuppence if they picked up a fare there.
I thanked them both and left them to their endless catering.
Because cab drivers weren’t allowed to leave their vehicles when parked at a stand, it was difficult for them to get a hot meal while at work, so The Earl of Shaftesbury and a few of his friends decided to create a Cabbie’s Charity in 1874.
Entitled the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, the charity set out to construct and run shelters to provide cabbies with ‘good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices.’
Between 1875 and 1914, a total of 61 shelters were built at cost of around £200 each.
The surviving shelters can be seen at:
Chelsea Embankment – near the Albert Bridge
Grosvenor Gardens – west side of north garden
Hanover Square – north of central garden
Kensington Park Road – outside numbers 8-10
Kensington Road – north side
Russell Square – west corner (previously in Leicester Square)
St George’s Square, Pimlico
Thurloe Place, Kensington – opp the Victoria & Albert Museum
Warwick Avenue – Clifton Gardens
Wellington Place, St John’s Wood
Mr. Thomas Ryan, who has charge of the cabman’s reading-room and shelter in Westbourne-grove, relates a story of a man who made a mysterious statement to him on Sunday afternoon.
According to this narrative a street attendant brought a man to the shelter about four o’clock in the afternoon and said, “This ‘ere gentleman wants a chop, guv’nor; can you cook one for him. He says he’s ‘most perished with cold.” Mr. Ryan replied, “Certainly, I will cook you one with pleasure. Come in.”
The man accordingly entered and sat down. He was about 5 ft 6 in in height, wore an Oxford cap and a light check ulster with a tippet, which he did not loosen all the time. He had a thick moustache, but no beard, had clean white hands, was round-headed, his eyes very restless, and he seemed to have been drinking. Several cabmen were in the shelter at the time, talking of the murders discovered that morning at Whitechapel.
Ryan exclaimed, “I’d gladly give a good deal if I could only find the fellow who did them.” The stranger, looking into Ryan’s face, quietly replied “Don’t you know who committed the murders? I did them. I’ve had a lot of trouble lately. I came back from India and got into trouble at once.
I lost my watch and chain and £10.” Mr. Ryan and the other persons present were much surprised at this statement, but as the man appeared to be under the influence of liquor they did not pay much attention to it, more especially as he produced a bottle, apparently of brandy, out of his pocket and offered them a drink. Mr. Ryan told him they were all teetotallers there, and got him to sign a temperance pledge. He signed the book as “J. Duncan; doctor; residence, Cabman’s Shelter; Sept. 30, 1888.”
After doing this he said, “I could tell a tale if I wanted,” and relapsed into semi-somnolence. Mr. Ryan called his attention to the fact that he had not filled in his proper residence, and the man replied, “I have no fixed place of abode at present. I’m living anywhere.” After eating his chop and again offering the company a drink he disappeared, and has not since been heard of.
The Junior Turf was the name given to the Cabbie’s Shelter outside Green Park, near the Ritz.
At the end of the 1800s theatre-goers had nowhere to go after the performance as London’s restaurants were all closed. So they would hail a hansom cab and ask, ‘Where can I get something to eat, cabby?’
‘You come along o’ me, captain’ was the reply and the cabby would whip up his horse and go to the Junior Turf. He could usually get a free meal paid for by the passenger.
There was an ancient custom that the taxicab drivers could eat roast beef almost any time of the night or day, and ribs of beef were on the table from 11am.
A row of cabs would be lined up outside the Shelter with the distinguished passengers all eating bacon and eggs or toad in the hole.
The Prince of Wales was spotted there by a beggar. He was homeward bound after a late party and stopped at the Junior Turf for a cup of coffee which he couldn’t get in the Palace at 3am.
Eventually, according to HV Morton, ‘Westminster Council said that if the Junior Turf desired to hand out sausages to the Nobility and the frivolity it would have either to pay rates or shut its doors; and the people who lived over the way said that although they loved life and laughter they hated them in the middle of the night, so the Junior Turf Club, being only a cabman’s shelter – but the most famous shelter in London – pulled itself together and decided to keep its sausages within bounds, which is legal and proper.’
‘I looked up at the Junior Turf Club, no longer a generous distributor of midnight sausage, no longer a romantic oasis in the darkness of a sleeping city in which you might find a yawning beauty, a crumpled peer, a prince, a pauper, or a rake.’
They all seem to shut at 3pm now, not 3am.
Oh well, there’s always McDonald’s!