It is one of the features of the old stories which came out of 221B, Baker Street, London, that Sherlock Holmes always took cabs everywhere.
He and Watson fly around the British capital courtesy of the old London cabbie system: small, utilitarian horses and carriages driven by hackney,or haquenée horses: those small enough for a young woman to ride.
The first cab was hailed in 1621, and the first ordinance to control them in 1662. And they have been around ever since, clattering through the streets to get people to some apointment or other. Latterly the horses disapeared; the internal combustion engine came to London’s cabs in 1901, and they were joined by omnibuses. Beneath the horse’s hooves steam trains began to wail through tunnels taking passengers.
The last horse-drawn hackney carriage went out of service in 1947.
But people always need a cab. Today, in the present day “Sherlock” which has made Benedict Cumberbatch such a prized commodity, they still take cabs everywhere in memory of the first Holmes, whose stories span 1880-1914.
But just imagine if the original Holmes and Watson had flown out of Baker Street on some great errand and jumped into a cab, only to discover that it did not have a horse?
Such a scene would have been perfectly historically accurate, even three years before the end of the 19th century.
Because before petrol-powered cars came a soundless fleet, launched in 1897.
They called them ‘hummingbirds’.
There’s one on show right now at the Science Museum, though I believe its time there grows short. Owner Walter Bersey had a fleet of 12 in 1897, but it expanded rapidly to 75 cars.
They were not small. Weighing two tons, they looked like any carriage, except without the horse. They were huge by comparison with today’s cars, with thin rubber tyres to negotiate the city’s greasy streets. They had brittle glass-plated batteries, which could only be recharged at the recharge station in Lambeth.
For two years, the vehicles would sneak up on Londoners with a telltale hum, frightening the bejeezers out of them because, of course, there was no rattle of hooves to announce their arrival, just an ethereal buzz.
But like many visionary projects it could not recover its costs. Walter Bersey lost more than £6000 in the first year; those high-tech rubber tyres were never going to be able to stand the weight of the carriages, and generating the firm’s electricity became an issue. But most of all, all the cabbies with their horses sent up a great furore. They could see the future stretching out without their kind. And they were far from pleased.
The newspapers took up the cabbies’ cause, reporting accidents and breakdowns with studied attention. And in 1899, Mr Bersey’s cabs were pulled off the road, once and for all.
They paved the way for the combustion engine, it is true. Perhaps the cabbies had had time to get used to the idea of a carriage without a horse by its introduction in 1901. On can only speculate as to the contribution of the horseless fleets, which took to the streets in the subsequent half century, to the smoggy ‘pea soupers’ which could prove killers.
Yet before the turn of the nineteenth century, London had held the secret to a clean-air transport system within its grasp, fuelled by a little station in Lambeth.
I’ll leave you with Sherlock and Watson: one of their first conversations. In a taxi cab, of course.