Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17

THE LAST CAB-DRIVER, AND THE FIRST OMNIBUS CAD

Of all the cabriolet-drivers whom we have ever had the honour and
gratification of knowing by sight--and our acquaintance in this way
has been most extensive--there is one who made an impression on our
mind which can never be effaced, and who awakened in our bosom a
feeling of admiration and respect, which we entertain a fatal
presentiment will never be called forth again by any human being.
He was a man of most simple and prepossessing appearance. He was a
brown-whiskered, white-hatted, no-coated cabman; his nose was
generally red, and his bright blue eye not unfrequently stood out
in bold relief against a black border of artificial workmanship;
his boots were of the Wellington form, pulled up to meet his
corduroy knee-smalls, or at least to approach as near them as their
dimensions would admit of; and his neck was usually garnished with
a bright yellow handkerchief. In summer he carried in his mouth a
flower; in winter, a straw--slight, but, to a contemplative mind,
certain indications of a love of nature, and a taste for botany.

His cabriolet was gorgeously painted--a bright red; and wherever we
went, City or West End, Paddington or Holloway, North, East, West,
or South, there was the red cab, bumping up against the posts at
the street corners, and turning in and out, among hackney-coaches,
and drays, and carts, and waggons, and omnibuses, and contriving by
some strange means or other, to get out of places which no other
vehicle but the red cab could ever by any possibility have
contrived to get into at all. Our fondness for that red cab was
unbounded. How we should have liked to have seen it in the circle
at Astley's! Our life upon it, that it should have performed such
evolutions as would have put the whole company to shame--Indian
chiefs, knights, Swiss peasants, and all.

Some people object to the exertion of getting into cabs, and others
object to the difficulty of getting out of them; we think both
these are objections which take their rise in perverse and ill-
conditioned minds. The getting into a cab is a very pretty and
graceful process, which, when well performed, is essentially
melodramatic. First, there is the expressive pantomime of every
one of the eighteen cabmen on the stand, the moment you raise your
eyes from the ground. Then there is your own pantomime in reply--
quite a little ballet. Four cabs immediately leave the stand, for
your especial accommodation; and the evolutions of the animals who
draw them, are beautiful in the extreme, as they grate the wheels
of the cabs against the curb-stones, and sport playfully in the
kennel. You single out a particular cab, and dart swiftly towards
it. One bound, and you are on the first step; turn your body
lightly round to the right, and you are on the second; bend
gracefully beneath the reins, working round to the left at the same
time, and you are in the cab. There is no difficulty in finding a
seat: the apron knocks you comfortably into it at once, and off
you go.

The getting out of a cab is, perhaps, rather more complicated in
its theory, and a shade more difficult in its execution. We have
studied the subject a great deal, and we think the best way is, to
throw yourself out, and trust to chance for alighting on your feet.
If you make the driver alight first, and then throw yourself upon
him, you will find that he breaks your fall materially. In the
event of your contemplating an offer of eightpence, on no account
make the tender, or show the money, until you are safely on the
pavement. It is very bad policy attempting to save the fourpence.
You are very much in the power of a cabman, and he considers it a
kind of fee not to do you any wilful damage. Any instruction,
however, in the art of getting out of a cab, is wholly unnecessary
if you are going any distance, because the probability is, that you
will be shot lightly out before you have completed the third mile.

We are not aware of any instance on record in which a cab-horse has
performed three consecutive miles without going down once. What of
that? It is all excitement. And in these days of derangement of
the nervous system and universal lassitude, people are content to
pay handsomely for excitement; where can it be procured at a
cheaper rate?

But to return to the red cab; it was omnipresent. You had but to
walk down Holborn, or Fleet-street, or any of the principal
thoroughfares in which there is a great deal of traffic, and judge
for yourself. You had hardly turned into the street, when you saw
a trunk or two, lying on the ground: an uprooted post, a hat-box,
a portmanteau, and a carpet-bag, strewed about in a very
picturesque manner: a horse in a cab standing by, looking about
him with great unconcern; and a crowd, shouting and screaming with
delight, cooling their flushed faces against the glass windows of a
chemist's shop.--'What's the matter here, can you tell me?'--'O'ny
a cab, sir.'--'Anybody hurt, do you know?'--'O'ny the fare, sir. I
see him a turnin' the corner, and I ses to another gen'lm'n "that's
a reg'lar little oss that, and he's a comin' along rayther sweet,
an't he?"--"He just is," ses the other gen'lm'n, ven bump they cums
agin the post, and out flies the fare like bricks.' Need we say it
was the red cab; or that the gentleman with the straw in his mouth,
who emerged so coolly from the chemist's shop and philosophically
climbing into the little dickey, started off at full gallop, was
the red cab's licensed driver?

The ubiquity of this red cab, and the influence it exercised over
the risible muscles of justice itself, was perfectly astonishing.
You walked into the justice-room of the Mansion-house; the whole
court resounded with merriment. The Lord Mayor threw himself back
in his chair, in a state of frantic delight at his own joke; every
vein in Mr. Hobler's countenance was swollen with laughter, partly
at the Lord Mayor's facetiousness, but more at his own; the
constables and police-officers were (as in duty bound) in ecstasies
at Mr. Hobler and the Lord Mayor combined; and the very paupers,
glancing respectfully at the beadle's countenance, tried to smile,
as even he relaxed. A tall, weazen-faced man, with an impediment
in his speech, would be endeavouring to state a case of imposition
against the red cab's driver; and the red cab's driver, and the
Lord Mayor, and Mr. Hobler, would be having a little fun among
themselves, to the inordinate delight of everybody but the
complainant. In the end, justice would be so tickled with the red
cab-driver's native humour, that the fine would be mitigated, and
he would go away full gallop, in the red cab, to impose on somebody
else without loss of time.

The driver of the red cab, confident in the strength of his own
moral principles, like many other philosophers, was wont to set the
feelings and opinions of society at complete defiance. Generally
speaking, perhaps, he would as soon carry a fare safely to his
destination, as he would upset him--sooner, perhaps, because in
that case he not only got the money, but had the additional
amusement of running a longer heat against some smart rival. But
society made war upon him in the shape of penalties, and he must
make war upon society in his own way. This was the reasoning of
the red cab-driver. So, he bestowed a searching look upon the
fare, as he put his hand in his waistcoat pocket, when he had gone
half the mile, to get the money ready; and if he brought forth
eightpence, out he went.

The last time we saw our friend was one wet evening in Tottenham-
court-road, when he was engaged in a very warm and somewhat
personal altercation with a loquacious little gentleman in a green
coat. Poor fellow! there were great excuses to be made for him:
he had not received above eighteenpence more than his fare, and
consequently laboured under a great deal of very natural
indignation. The dispute had attained a pretty considerable
height, when at last the loquacious little gentleman, making a
mental calculation of the distance, and finding that he had already
paid more than he ought, avowed his unalterable determination to
'pull up' the cabman in the morning.

'Now, just mark this, young man,' said the little gentleman, 'I'll
pull you up to-morrow morning.'

'No! will you though?' said our friend, with a sneer.

'I will,' replied the little gentleman, 'mark my words, that's all.
If I live till to-morrow morning, you shall repent this.'

There was a steadiness of purpose, and indignation of speech, about
the little gentleman, as he took an angry pinch of snuff, after
this last declaration, which made a visible impression on the mind
of the red cab-driver. He appeared to hesitate for an instant. It
was only for an instant; his resolve was soon taken.

'You'll pull me up, will you?' said our friend.

'I will,' rejoined the little gentleman, with even greater
vehemence an before.

'Very well,' said our friend, tucking up his shirt sleeves very
calmly. 'There'll be three veeks for that. Wery good; that'll
bring me up to the middle o' next month. Three veeks more would
carry me on to my birthday, and then I've got ten pound to draw. I
may as well get board, lodgin', and washin', till then, out of the
county, as pay for it myself; consequently here goes!'

So, without more ado, the red cab-driver knocked the little
gentleman down, and then called the police to take himself into
custody, with all the civility in the world.

A story is nothing without the sequel; and therefore, we may state,
that to our certain knowledge, the board, lodging, and washing were
all provided in due course. We happen to know the fact, for it
came to our knowledge thus: We went over the House of Correction
for the county of Middlesex shortly after, to witness the operation
of the silent system; and looked on all the 'wheels' with the
greatest anxiety, in search of our long-lost friend. He was
nowhere to be seen, however, and we began to think that the little
gentleman in the green coat must have relented, when, as we were
traversing the kitchen-garden, which lies in a sequestered part of
the prison, we were startled by hearing a voice, which apparently
proceeded from the wall, pouring forth its soul in the plaintive
air of 'All round my hat,' which was then just beginning to form a
recognised portion of our national music.

We started.--'What voice is that?' said we. The Governor shook his
head.

'Sad fellow,' he replied, 'very sad. He positively refused to work
on the wheel; so, after many trials, I was compelled to order him
into solitary confinement. He says he likes it very much though,
and I am afraid he does, for he lies on his back on the floor, and
sings comic songs all day!'

Shall we add, that our heart had not deceived us and that the comic
singer was no other than our eagerly-sought friend, the red cab-
driver?

We have never seen him since, but we have strong reason to suspect
that this noble individual was a distant relative of a waterman of
our acquaintance, who, on one occasion, when we were passing the
coach-stand over which he presides, after standing very quietly to
see a tall man struggle into a cab, ran up very briskly when it was
all over (as his brethren invariably do), and, touching his hat,
asked, as a matter of course, for 'a copper for the waterman.'
Now, the fare was by no means a handsome man; and, waxing very
indignant at the demand, he replied--'Money! What for? Coming up
and looking at me, I suppose!'--'Vell, sir,' rejoined the waterman,
with a smile of immovable complacency, 'THAT'S worth twopence.'

The identical waterman afterwards attained a very prominent station
in society; and as we know something of his life, and have often
thought of telling what we DO know, perhaps we shall never have a
better opportunity than the present.

Mr. William Barker, then, for that was the gentleman's name, Mr.
William Barker was born--but why need we relate where Mr. William
Barker was born, or when? Why scrutinise the entries in parochial
ledgers, or seek to penetrate the Lucinian mysteries of lying-in
hospitals? Mr. William Barker WAS born, or he had never been.
There is a son--there was a father. There is an effect--there was
a cause. Surely this is sufficient information for the most
Fatima-like curiosity; and, if it be not, we regret our inability
to supply any further evidence on the point. Can there be a more
satisfactory, or more strictly parliamentary course? Impossible.

We at once avow a similar inability to record at what precise
period, or by what particular process, this gentleman's patronymic,
of William Barker, became corrupted into 'Bill Boorker.' Mr. Barker
acquired a high standing, and no inconsiderable reputation, among
the members of that profession to which he more peculiarly devoted
his energies; and to them he was generally known, either by the
familiar appellation of 'Bill Boorker,' or the flattering
designation of 'Aggerawatin Bill,' the latter being a playful and
expressive sobriquet, illustrative of Mr. Barker's great talent in
'aggerawatin' and rendering wild such subjects of her Majesty as
are conveyed from place to place, through the instrumentality of
omnibuses. Of the early life of Mr. Barker little is known, and
even that little is involved in considerable doubt and obscurity.
A want of application, a restlessness of purpose, a thirsting after
porter, a love of all that is roving and cadger-like in nature,
shared in common with many other great geniuses, appear to have
been his leading characteristics. The busy hum of a parochial
free-school, and the shady repose of a county gaol, were alike
inefficacious in producing the slightest alteration in Mr. Barker's
disposition. His feverish attachment to change and variety nothing
could repress; his native daring no punishment could subdue.

If Mr. Barker can be fairly said to have had any weakness in his
earlier years, it was an amiable one--love; love in its most
comprehensive form--a love of ladies, liquids, and pocket-
handkerchiefs. It was no selfish feeling; it was not confined to
his own possessions, which but too many men regard with exclusive
complacency. No; it was a nobler love--a general principle. It
extended itself with equal force to the property of other people.

There is something very affecting in this. It is still more
affecting to know, that such philanthropy is but imperfectly
rewarded. Bow-street, Newgate, and Millbank, are a poor return for
general benevolence, evincing itself in an irrepressible love for
all created objects. Mr. Barker felt it so. After a lengthened
interview with the highest legal authorities, he quitted his
ungrateful country, with the consent, and at the expense, of its
Government; proceeded to a distant shore; and there employed
himself, like another Cincinnatus, in clearing and cultivating the
soil--a peaceful pursuit, in which a term of seven years glided
almost imperceptibly away.

Whether, at the expiration of the period we have just mentioned,
the British Government required Mr. Barker's presence here, or did
not require his residence abroad, we have no distinct means of
ascertaining. We should be inclined, however, to favour the latter
position, inasmuch as we do not find that he was advanced to any
other public post on his return, than the post at the corner of the
Haymarket, where he officiated as assistant-waterman to the
hackney-coach stand. Seated, in this capacity, on a couple of tubs
near the curbstone, with a brass plate and number suspended round
his neck by a massive chain, and his ankles curiously enveloped in
haybands, he is supposed to have made those observations on human
nature which exercised so material an influence over all his
proceedings in later life.

Mr. Barker had not officiated for many months in this capacity,
when the appearance of the first omnibus caused the public mind to
go in a new direction, and prevented a great many hackney-coaches
from going in any direction at all. The genius of Mr. Barker at
once perceived the whole extent of the injury that would be
eventually inflicted on cab and coach stands, and, by consequence,
on watermen also, by the progress of the system of which the first
omnibus was a part. He saw, too, the necessity of adopting some
more profitable profession; and his active mind at once perceived
how much might be done in the way of enticing the youthful and
unwary, and shoving the old and helpless, into the wrong buss, and
carrying them off, until, reduced to despair, they ransomed
themselves by the payment of sixpence a-head, or, to adopt his own
figurative expression in all its native beauty, 'till they was
rig'larly done over, and forked out the stumpy.'

An opportunity for realising his fondest anticipations, soon
presented itself. Rumours were rife on the hackney-coach stands,
that a buss was building, to run from Lisson-grove to the Bank,
down Oxford-street and Holborn; and the rapid increase of busses on
the Paddington-road, encouraged the idea. Mr. Barker secretly and
cautiously inquired in the proper quarters. The report was
correct; the 'Royal William' was to make its first journey on the
following Monday. It was a crack affair altogether. An
enterprising young cabman, of established reputation as a dashing
whip--for he had compromised with the parents of three scrunched
children, and just 'worked out' his fine for knocking down an old
lady--was the driver; and the spirited proprietor, knowing Mr.
Barker's qualifications, appointed him to the vacant office of cad
on the very first application. The buss began to run, and Mr.
Barker entered into a new suit of clothes, and on a new sphere of
action.

To recapitulate all the improvements introduced by this
extraordinary man into the omnibus system--gradually, indeed, but
surely--would occupy a far greater space than we are enabled to
devote to this imperfect memoir. To him is universally assigned
the original suggestion of the practice which afterwards became so
general--of the driver of a second buss keeping constantly behind
the first one, and driving the pole of his vehicle either into the
door of the other, every time it was opened, or through the body of
any lady or gentleman who might make an attempt to get into it; a
humorous and pleasant invention, exhibiting all that originality of
idea, and fine, bold flow of spirits, so conspicuous in every
action of this great man.

Mr. Barker had opponents of course; what man in public life has
not? But even his worst enemies cannot deny that he has taken more
old ladies and gentlemen to Paddington who wanted to go to the
Bank, and more old ladies and gentlemen to the Bank who wanted to
go to Paddington, than any six men on the road; and however much
malevolent spirits may pretend to doubt the accuracy of the
statement, they well know it to be an established fact, that he has
forcibly conveyed a variety of ancient persons of either sex, to
both places, who had not the slightest or most distant intention of
going anywhere at all.

Mr. Barker was the identical cad who nobly distinguished himself,
some time since, by keeping a tradesman on the step--the omnibus
going at full speed all the time--till he had thrashed him to his
entire satisfaction, and finally throwing him away, when he had
quite done with him. Mr. Barker it OUGHT to have been, who
honestly indignant at being ignominiously ejected from a house of
public entertainment, kicked the landlord in the knee, and thereby
caused his death. We say it OUGHT to have been Mr. Barker, because
the action was not a common one, and could have emanated from no
ordinary mind.

It has now become matter of history; it is recorded in the Newgate
Calendar; and we wish we could attribute this piece of daring
heroism to Mr. Barker. We regret being compelled to state that it
was not performed by him. Would, for the family credit we could
add, that it was achieved by his brother!

It was in the exercise of the nicer details of his profession, that
Mr. Barker's knowledge of human nature was beautifully displayed.
He could tell at a glance where a passenger wanted to go to, and
would shout the name of the place accordingly, without the
slightest reference to the real destination of the vehicle. He
knew exactly the kind of old lady that would be too much flurried
by the process of pushing in and pulling out of the caravan, to
discover where she had been put down, until too late; had an
intuitive perception of what was passing in a passenger's mind when
he inwardly resolved to 'pull that cad up to-morrow morning;' and
never failed to make himself agreeable to female servants, whom he
would place next the door, and talk to all the way.

Human judgment is never infallible, and it would occasionally
happen that Mr. Barker experimentalised with the timidity or
forbearance of the wrong person, in which case a summons to a
Police-office, was, on more than one occasion, followed by a
committal to prison. It was not in the power of trifles such as
these, however, to subdue the freedom of his spirit. As soon as
they passed away, he resumed the duties of his profession with
unabated ardour.

We have spoken of Mr. Barker and of the red cab-driver, in the past
tense. Alas! Mr. Barker has again become an absentee; and the
class of men to which they both belonged is fast disappearing.
Improvement has peered beneath the aprons of our cabs, and
penetrated to the very innermost recesses of our omnibuses. Dirt
and fustian will vanish before cleanliness and livery. Slang will
be forgotten when civility becomes general: and that enlightened,
eloquent, sage, and profound body, the Magistracy of London, will
be deprived of half their amusement, and half their occupation.

Charles Dickens