Cab drivers had a reputation for drunkenness, lawlessness, and cruelty. In London Labour and the London Poor (1861), Henry Mayhew estimated that about a twelfth of cabmen were ‘fancy men’ living wholly or partially off the earnings of prostitutes. Women travelling by cab were vulnerable to many things including over-charging, and the 1862 International Exhibition in London increased fears of extortionate fares.
London halved equine lives and while tram and omnibus horses could last for four or five years, cab horses’ average working life was only two to three years. Anna Sewell’s anti-cruelty novel Black Beauty (1877) evocatively describes driving to a railway station through the traffic congestion that was acute in the 1860s:
It is always difficult to drive fast in the city in the middle of the day, when the streets are full of traffic…carriages, omnibusses, carts, vans, trucks, cabs, and great waggons creeping along at a walking pace; some going one way, some another, some going slow, others wanting to pass them, omnibusses stopping short every few minutes to take up a passenger, obliging the horse that is coming behind, to pull up too, or to pass, and get before them; perhaps you try to pass, but just then, something else comes dashing in through the narrow opening, and you have to keep in behind the omnibus again; presently you think you see a chance, and manage to get to the front, going so near the wheels on each side, that half-an-inch nearer and they would scrape. Well—you get along for a bit, but soon find yourself in a long train of carts and carriages all obliged to go at a walk; perhaps you come to a regular block-up, and have to stand still for minutes together, till something clears out into a side street, or the policeman interferes: you have to be ready for any chance—to dash forward if there be an opening, and be quick as a rat dog to see if there be room, and if there be time, lest you get your own wheels locked, or smashed, or the shaft of some other vehicle run into your chest or shoulder….If you want to get through London fast in the middle of the day, it wants a deal of practice.