Joseph Hansom (1803 – 1882)
I was rereading one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories the other day. The protagonist rushed to the scene of the crime in a Hansom cab, the principal form of taxi in those days. It set me thinking about who designed the carriage and this led me to the unfortunate character that was Joseph Hansom whose ingenuity and ill-fortune earns him a place in our illustrious Hall of Fame.
Working as an estate manager at Caldecote Hall, near Nuneaton, Hansom came up with a revolutionary design for a safety cab. It could hold two passengers with the driver seated at the back, communication between the two parties being effected through a trapdoor in the roof. Its principal advantage over contemporary rivals was that it had a low centre of gravity – large wheels and a lower cab and suspended axle – which meant it was much more stable when cornering. Being light and capable of being drawn by only one horse – making it cheaper for the cabbie to operate – it was faster and more manoeuvrable than many of its rivals.
Hansom applied for a patent on December 23rd 1834 and the first Hansom cab travelled down the Coventry Road in Hinckley in 1835. The design was a great success and Hansoms soon replaced the more expensive to run four-wheeled Hackney carriages as the vehicle of choice for hire. In its heyday there were up to 7,500 Hansoms plying their trade in London and they were to be seen in other major cities in the UK as well as Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York. The last London Hansom driver handed his licence in as recently as 1947.
Although others, principally, John Chapman, made modifications to the design, mainly to improve passenger comfort, Hansom’s design stood the test of time. As the holder of the patent you would expect Joseph to have received a handsome reward for his ingenuity. Alas, he didn’t. He sold his patent for the cab to a company for the sum of £10,000. The company immediately got into financial difficulties and reneged on the payment leaving Hansom without a penny.
Throughout his life Hansom was dogged by ill-luck. Starting out as an architect – he designed over two hundred buildings including Plymouth Cathedral – he and his partner, Edward Welch, overcame stiff opposition to win the commission to design and build Birmingham Town Hall in 1831. It is a beautiful building with tall pillars and a Roman feel about it but costs soon spiralled out of control and as the architects had stood surety for the builders the edifice brought their company crashing down into bankruptcy.
In 1843 Hansom together with Alfred Bartholomew started an architectural journal called the Builder which is still going today, although it was renamed Building in 1966. Aimed at architects, builders and workmen it found a profitable niche but, as you might expect, Hansom didn’t share in the rewards. He had to relinquish his control over the journal because of lack of capital.
Whilst his name was immortalised in the cab that he designed – there is a blue plaque in his memory outside one of his former residences, 27, Sumner Place in South Kensington – he didn’t receive a bean for his ingenuity. It must have been particularly galling for him to summon a cab. For that reason, Joseph, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards