A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: History

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Three

The Inland Customs Hedge of India

It was all about tax and salt. In the unforgiving heat of India it was estimated that an adult needed an ounce a day to survive and whilst there were plentiful supplies of the mineral in Eastern India, other parts were poorly served. One of the most egregious taxes imposed on the natives by the East India Company and then the British Raj was the salt tax which made the mineral prohibitively expensive. And where there is tax, there is an incentive to evade it, principally through smuggling.

So concerned was the East India Company about smuggling and the impact on its revenue that from 1803 a series of customs houses were built across the major roads and rivers of Bengal to collect taxes. But this was not altogether successful as the crafty locals would just go round the posts. In 1834 G H Smith developed a more substantial structure, running from Agra to Delhi and consisting of customs posts at mile intervals linked by a raised path with gates every four miles to allow movement from one side to the other. 6,600 employees staffed the line and there were border patrols operating a couple of miles or so behind the line. There were cells where smugglers were detained – these were known as chowkis, from which our word chokey

Control of most of India passed from the East India Company to the British government following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and in 1869 they ordered that the various customs lines be integrated into a single structure, running some 2,504 miles from the Himalayas to Orissa. To give some sense of the profitability of the salt tax some 12.5 million rupees were collected in 1869-70 and by 1877 it was worth 29.1 million rupees.

One of the problems facing the British administrators was the absence of natural material with which to build the wall. But you don’t get to rule an empire without showing some ingenuity and this ia where Allan Octavian Hume came in. To supplement the earth and bricks, dry hedging had been used, principally from dwarf Indian Plum. Some of it had taken root and Hume’s brainwave in 1869 was to plant a hedge. That year he began experimenting with various types of local bushes. The key requisites were that they would grow in the various soil conditions and that they were thorny. He came up with a mix of Indian plum, babool, karonda and various species of euphorbia.

Around 800 miles of hedge was planted, never less than eight feet high and four feet wide and often up to twelve feet tall and fourteen feet thick. In Hume’s own words, it was “in its most perfect form.. utterly impassable to man or beast.” Of course, some tried, by driving their camels straight at the hedge or throwing the bags over the hedge and there were clashes. Two administrators tried to arrest 112 smugglers in 1877 and died in the attempt. Bribery and corruption was rife. But the main bug bear was that the hedge disrupted trade and free movement. Who’d have thought it?

Once the Brits had secured control of salt production and introduced a refinement of the salt tax which varied between regions, thus making smuggling uneconomic, there was little need for the hedge. In 1879 work stopped on building and maintaining it and when India gained independence in 1947 the last remaining remnants of the hedge were ripped up.

The customs hedge had a significant impact on India. It is estimated that millions of Indians died because of their inability to afford salt and it stoked up resentment against the Brits, something that Gandhi was able to exploit with his first piece of civil disobedience, his salt satyagraha. On the plus side, the customs line provided the only surveyed straight line in the area and so it was used for the route of a number of roads.  But if you are searching for the hedge, you will be sorely disappointed.


Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty One

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.

What Is The Origin Of (149)?…

Without let or hindrance

I thought my passport was due for renewal in the next year or so and with some foreign expeditions in mind, I dug it out. Other than to bemoan the verisimilitude of my portrait I have never really paid the document much attention but my eye was caught by the rather impressive italicised statement on the inside front cover, to wit, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” I am sure we are all reassured by this demand, the modern-day equivalent of civis Romanus sum.

The phrase that particularly caught my attention was without let or hindrance which means without obstruction, save a wait of a couple of hours to get through border controls. Hindrance, as a noun, dates back to the 15th century and is a modernisation of the Middle English word, hinderaunce. It is a compound of the word hinder and the suffix –ance which is used to form nouns from adjectives or verbs. Its sense has not changed in six centuries.

What is more interesting is the noun, let. Nowadays, when we use the word let, it is normally as a verb and means to allow. It has had this sense since the 10th century but clearly the noun in our phrase cannot have this meaning as it would contradict hindrance and make nonsense of Her Britannic Majesty’s demand – something we surely cannot allow to happen.

It turns out that from the 9th century let had another meaning, total opposite to that which we associate the word with today. In other words, it meant to hinder or obstruct and in our phrase is used to strengthen and reiterate the demand for untrammelled passage. Around the 12th century it began to appear in noun form and obstacles were known as lets. To this day it survives in this sense in our phrase and in the terminology associated with the game of lawn tennis. In the rules of the game a let is where some obstruction has occurred, such as the ball clipping the net from a serve or some encroachment onto the playing surface, necessitation that the point be played again.

So having got that sorted out, the next thing to exercise our mind is when let and hinder were first conjoined. John Baret’s useful and, presumably, enormous Aluearie or triple dictionarie in Englishe, Latin and French: very profitable for all such as be desirous of any of those three languages, published in 1574 mentions the phrase let or hinder so it must have been in use at least in the 16th century.

The legal profession then seem to have got hold of it and used it specifically to describe the actions of those who obstruct representatives going about their lawful duty. Samuel Freeman had a long career as clerk to the state courts of Massachusetts and in 1799 distilled his long experience into a manual called the Town Officer, which included inter alia oaths, instructions, descriptions of the powers and duties of officials and a table of crimes and punishments. There we find “persons who wilfully let or hinder any sheriff or constable.

Satisfied, I shall put my passport away until I next pack my suitcase.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Forty One

The Oriental Club

This club is slightly away from London’s traditional club land, having moved to Stratford House, just off Oxford Street, in 1960. The name on the tin says it all – it was originally designed to draw its membership from those who had seen service or made their fortunes in the East, principally in India. The driving force behind the foundation of the club was Major General Sir John Malcolm.

A founding committee was established in 1824 and a series of adverts were posted in the right sort of papers and journals to attract the right sort of chaps – chapesses were not eligible for membership until 2010. The club was seeking to recruit “Noblemen and gentlemen associated with the administration of our Eastern empire, or who have travelled or resided in Asia, at St. Helena, in Egypt, at the Cape of Good Hope, the Mauritius, or at Constantinople. The initial committee consisted of “forty individuals of rank and talent” including the Duke of Wellington.

According to the prospectus, “the club will be established at a house in a convenient situation” – the first premises occupied was at No 16 Lower Grosvenor Street but in 1827-8 a purpose-built club house was constructed in Hanover Square where the club remained until decamping to the present site in 1960. The prospectus went on to state that “The utmost economy shall be observed in the whole establishment, and the subscription for its foundation and support shall not exceed fifteen pounds entrance, and six pounds per annum.”

As the club increased in popularity, subscriptions had increased. An account of the club in The Great Metropolis, written by James Grant and published in 1837, noted that The admission money to the Oriental Club is twenty pounds, the annual subscription is eight pounds. The number of members is 550.” A casual observer of proceedings at the club could play a sort of Oriental bingo. Grant commented, “I have often thought it would be worth the while of some curious person to count the number of times the words Calcutta, Bombay and Madras are pronounced by the members in the course of a day.” Members by that time were persons who are living at home on fortunes they have amassed in India. India and Indian matters form the everlasting topics of their conversation.”

One of the conspicuous habits of nabobs, as men who had return from the East having made prodigious fortunes in double quick time were known as, was their taking of snuff. The legacy of this habit can be seen today at the club. In the Old Smoking Room is to be found an elaborate ram’s head snuff box together with snuff rake and spoons. But if Grant is to be believed, the members must have brought their own snuff as, according to Grant, the amount in the club’s accounts for snuff was a paltry 17 shillings and 10 pennies.

The club, known pejoratively amongst Hackney carriage drivers as the Horizontal, was not to everyone’s taste. It was known for its library-like atmosphere and The New Monthly Magazine wryly commented, From the outside it looks like a prison;—enter it, it looks like an hospital, in which a smell of curry-powder pervades the ‘wards,’—wards filled with venerable patients, dressed in nankeen shorts, yellow stockings, and gaiters, and faces to match. There may still be seen pigtails in all their pristine perfection. It is the region of calico shirts, returned writers, and guinea-pigs grown into bores.” Perhaps we need to take this description with a pinch of curry powder!

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Four

The Grand Central Information Booth scam, 1929

Sometimes I stumble on stories that seem too good to be true and I bring this one to your attention with some trepidation as the jury is out as to whether it really happened or not. However, the New York Central Railroad attested it in their brochure about the architectural wonder that is the Grand Central station in the late 1960s and in the absence of anything to the contrary, that’s good enough for me.

The marks in this scam were two Italian entrepreneurs, Tony and Nick Fortunato (or not so, as it turned out) who ran the Fortunato Fruit Company. In early 1929 their premises were visited by a well-dressed man from the Grand Central Holding Corporation, called T Remington Grenfall. He had an astonishing proposition for them. The information booth that was in the central of the hall was going to be closed down and travellers would have to get travel information from the ticket desks. The reason, he cited, was that too many members of the public were asking stupid questions and the central position of the booth was disrupting the flow of people to the platforms.

What this meant was that there was an amazing piece of prime real estate available for rent to the first merchants who recognised the gold mine that the opportunity was. The Fortunatos fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

In order to secure the site which was directly underneath the Golden Clock, the Fortunatos had to come up with a year’s rent in advance, a cool $100,000. The next day the brothers visited the Grand Central Holding Corporation offices, next door to the station (natch), and handed over the money to the so-called President, one Wilson A Blodgett. In return they received a contract which stated that on 1st April 1929 (April Fools’ Day, note) they were entitled to take possession of the space.

When 1st April arrived, the Fortunatos, accompanied by a number of workers and a large amount of timber, walked into the hall of the station to take possession of their spot, as per the contract. Imagine their surprise, then, when they saw that not only was the information booth still in situ but that it was manned and operating as normal. The employees manning the booth refused to leave their posts and, worse still, the Fortunatos were requested to leave. Inevitably, the station denied all knowledge of any plan to rent out space in the hall and refused to honour the contract the increasingly frustrated Fortunato’s waved in their face.

Eventually, it dawned on the Italians that they had been had and their next recourse was to go to the police. Despite an exhaustive search, neither hide nor hair of Messrs Grenfall and Blodgett was ever seen and the Fortunatos were forced to write off their loss to experience. When something seems to good to be true, it generally is.

But Grand Central had not seen the last of the Fortunatos. Every now and again they would return to the station and intimidate the poor folk working in the information booths and shout at railway officials. So notorious was their behaviour that people would often go to the station on spec just to see whether the Italians would turn up and put on a show.

A Better Life – Part Fourteen

Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters

Sometimes you find yourself in a dead-end and know that there is something better you could be doing with your life. It matters not if you have made a small fortune as a partner in the Larkin Soap Company, if your dream is to be a writer and to promote high quality goods. So in 1894 Elbert Hubbard quit his lucrative position to set up a printing company in East Aurora, New York, taking as his inspiration William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement. His aim was to convince Americans that beauty was to be found in everyday objects.

The press was called Roycroft after two English printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who operated in London between 1650 and 1690. As important to Hubbard was the fact that roycroft was a title given to guildsmen who had achieved a high degree of skill and were thus qualified to make objects for the monarchy. The books produced by the Roycroft Press were noted for their elaborate book-binding and typography and used traditional skills and techniques. Hubbard’s espousal of high quality, traditional craftsmanship soon saw an influx of like-minded furniture makers, metalsmiths and leathersmiths. An arty community was born in East Aurora.

The Roycroft motto clearly spelt out their aims;The Roycrofters are a small band of workers who make beautiful books and things—making them as good as they can.” They took a quote from John Ruskin as their modus operandi – “a belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that each task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.” Eschewing some of the mistakes other communes had made, Hubbard deliberately excluded those who just wanted to spend their time there pontificating rather than getting their hands dirty. Instead, as Hubbard recalled, his preferred recruits were “boys who have been expelled from school, blind people, deaf people, old people, jail-birds and mental defectives” who all managed to do good work.

Although Hubbard owned the property, Roycroft was similar to other American utopian communes in that meals were taken communally, there were meetings, sports events and communal studies. Wages were low but then there was little to spend money on. The commune managed to create an atmosphere of shared values where work was satisfying and everyone looked out for each other.

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the community thrived and developed what was known as the Campus. In 1909 a powerhouse was built to provide the workshops with heat and electricity and hundreds of craftsman-style bungalows were built to house the artisans. By the early 1910s the Roycrofters were producing everything from lighting and stained glass to pottery and jewellery as well as the staple products of books and furniture. Much is still sought after today.

Hubbard, by this time, had seen commercial success from his books, Little Journeys and A Message To Garcia, and toured the States on lecture tours. This, of course, provided ample opportunity to attract and recruit like-minded craftspeople. Alas, though, tragedy struck Hubbard and by extension the Roycrofters in 1915 when he and his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, were lost at sea when the HMS Lusitania went down.

Hubbard’s son, Bert, assumed his father’s role and tried to wholesale the Roycrofters’ furniture into retail outlets. Sears & Roebuck eventually stocked some of the goods but it was a short-lived success, the commune closing its doors eventually in 1938, after the depression forced Bert to file for bankruptcy. Fourteen of the original Roycroft buildings can still be seen today.

What Is The Origin Of (148)?…

Cucumber time

Every now and again I come across a phrase which is now redundant, at least in English, but which is so evocative that it deserves to make a comeback. A case in point is this week’s phrase, cucumber time, which was used to denote that flat time of the year when nothing much happens. These days we call it the silly season when newspapers are full of stories like man bites dog or nothing much happened today or what the Americans call a slow news season. But why cucumbers?

It first made its appearance in print in the ever useful A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1700. In its august pages cucumber time is defined as “taylers holiday when they have leave to play and cucumbers are in season.” We can deduce that it was already in use in the 17th century, at least among the lower sorts whose colourful language would make its way into a lexicon. A reference in Notes and Queries from 1853 shone some further light on the phrase; “this term…the working tailors of England use to denote that which their masters call the flat season.

Further explanation of the term was provided by the Pall Mall Gazette of 1867 which noted that “Tailors could not be expected to earn much money in cucumber season.” The reason cited for the downturn in the tailors’ earning power was that “when the cucumbers are in, the gentry are out of town.” With the toffs out enjoying a summer retreat in the country, there was no one around to order a new set of togs. The tailors were idle.

What is particularly interesting is that the phrase cucumber time or season (and in some cases the pickled version of a cucumber, the gherkin) appears in a number of European languages, all meaning the flat part of the year. In Dutch we have komkommertijd, in German sauregurkenzeit ,in Norwegian  agurktid  in Czech Okurková sezóna and in Polish  Sezon ogórkowy to name just a few. Perhaps, tellingly, there is a similar phrase in Hebrew, Onat Ha’melafefonim. Given the dominance that Jews had in the clothing trade and their diaspora, often enforced, throughout Europe, is it fanciful to suppose that the Hebrew phrase is the source of the phrase?

Tailors became known as cucumbers, giving further credence to the widespread adoption of our phrase and its association with the peaks and troughs of their workload. An illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, published in 1823, entitled Hot Goose, Cabbages and Cucumbers, makes the point. In the vernacular of tailoring, cabbage was a term used to describe the off cuts of cloth from an order. As they had already been paid for, the tailor could use them to make other garments – an added bonus. Cabbage also became a term for tailors and/or money and gave rise to a playful maxim that “tailors are Vegetarians, because they live on ‘cucumber’ when without work, and on ‘cabbage’ when in full employ.” In case you were wondering, the goose referred to in Rowlandson’s picture is an iron.

It was around the 1860s and down to an unnamed writer for the Saturday Review that the term silly season was born, to describe, ostensibly, that time of the year when Parliament and the courts were in recess and when newspapers had little or nothing with which to fill up their pages. It is a shame that that phrase stuck. It is high time we restored cucumber time to its rightful place in our language or am I just being silly?

A Measure Of Things – Part Ten

The invention and rapid adoption of printing technology was a revolutionary step forward for what we call Western civilisation. Of course, the Chinese and Arabs were light years ahead of us in that respect. And in order to print you needed paper. John Tate established the first paper mill in England near Stevenage in Hertfordshire in 1480, although it was not until the 1580s that the first successful commercial paper mill was established in Dartford in Kent by a German émigré, John Spilman.

Paper comes in a bewildering array of shapes and sized and it was not until 1959 that some order was established when Britain adopted the International Standards Organisation’s system of sizing paper, but we will save that for another time. Before that we had the British Imperial system of paper sizes. Some of the nomenclature that you may be familiar with includes Imperial which was a sheet sized thirty inches by twenty-two, the Emperor – a whopping 72 inches by 48 – and foolscap, which got its name from the watermark, a fool’s cap and bells, that was ingrained into the paper. Its dimensions were 13.25 inches by 16.25 in its cut form and 13.5 by 17 in its uncut form.

Many of the paper sizes were too big for practical purposes and so they were folded, to make it easier to print on and to bind into a book. Naturally, this developed a vocabulary of its own. A folio was used to describe a piece of paper that had been folded in half, to produce two sheets of paper and, assuming double-sided printing, four pages upon which to write. A quarto described a sheet of paper that had been folded twice to produce four sheets and eight pages. A paper that had been folded three times to produce six sheets and twelve pages was known as a sexton while an octavo had three folds but making eight sheets and sixteen pages. To complete the set, duodecimo had four folds producing 12 sheets and 24 pages whereas the four folds of the sextodecimo produced 16 sheets and 32 pages.

Turning back to the foolscap paper that we commonly used before the introduction of A4 paper, it was technically foolscap folio – something to throw in at the watercooler when you are reminiscing about the old days with your colleagues.

Paper in single sheets is rarely much use to anyone – it is normally sold in multiples and, as you might expect, a set of terms were developed to describe quantities of paper. As Brits, we cheerfully eschewed the convenience of that foreign abomination that was the decimal system and based our Imperial system of paper quantities on dozens. I suppose as that was the basis of our currency, it made pricing easier.

The basic unit of quantity was the quire which consisted of two dozen sheets. Twenty quires made up a ream and so if you ordered a ream of paper you would get 480 sheets. Two reams made up a bundle and five bundles – a total of 4,800 sheets – equalled a bale. Just to complicate matters further, a printer’s ream was made up of 512 sheets to allow for wastage so that the finished product was more likely to equate to the ream of 480 sheets that the customer was expecting.

All this was to change, as we shall see next time.

What Is The Origin Of (147)?…

Like it or lump it

As an alternative to a fait accompli or Hobson’s choice, we use like it or lump it to indicate that you can either take what is offered or leave empty handed. The implication of the phrase is that you won’t be too happy either way.

The interesting aspect of the phrase is the use of lump as a verb. We are more familiar with it as a noun meaning a compact, often irregular, mass of something like coal. Indeed, it has had this meaning since at least the start of the 14th century. We have carried this sense into its use as a verb as in lump things together, collect, classify or put them together, a usage it has had since the 17th century. However, this cannot be the sense in our phrase because what we are looking for is an antonym to like.

Help comes in the not inconsiderable form of Richard Stanyhurst, the Irish alchemist and historian, who wrote in 1577 his Treatise Describing Irelande. There he described the Irish thus; “they stand lumping and lowring, fretting and fuming.”  It is quite clear from the usage and context that Stanyhurst meant it to give the sense of being disagreeable or sulky. That this is the case was corroborated four years later in a passage from Barnaby Rich’s Farewell Military Profession where he wrote, “she beganne to froun, lumpe and lowre at her housbande” – a not unfamiliar state of affairs in many a household throughout time.

So by the turn of the 17th century one sense of lumping it was to pull a long face and to give some visible sign of disgust or disagreement. However, it wasn’t until the late into the 18th century that lump it appeared in a phrase in opposition to like. An article appeared in the Universal Asylum and Colombian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in August 1790, entitled Thoughts on Proverbs. The columnist was discussing another proverb but made reference to a variant of our phrase by way of an obiter; “throw your lump where your love lies plainly argues that every lover ought to make a beneficial settlement on his beloved. But I will not be positive as to this solution, since another proverb as you like it, you may lump it contradicts it.

Quite why the writer thought the two phrases contradictory is not clear as lump is used as a noun in the first and a verb in the second. Whatever the cause of the confusion is, what we can take away from this reference is that lump and like were associated in some form of saying in the 18th century and that, probably, it was reasonably well known. It certainly was by 1807 because The Monthly Mirror, a London journal, was able to make a, for the time, mildly amusing pun in its September issue. “Mrs_  purposely sends a dish of tea to a lady, without sugar, of which she complains. Mr_ (handing her the sugar basin) [says] well, ma’am, if you don’t like it, you may lump it.

I can imagine that had ‘em rolling in the salons and sitting rooms of London. To work as a pun, feeble as it may be, it would require an acquaintance with the phrase. But although it is close to our phrase, it is not quite there. We get there in 1841 with Josiah Sheppey’s Specimens which was a collection of inspirational essays in verse form. “..forces, or like it or lump it,/ Himself, honest fellow, to blow his own trumpet.

If you don’t like this explanation, you can lump it!

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Thirteen

Caroline Giacometti Prodgers

Should we feel sorry for cabbies? The ready availability of the sat nav has rendered otiose their encyclopaedic knowledge of the highways and byways of London – the longest and slowest when a fare is in the cab, in my experience, and the shortest and quickest when touting for custom – and now that their stranglehold over the taxi business has been challenged, their livelihoods are under threat from nimbler operators. Taking a taxi is often seen as a necessary evil rather than an enjoyable experience and there is always the suspicion that the driver is ripping you off.

It seems that this feeling is not new. What is particularly interesting about Caroline Prodgers is that she was uber-zealous in her pursuit of cabbies, turning their ability to memorise routes and fares against them. The tipping point in Prodgers’ journey to eccentricity appears to have been her divorce in 1871 from an Austrian naval captain, Giovanni Battista Giacometti. Prior to her marriage Caroline had inherited a large sum of money and so was considerably better off than her hubby. This counted against her in the spectacular divorce proceedings during which she seemed to question the legitimacy of her children and the court ordered her to pay maintenance to Mr Giacometti for the rest of his mortal, creating a legal precedent along the way. Caroline failed to make the payments and was back in court.

Suitably pissed off, Caroline became an enthusiastic litigator. She sued her cook whom she had sacked for refusing to leave the house and continuing to sing around the place. She sued a newspaper publisher for ripping her dress in an altercation over a newspaper she refused to pay for because she thought she was mentioned in it. A poor watchmaker was dragged through the courts for returning the wrong watch to her.

Caroline’s major contribution to clogging up the legal system was to wage a ferocious campaign against London cabbies who, she was convinced were ripping their customers off. Outside stations would be posted bills showing fares from the railway terminus to principal areas of London. She memorised them and calculated the exact point at which the fare would increase from one amount to another. Taking a cab she would order the cabbie to stop immediately before the fare would increase. If he sought to charge the higher fare, Caroline would protest, throw a fit and provoke the cabbie into an altercation. The result was that the cabbie would then be up before the beak who usually would find in favour of the passenger. In a twenty year campaign, Prodgers sued more than fifty cabbies, winning most of the cases.

This rather unorthodox campaign brought Prodgers further notoriety. On Bonfire night in 1875 cabbies paraded an effigy of Caroline around in a cab. The cab driver was arrested but the case was dismissed, the judge commenting that the cabbie was “acting as a showman for the amusement of the public”. Cabbies also developed a warning system if they saw Caroline approaching, looking for a cab. The cry of “Mother Prodgers” would ring through the streets and cabs would rush away as quickly as they could.

Today we might view Caroline as a slightly dotty campaigner for the consumer. Her actions bore fruit because in 1890, the year of her death, a controversial plan was announced to fit hackney cabs with machines which would measure distances and calculate fares. A victory of sorts but contemporaries remembered her as a right nuisance. As comedian, Herbert Campbell, wrote, “ I’d like to send,/
A bust of Mrs Prodgers the Cabman’s friend./ Of all the strong-minded females she’s the worst I ever saw,/ Oh, wouldn’t she be lovely as a mother-in-law?/ At the corner of every cab-rank her flag should be unfurled/ As a horrible example to this wicked world.”