Turning on a sixpence


Londoners, what does it mean when we are told that a black cab can turn on an item of currency that has been defunct for forty years?  What could possibly, truly, turn on a sixpence?  A sixpence, for those of you under the age of about 50, was 19mm in diameter.  Of course, they couldn’t say it was 19mm in diameter and had to say it was 0.7 inches in the olden days.  The olden days are a time in the past that contain a series of rules relating to weights, measures and currency that are specifically designed to make younger minds boggle.  There was a pound (240 pence),  a shilling (12 pence), a florin (4 shillings), crowns ( 5 shillings) and half crowns (2 and a half shillings) etc.  Then there are groats, which sound like a kind of dysentery, farthings, which are a quarter of a penny and a quarter-farthing which was a sixteenth of a penny.  These complicated words and meanings meant that you kept the poor from finding out how much they were utterly in life’s toilet bowl, because by the time they’d added together the different coins, calculated their meanings and computed how much they had in their pockets, they would forget where they were and have to start all over again.

Now, clearly a taxi that was able to turn on a sixpence of 0.7inches in diameter would have to be 0.3inches wide, which is a problem as you’d have trouble getting in it.  Instead, “turning on a sixpence”, or it’s American counterpart, “turning on a dime” is a hyperbole and means that the vehicle can turn on a tight, small turning circle of 25 feet or less.   Legally, all London taxis must have this turning circle .   Not only does this make changing direction along London streets more convenient, but it makes parking a doddle.  There are two places in London where you get to see the turning taxis frequently.  The first is outside the Savoy Hotel and the second is in the bowels of Euston Station, where the cabs vault down one end, pirouette in their turning circle and then vault up to the rank to collect passengers. I imagine other stations have their sections for pirouetting taxis too, such as Victoria and Waterloo, but I only really know Euston as that’s where I was shown how taxis turn on a sixpence in the first place.

The sixpence rule of a 25 feet turning circle has been in place since 1906 and has as its inauspicious beginning  a very small roundabout.  The sharp-eyed amongst you will have already noticed that Savoy Court directly outside the Savoy Hotel is the only road in London where taxis drive on the right.  But in order to get into the Savoy in the first place you have to navigate this small roundabout which has a turning point of – you’ve guessed it – 25 feet.  This became the standard turning limit for London taxis.  The fact that the traffic is allowed to drive on the right here is a separate issue; and is partly to do with the ease in dropping theatregoers off to the Savoy Theatre on the right, and partly to do with the fact that Savoy Court is private land, not a public thoroughfare, and is frightfully posh so it can pretty much do what it wants.

Theoretically, you should be able to get into a London taxi with your top hat still on.  It doesn’t matter if you are wearing nothing else, but the important thing in England is that you are able to transport yourself through the metropolis without having to remove your top hat.  This explains the capacious insides of the London cab, a space which Marianne Faithfull noted in her memoirs, was quite easy to shoot up in.  Lots of elbow room.  You can stretch your entire body length out whilst slouched on the seat, which explains why they are so easy to fall asleep in if drunk. You don’t have to fold up buggies or remove children from prams (I have fond memories of being in back of a cab with my one year old niece and gripping the sides of the pram that she was in opposite me between my feet whilst she grinned and occasionally vomited as we swerved through traffic).  There are few more distressing sights than witnessing a Londoner getting into his first ever New York cab.  It is an abhorrent experience.  There is the stifling closeness of the sweaty leather rear of the front car section, the fact that the driver certainly won’t have a clue how to get anywhere as there is no “knowledge”, the lack of purpose built vehicle, and the fact that when you remove yourself and your top hat from its dastardly insides you need a new pair of kneecaps due to the contortions you had to undergo whilst cramped in the passenger seat.

Buying a London taxi for your personal use is not a bad investment.  The original Fairway design can run for up to 500,000 miles without a problem and so buying a car that already has 274,000 miles on the clock isn’t as terrifying as it would be in another vehicle.  You can pick up a Fairway in good condition for about £8,000, which is quite economical.  Bearing in mind the ostentatious “Noddy” TX designed black cabs that came in in 2001 can cost upwards of £30,000 new, a good bronze Fairway is just the ticket.  Guv’nor.  They’re particular useful for school runs – not only do children love them but you can fit seven of the blighters in the back at any time – and they don’t really know you’re not a real taxi driver so you can charge them.   I think they would also be quite useful for Mormons or those with ornate, complicated sets of wives and mistresses.  It is a convenient, economical and civilised way of transporting all your lovers at once.  Well known people who have bought London cabs for their own driving entertainment include Kate Moss, Stephen Fry, The Duke of Edinburgh and – somewhat alarmingly – Bez from The Happy Mondays.    Although not licenced and unable to use bus routes, some of these private taxi owners have confessed to parking their cabs in taxi ranks “all day” and “no one noticing”. 

Not that it was always deep seats and indulgent leg room of course.  The first hackney carriage was licenced in London in the 1660s and was most probably entirely comprised of hay and cat shit.  The Victorians gave us growlers (four wheel, enclosed, two horses), hansom cabs and cabriolets (the last two only had two wheels) that could hold four people,  or, in that scene in ‘Madame Bovary’ two people.  Astonishingly enough, the last horse-drawn hackney carriage was put out of service in London as late as 1947, and before the internal combustion engine was invented, there was a brief spate of electric hackney carriages, which must have been extraordinary to take rides in during rainstorms.  But still today, with our four door saloon cars, the Public Carriage Office has only licenced 21,000 taxis, in a city of over 8 million people.  This explains the Perverse Rule of Taxi Frequency: there is never one at 2.35 am when you’re wearing one shoe, been mistaken as a Middle Eastern whore, dealing with the dyspepsia that only seven Singapore Slings can herald and are weeping silently, kohl splashing down your frozen cheeks, on the side of the Charing Cross Road.  But there will always be seven, sitting calmly in the rank like smug, black shiny cats, on that beautiful spring morning you decide for the first time in a year to walk all the way to The Regents Park.  So, is the only solution to follow the example of Bez / Moss / Edinburgh, Duke of etc?  Just buy one of the things.  In a city where street visibility is such a predomininant characteristic, wouldn’t we be rendered invisible whilst darting through the bus lanes and chugging happily around town driving a cab?  It would be the ideal mode of transport if I ever achieved my dream career which is to be a private detective.  Is there anything which can camouflage a Londoner more than driving a black taxi?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday.  Our next update will be on Thursday 9th May.

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