The Cabman’s Last Stand and the Triumph of the Taxi

Cobb & Co, Corner of Cashel and High Streets c. 1880Source: One Photograph, Black and White, 15 x 21 cm, 0803, CCL Photo Collection 22, Img00803, Private Collection
Cobb & Co, Corner of Cashel and High Streets c. 1880. Source: Christchurch City Libraries Photo Collection 22, Img 00803, Private Collection

For as far back as 1856, when the first hansom cab plied the streets of the Christchurch, the cabbie has been an important part of the city centre, conveying visitors and locals alike from the extremities of town into and around the burgeoning hub.

There were cab stands at the Railway Station on the South Belt (Moorhouse Ave), The Clock Tower (at the intersection of High, Lichfield and Manchester streets) and Cathedral Square, but was none more central than that of Cabstand Corner, outside the City Hotel. Hansom Cabs had serviced patrons from this spot from the early days when ‘parties wishing to engage’ a cab could place their names in a Registry Book kept at Ruddenklau’s City Wine Vaults in 1863.

The City Hotel circa 1884
Hackney and hansom cabs at City Hotel crossing at the intersection of Colombo and High Streets with Fishers’ building at left, circa. 1884.

Despite their importance to the people of the city, the City Council –  with the support of the Provincial Government – resolved to close the Triangle cabstands, and in 1875 they engaged the assistance of the Commissioner of Police in their action. In the early hours of a Friday morning, as the city was awakening, labourers set to work under the City Surveyor, erecting a barricade around the stands at the Triangle. At 7am, the Mayor and City Solicitor arrived on the scene to ensure the work was being carried out as instructed.

When the cabmen arrived for the day, they were surprised at what had been done. After a short consultation, the cabmen began parading up and down the street in protest. This brought the Commissioner, several City Councillors, a Police Inspector and a small body of Police – along with a collection of townspeople curious ‘to see the end of the fun’. Around mid day, the cabbies met in Cathedral Square and deputised a number of their group to seek advice from a solicitor. The remainder returned to the Triangle cabstands, where they rushed the barricades and took possession of both. After a bit of a scuffle – that resulted in the arrest of cabman John Goodyear – the cabmen were allowed to occupy the stand peacefully for the remainder of the day. (Cabman John Goodyear had been in trouble with the authorites previously. In 1870 he was charged with leaving his hansom cab unattended for ten minutes whilst he visited a brothel at Bricks Wharf. This quickie cost him 10 shillings in fines.)

Anticipating further action by the cabmen, ‘precautionary measures’ were taken by the authorities and special constables were sworn in. However the cabmen remained resolute, and they continued to occupy these key central city locations well into the next century.

Cashel Street, Christchurch, including Triangle Fountain and Bank of Australasia building.

Flower Bed and Fountains

It wasn’t just the City Council who objected to the Triangle cabstands, their efforts were backed by some local business people. In 1909, a petition of fourteen traders in the Triangle block was presented to the City Council, objecting to the continuance of the stand outside the City Hotel on the grounds that it ‘materially affected’ the traffic in the area, ‘more especially of ladies and children’, who were apparently afraid to pass close to the cabs. This, they protested, ‘seriously interfered’ with their business. ‘In no city in the world’, they claimed ‘was such a prominent position given to the cabstand.’ Further, they argued, the removal of the cabstand would ‘equalise the foot traffic in High and Colombo streets, relieving the eastern footpath of High street and the western footpath of Colombo street from overcrowding, which sometimes occurred.’

In 1911, plans were underway to replace the cabstands that had long occupied the vertices of the Triangle on the two High Street frontages, with fountains and flower beds. “… the whole scheme has arisen out of an offer by the trustees of the Wilson estate, of which the Triangle block is a part, and from which the two areas proposed to be decorated were cut off and dedicated to the city many years ago.”

The junction of High and Cashel Streets, Christchurch, circa 1920. Image Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0061
The junction of High and Cashel Streets, circa 1920, showing the fountain which, like many others of it’s era around the city, fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished in November 1965.

At the junction of Cashel Street and High Street, practically the whole of the area formerly occupied by the cabstand would be utilised. The plan was to surround the area by a low triangular concrete kerbing, with two corners flattened and an historic lamp-post set at the apex. In the middle of the area, a small 3 foot stone fountain would be set in the centre of an octagonal pond, surrounded by flower beds. Two trees would be planted at two of the corners of the triangle.

The design for the City Hotel corner was very similar, only the fountain would be set in the centre of a circular pond.

Cab Stand outside the Grain Agency at the Triangle.
Cab Stand outside the Grain Agency at the Triangle.

At each point a roadway was to be left between the footpath and the garden area sufficiently wide to allow two vehicles to pass each other. “The design, though not pretentious, is neat and tasteful, and it is considered that the appearance of the city at the two points should be greatly improved when the two fountains are playing.”

The City Council accepted the offer from the Wilson Trustees, and by September 1911, they had abolished the Triangle Cabstands, with the aim of moving them to other sites. Again the cabmen held fast – there were 150 of them and they paid license fees to the Council. ‘They would not leave their present position without a struggle’ reported one cabman.

“…the people at the back of the agitation were the lesses of the Grain Agency building. Their idea was to give £500 to the city while they expected to make thousands out of it by reason of the enhanced value given to their windows rolling on the removal of the cabs” said Mr W. Saunders.

View from Cab Stand Corner with United Hotel on the left, Colombo street leading into Cathedral Square, the Bank of NZ and the Fisher Building peaking in from the right. Circa early 1900s. Private Collection.
View from Cab Stand Corner with United Services Hotel on the left, Colombo street leading into Cathedral Square, the Bank of NZ with the ChristChurch Cathedral behind, and the Fisher Building verandah peaking in from the right. Circa early 1900s.

The Mayor claimed the money for the fountain had been given by the Wilson Trustees on the condition the cabstand was abolished. At a deputation to the City Council, one cabman claimed that Wilson had given the land to the city for two purposes, monumental or cab stands, and it was the trustees who wanted it only for one purpose.

The cabmen still had supporters in the Council… as well as the Parliamentary Committee in Wellington. They took an appeal to the Parliamentary Committee, to declare the two sites remain cabstands. The Committee recommended the Government adopt this proposal, much to the astonishment of the City Council, who saw this as unwarranted Government interference with municipal control.

Eventually the City Council – and the Wilson Trustees – got their way. The cabstands at the Triangle made way for flower beds and fountains. It was no coincidence that this happened around the same time that the hansom cab giving way to the taxi cab.

The Triumph of the Taxi

It had been over a decade since Mr. N. Oates of Oates, Lowry and Co., on Manchester street had excited the Province with the importation of the first car in to Canterbury. Bought at the Paris Exposition in 1899, for the princely sum of £250, the single cylinder vehicle, with solid tyres and a ‘guaranteed speed of 16 miles an hour (17 1/2 in a favourable wind), already had 1000 miles on its clock. [9] This was followed a year later by another first – New Zealand’s first car sale – sold at auction by Skeates to Wardell Brothers and Co. in 1900, for £135.

Charles Nicholas Oates and his motor-car, 1901
Charles Nicholas Oates and his motor-car, 1901. “The passengers are Mr P Denton, Mr N. Oates and two of his children”.

Nine years later, the first taxicab throbbed its way along Christchurch city streets, ‘and it rapidly ran into first place as a popular means of transit’. Six taxis were introduced in 1909, and by the following year there were 24 (and 95 cabs). Within three years the number was estimated by one rank owner as having increased to over 100 – although supply was said to outstrip demand.

“When the wedding bells are ringing it is the taxi that takes the parties to the church, and it is the taxi that starts them on their honeymoon. When the servant girl is shifting she takes her bag with her and goes in a taxi—a plain cab would be out of the question.”

To quote from the experiences of other towns —”the march of the motor has been a short but almost triumphant one”.

By the early 1940s, the only hansom cab to be seen around Christchurch was Robert Allen’s ‘Cab 96’, brought out on show and sale days ‘for the benefit of those who like still to drive in the old-fashioned way’. For 44 years, ‘Shiny Bob’ as he was known – ‘in tribute to the first-class condition in which he kept his horses, cab and trappings – carried passengers around the streets of Christchurch. The advent of ‘motorised traffic’ saw his business dwindle until the cab was only making appearances on special occasions. In early 1944, the cab was retired to the Canterbury Museum.

Canterbury Museum Victorian street display showing Cab, 1970s
Canterbury Museum Victorian street display showing Shiny Bob’s Cab 96, 1970s.

Thankfully, Robert’s cabman career had not the same abrupt and final end as one of the last London cabbies. The Ellesmere Guardian reported in 1928:

One of London’s few remaining hansom cabs made its last journey a few weeks ago. With its 76-year-old driver on the box it came into collision with a saloon motor car. The cab was cut in two, the horse had to be shot where it lay in the street, and the cabby, William Purkiss, died in hospital.

Slowly the numbers of horse drawn cabs on Christchurch streets dwindled until none were to be seen again.

“… Christchurch will only have the memory of what was once its boast—the finest hansom cab service in Australasia.”

Image taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 22 November 1928 p044. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19281122-44-6.
Image taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 22 November 1928 p044.

Sources:
  1. His Excellency and Mrs Browne were conveyed to a concert at the Town Hall in Lyttelton in the first “Hansom” cab that has run the streets. Lyttelton Times, Volume VI, Issue 332, 5 January 1856, Page 5.
  2. Advertisements Press, Volume III, Issue 193, 15 June 1863, Page 3.
  3. High Street and Colombo Street Junction. Circa 1884. Source: Burton Bros. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0010.
  4. THE CHRISTCHURCH COUNCIL AND THE CABMEN. Otago Daily Times , Issue 4042, 1 February 1875, Page 3. and Magisterial. Star , Issue 692, 11 August 1870, Page 3.
  5. Cashel Street, Christchurch, including Triangle Fountain and Bank of Australasia building. Webb, Steffano, 1880-1967: Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-005224-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23072813
  6. CITY HOTEL CABSTAND. Press, Volume LXV, Issue 13485, 27 July 1909, Page 9.
  7. The junction of High and Cashel Streets, circa 1920, showing the fountain which, like many others of it’s era around the city, fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished in November 1965. Image Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0061.
  8. THE CITY BEAUTIFUL. Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXI, Issue 8421, 15 July 1911, Page 2.
  9. View from Cab Stand Corner with United Services Hotel on the left. Private Collection.
  10. Charles Nicholas Oates and his motor-car, 1901. The Canterbury Times, 5 June 1901, p. 24-25. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img00797.
  11. ‘UNIQUE EXHIBIT’ Ellesmere Guardian, Volume LIII, Issue 84, 18 October 1932, Page 8.
  12. ‘Last Hansom’ Bay of Plenty Beacon, Volume 7, Issue 49, 15 February 1944, Page 6.
  13. Ellesmere Guardian, Volume XLVI, Issue 3280, 11 December 1928, Page 3. Also ‘Cab Cut in Two in Collison’ The Manchester Guardian, Jul 21, 1928.
  14. ‘Taxis in Christchurch. Passing of the Horse Cab.’ New Zealand Herald, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14579, 16 January 1911, Page 5.
  15. Image taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 22 November 1928 p044.ISir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19281122-44-6.
  16. THE TAXI’S TRIUMPH. Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14421, 31 July 1912, Page 2.

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