At the beginning of the 19th century the most common way to travel around London was on foot, or by wherry or ferry on the Thames for those who could afford it. It was only the wealthy few who could afford to own a horse and carriage. Therefore, most people worked close to their home, no further than walking distance. During the following hundred years new forms of public transport were created in London. That allowed people to work a lengthy distance from their home, or travel to other districts for entertainment and other purposes. The metropolis then began to expand, with Londoners able to live in newly created suburbs.
In the early 19th century the lack of fast transport prevented rapid movement of people over any distance. The London conurbation remained relatively small, confined to little more than the cities of London and Westminster and their fringes. It was still possible to walk from one side of the capital to the other. Those urban districts were very densely populated and overcrowded yet only a short distance from open fields, market gardens, country estates, brick-fields, gravel pits, fish ponds and marshes. Places that are now part of the metropolis, such as Chelsea, Chiswick, Brixton and Hackney, were then outlying hamlets, separated from the city by countryside. Without the ability to speedily travel around, there was little incentive for London to grow before the mid-century. Thereafter, the introduction of various forms of public transport allowed the city to expand rapidly in the second half of the 19th century.
For those who could afford them, four-wheeled hackney carriages drawn by two horses – the earliest form of taxi – had been around in London since the early 17th century. The government of Oliver Cromwell ordained in 1654 that hackney coachmen and carriages within and around London and Westminster should be regulated by the Court of Aldermen of the City of London.
In 1815 the number of hackney carriages permitted in London was fixed at 1,300, a restriction that was removed in 1831. The Hackney Carriage Act was passed in that year, bringing together various earlier regulations. Fares were from then based on the distance from Charing Cross (the modern-day Trafalgar Square), at that time considered the centre of London. Within five miles from there a driver was obliged to accept a passenger unless otherwise engaged. He could charge extra if required to wait at the end of a journey, should give way to private carriages, and must hold a check string in his hand that the passenger could pull to attract his attention. Fares were to be exhibited within the carriage. The law was further amended in 1843 to deal with various loopholes. The latter Act allowed for a greater number of cab-stands, at which a ‘waterman’ was in attendance to provide a drink for the horses.
Some cabs belonged to the driver and purchased under hire-purchase agreements. The majority were owned by proprietors who operated numerous cabs. In some cases, over a hundred were in the same ownership. It was not inexpensive to operate a cab. The annual licence alone cost between £17 and £19 per year until it was reduced to two guineas (two pounds and two shillings) in 1870, as well as the stabling of the horses. Cabs often worked around the clock, with one driver during the day and another through the night. A horse walked about 18 miles each period. Until the 1850s drivers were normally paid 3s 6d (three shillings and six pence) per day or night but later hired the cab from the owner. Cab-yards, the stables where ostlers took care of the horses and cab-washers cleaned the vehicles, were generally located in working class districts of London.