The only people who can enter London’s cabmen’s shelters are professional London taxi drivers – but photographer Tom Skipp got an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek.
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This is a cabmen’s shelter: a small hut, no bigger than a horse-drawn carriage, that serves hot food and drink to both taxi drivers and members of the public – but where only licensed London taxi drivers (nicknamed as those with ‘The Knowledge’, referring to the test they have to take) can enter. Between 1875 and 1914, 61 of these were constructed. Today, only 12 working shelters remain.
When they were first built, cab drivers were legally required to stay with their carriages, which made it hard for them to find shelter or food except in local pubs. As a result, they were tempted to drink alcohol on the job. When the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury wasn’t able to find a sober driver to take him home, he set up the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund (the Monogram CSF can be still seen on the top of the green part of the shelters).
In the 20th Century, many of the shelters fell victim to bombing during World War Two, while others shut due to road widening. But most closed as the result of taxis changing from horse-powered to motor vehicles – meaning they weren’t as limited in range and had other options for food and drink.
The 12 that remain – including this one at Kensington Gardens – allow only cab drivers inside, though they offer reasonably-priced food and drink to the public through a window. But as a photographer working on a project about the shelters, some allowed me into the inner sanctum to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of this traditional, and disappearing, way of life. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
This is the meal that began my fascination with these shelters in 2005, when I found myself at Faye’s shelter on the north side of Hanover Square, in the heart of London. This is a pared-down version of a ploughman’s lunch – it would normally include ham and pickles, but I arrived late on that day. Faye, a straight-talking Scottish woman, kindly threw in the pastry to make up for it.
Now, more than a decade later, the shelter is beleaguered by the square’s development of Crossrail, London’s new high-speed train. Many of the people who visit are there by accident, trying to cross to the other side. Because of the ongoing works, they can’t. Faye has to tell many a tourist or business person that it’s a dead end. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
With its busy group of regulars and bristling conversation, Sue’s shelter, located at Grosvenor Gardens near Victoria, is a warm retreat for a hot cup of tea and a large slice of repartee. On the day I was there, everyone knew each other and the topics were varied: we discussed the history of the shelters, the characters that the drivers come across in their work and the introduction of higher taxes required for entering the capital, all spiced with the cabbies’ humour. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Because the shelters stand on carriageways – which, as the name would imply, began as roads for carriages – it was deemed that they should be no bigger than a horse-drawn carriage. The shelters allow for six or seven drivers to sit comfortably (though there are stories of even Christmas dinner being served in some, with 20 people gathered inside to celebrate). As a result, space inside is at a premium.
In this shelter in London’s St John’s Wood, located near Lord’s Cricket Ground and Regent’s Park, the owner Andrey Markovic has not only kitchen utensils hung against the window, but two guitars and his own artwork painted on the walls. The details point to the shelter’s other life as a music venue: Andrey’s shelter has hosted gigs and even a musical called Tales From a ‘Sherbet’ Shelter about the cab shelters and the lives of cabbies. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Tea and traffic
Dave Windsor, a cabbie of 22 years, peers in to ask for a cup of tea at Caren’s shelter on Kensington Park Road near Notting Hill Gate. Caren’s shelter may be the most precariously placed of the shelters: sandwiched in the middle of a narrow road that has cars parked on either side, it’s in a spot where buses have to thread themselves carefully around it. Once, the shelter was hit by a scaffolding lorry and removed from its moorings – shifting it a few metres and forcing it to close for a few months during repairs. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Many tourists frequent the area of Embankment, a stone’s throw from Charing Cross and Leicester Square just north of the River Thames. So while Kittyia, shown here, serves hot dogs to customers from the hatch at the end of the Embankment cab shelter, she also often finds herself giving directions to lost passersby.
Kittyia works at the shelter six days a week, starting at 6am and working until 3 or 4pm. “It’s physical work, but it’s not tiring,” she says. On her day off, she studies for her GCSE in English and Maths in Hackney; she hopes to study marine biology at university. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Open to all
Bill and Hazel have been working in their shelter at Kensington Gardens for 16 months – a relatively short time compared to some. The shelter tenants pay a contribution to The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, which became a charity in 1966; the money goes towards the constant upkeep required for the shelters, which all have protected status as Grade II buildings. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Some of the shelters have nicknames, like this one just in front of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s familiarly known as the Bell and Horns – after the pub that used to dominate the street front here, but which was demolished in 1915. Other names for the shelters include the All Nations on Kensington Road (alluding to the mix of nationalities that attend the shelter), the Temple (which is near Temple Tube Station) and the Chapel (just north of St John’s Wood church gardens). (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Tracey runs her shelter on Warwick Avenue in an affluent west London neighbourhood, aided by her assistant Che. Tracey is friendly and full of stories she tells with the same colour as the Beryl Cook illustrations that adorn the walls. We talked about the photographer Martin Parr, who spent some time with her and kindly brought her prints of the images he took. She also told me about the British writer Will Self, who in an article for the New York Times Magazine in 2012 described the women who work in such shelters as ‘boilers’ (referring to tough birds that require boiling to become edible). Tracey wrote a letter to Mr Self in response, but says that as yet she hasn’t received a reply. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Each shelter has its own personality, one largely dependent on both the location and the owner. Tracey’s shelter felt like an extended family that had come together to refuel – and face what the day had to bring. In her shelter, every customer has their own tea or coffee mug adorned with their favourite football team. Here, a Chelsea fan tucks into a cheese and ham omelette with beans. (Credit: Tom Skipp)
Terry Arpino has been a taxi driver – as well as a diving photographer – for many years. Now 77 years old, he runs this shelter at Temple on his own, writing his daily menu on the green wall in chalk. There isn’t much passing traffic, but Terry hopes that soon the fund will pay for a crane to lift his place of work up the hill, closer to the Strand, where there’s more footfall. (Credit: Tom Skipp)