Victorian London was awash with Hansom cabs. Some estimates say there were 7,000 of them in the capital, admired in fiction as well as as fact. Hansoms were Sherlock Holmes’s preferred mode of transport when he was out on a case because they were fast, stable and could hold two people comfortably. And there was a bit of magic in their looks. G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday has a chase scene with all of the participants in Hansom cabs, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story entitled The Adventure of the Hansom Cab.
This iconic bit of Victoriana was invented by Joseph Hansom, whose achievements are surprisingly little known today. He was born in York but lived in London for much of his life at 27 Sumner Place, off the Fulham Road, where there is a plaque to commemorate him.
The first Hansom cab journey took place in 1835 in Hinckley, Leicestershire, where the Hansom family was living at the time. The stability and relative safety of the cabs made them an international success story. They soon spread from England to Berlin, Paris and New York and prospered for nearly a hundred years until the arrival of the motor car in the early part of the 20th century.
Helen Monger, writing for Historic England, tells us that by 1927 there remained just 12 Hansoms licensed in London, and that the last London Hansom driver turned in his in 1947. She adds, however: “One consolation for Joseph was that ‘Hansom’ became a household name in his own lifetime and he was able to see the impact his invention had on society. It is still remembered today as an essential part of Victorian life.”
But memories don’t always make money, as Hansom knew to his cost. He was a curiously doomed genius. Three of his major projects were hugely successful. but he didn’t profit from any of them.
He sold the patent for the Hansom cab for £10,000 – a lot in those days – to a company that was in such financial difficulties that he didn’t get paid. Maybe Holmes should have investigated. With a colleague he also designed the pioneering Birmingham Town Hall, undercutting rival designs by Charles Barry, the future Houses of Parliament architect, and Sir John Soane, designer of the Bank of England building.
Birmingham’s was one of the first great municipal town halls. It is generally described as Roman revival in style, but which looks more like the Acropolis on wheels (photo above). It was, and still is, an architectural success, but overspending on it led to Hansom’s bankruptcy.
His third success was something I have been using for years without knowing who was behind it. In 1843 he founded and launched the distinguished The Builder magazine, bought by architects, builders and workmen. It is still with us today, although in 1966 its name was changed to Building. It claims to be the only journal to cover the entire building industry and has an extensive archive.
Alas, Hansom’s involvement with The Builder had a sad ending. He deserves credit for devising and launching it, but he soon ran out of capital and had to give up the editorship. However, architect George Godwin, editor from 1844 to 1883, turned The Builder into one of the most successful professional papers of its kind.
These three achievements alone should be enough to guarantee Hansom’s place in history, and they weren’t the only ones. He designed nearly 200 buildings in all. Many of them were Roman Catholic places of worship, including Plymouth Cathedral.
My favourite, by a distance, is the Gothic revival church of St Walburge’s in Preston. That is not because of its London connections – its hammer-beam roof was inspired by Westminster Hall and the bells came from the now sadly defunct Whitechapel Foundry. Nor is it because of the appealing quirkiness of its design. The church spire, according to Wikipedia and other sources – and who am I to argue? – was apparently made from railway sleepers, which had formerly carried the nearby Preston and Longridge Railway.
What amazes me is its height. At over 100 yards it is the tallest spire of any parish church in the country and seems to evaporate into the sky. I get vertigo just looking at the photo.
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