Roadside Refectories (Cabmen’s Shelters, UK)

Around the streets of London, 13 small wooden buildings are lovingly cared-for pieces of transport heritage. You might have passed one by and assumed they were simply longstanding roadside cafes, which they are. But they’re more than that. They are the last survivors of a much larger group of buildings designed to make life slightly easier for London’s hard-working cab drivers. And if you stop to look at them, they’re also great little pieces of architecture. In terms of their appearance, they look as though they should be selling ice cream in a park, but they were built for a much more serious and useful purpose than that.

Cabmen’s shelter, Russell Square, London. Built in 1897 and Grade II listed by Historic England. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

They were originally provided for the use of drivers of horse-drawn hansom cabs, and later on motorised hackney carriages, or black cabs as most Londoners refer to them as. In the latter part of the 19th Century (think Sherlock Holmes and his hansom cab adventures), cab drivers were required not to leave their cabs when waiting at cab stands. If a cab driver wanted to get something to eat, they had to find and pay someone to stay with the cab while they sought sustenance. Often this would be at a public house, where the cab driver might be tempted also by the alcoholic drinks on sale. In grand Victorian philanthropic style, the solution to this undesirable state of affairs was the creation of a charity, the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund. It built some 60-odd shelters around London for the exclusive use of cab drivers. They could shelter within, and there was a kitchen run by an attendant who would provide food and (non-alcoholic) drinks to the cab drivers.

Because the buildings were constructed on the public highway, they were required to be no bigger than a horse and cart. As such, they can accommodate about a dozen cab drivers, and it’s a bit of a tight squeeze even then. Already small to begin with, the cabmen’s shelters have become utterly dwarfed by the modern London buildings which have grown up around them. One of the nicest things about them is their human scale in a city which becomes ever more incomprehensibly vast in scale every year. There is a connection to the (somewhat) more human scale London of the past in these little green buildings.

Overshadowed by the bulk of Charing Cross station behind it, this is the cabmen’s shelter at Embankment, London. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The 13 surviving cabmen’s shelters continue to serve London’s cab drivers (only the ones who have passed The Knowledge, not minicab drivers or the like), for whom the interior seating is reserved exclusively. They do, however, serve us regular mortals on the pavement through the windows, and the shelters are a welcome piece of culinary individuality amongst the chain store food shops which populate London’s streets. Non-cab drivers can see inside occasionally, for instance during Heritage Open Day events. Many of them are listed at Grade II by Historic England (but not all of them, such as the one at Embankment).

While many sources on the web will tell you much of the above, I’d like to invite you instead to consider some of the design details of the cabmen’s shelters. Of the surviving shelters, there are two basic designs. The type seen at Temple has a simple gable roof, while the type seen at Embankment and Russell Square has a more complex gablet roof with gable fronted dormer windows on the sides. Even then there are design differences within the same types. The roof of the Embankment shelter has a lower roofline at the ends than it does at the sides. These roof extensions afford weather protection to those being served on-street through the end window, but on the Russell Square shelter this roof extension can be found at one end only. All in all, they’re not only useful but utterly charming in their own right; of the same school of wooden roadside architecture that is also represented by the few surviving AA telephone boxes.

The end gablets on the Russell Square/Embankment-type cabmen’s shelters are decorated with fretwork in a floral design. Underneath the eaves on the sides of both types is more fretwork, again with a floral design but also incorporating the initials ‘CSF’ (for Cabmen’s Shelter Fund). The louvred ventilators (or lanterns, or fleches, depending which listing record you’re looking at) on both types have little Dutch roofs too. The shelter at Temple is notable for its decorative terracotta ridge tiles, which are both pointed and pierced, and the ball-topped finials at the top of the gables. The Temple shelter has slate roof tiles, others (like the ones at Embankment and Russell Square) have oak shingles.

Cabmen’s shelter at Temple, London. Built c.1900 and Grade II listed by Historic England. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

There were once other designs too, as you can see in illustrations at this Atlas Obscura article and this Cabbieblog article. And cabmen’s shelters were not exclusive to London either, although the surviving London shelters are probably the ones which are best known today. There is one in Ripon, North Yorkshire, which features Chinese-influenced miniature balcony railings under the roof:

The cabmen’s shelter in Ripon, built in 1911. Photo by Richard Collier (Open Plaques donation) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There is another in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, which originally served the railway station, but has been moved following restoration to the market square. The clerestory roof is a feature which would allow a lot of light into this shelter.

Cabmen’s shelter, Hitchin (originally at the railway station, now in the Market Place). © Copyright Stefan Czapski and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

Some of the London shelters that survive today aren’t in their original locations either – both the Russell Square and Temple shelters illustrated above aren’t where they originally stood.

London’s Cabmen’s Shelter Fund continues to look after the surviving London shelters, charging rent to the shelter keepers to maintain a revenue stream, although it also receives donations (not least from related organisations like the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers), and has licensed the design to Universal Studios for use in its Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida.

How to find London’s Cabmen’s Shelters

There’s a handy map of their locations on a Google custom map (not my work, but I’m having trouble finding the creator’s name), here

Bibliography and Further Reading

Article about the London cabmen’s shelters at Heritage Open Days, here

Article about the London cabmen’s shelters at cabbieblog, here

Interview with the director of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund at Atlas Obscura, here

Historic England listing citation for shelter at Temple, here

Historic England listing citation for shelter at Russell Square, here

A BBC gallery of London’s cabmen’s shelters, including views of the interiors and details of life within, here

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