Melbourne’s horse-drawn cabs

Melbourne’s horse-drawn cabs
Jeff Atkinson

In the late 19th century, the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne were poorly served by public transport.

There were half-a-dozen suburban rail lines in Melbourne but up until the late 1880s none of them ran into the northern suburbs. The cable tram network was eventually to link the northern suburbs with the city, but the first of its lines was not opened until November 1885. Before that, the only forms of public transport available to the citizens of the inner north were horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

Horse-drawn cabs came in different shapes and styles. For the more affluent there were “hansom cabs”, which were small vehicles shaped like a sentry box with a driver on top. These seated two people only and were pulled by a single horse. For the less affluent there were “Albert cars”, often referred to as “jingles”. These were two-wheeled vehicles licensed to carry six people sitting back-to-back.

The driver and two passengers sat in the front facing the horse and three more passengers sat behind them facing the rear. “Jingles” were not particularly comfortable as passengers were sitting over the axle and were swayed and jolted on Melbourne’s rough roads, and were only partially protected from the sun and rain by an oil-cloth canopy.

They were also quite difficult to get on or off, especially for ladies in voluminous dresses. “Jingles” were soon replaced by “wagonettes”, four-wheeled vehicles in which the passengers sat in the back on two benches facing one another, with an oil-cloth hood for protection and side flaps that could be let down in bad weather.

Horse-drawn cabs did not run to a schedule along set routes, but could be hailed in the street, and would take a number of passengers who wanted to go to the same area. A passenger would hail and board a cab and state his destination, and the cabman would then drive around the streets looking for other fares who wished to go to the same place, which could be very annoying to the original hailer.

A frustrated writer in The Leader newspaper wrote in 1869, “How many times have we not been induced to risk our necks by struggling up into one of these ridiculous vehicles under the delusion that ‘Right away Sir’ meant at least some intention of starting within less than half an hour.”

In the city, however, there were cab ranks in which cabmen who plied to a particular suburb or district would wait for fares. This system of cabs to a certain suburb being found at a certain place in the city evolved into cabs running set routes.

For example, we know that in 1879 there were three cab routes to Carlton, one of which started from Flinders Street Station and another from the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets. Where they went to in Carlton is not clear. However, there is an account in 1877 of an accident in which a wagonette cab turned from Elgin St into Rathdowne St at full gallop and knocked over and killed an old lady •

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