Londoners of a certain age- and indeed others who’ve visited the capital in years gone by- will remember how Trafalgar Square used to swarm with pigeons. Thousands of them. There was even a family-run stall in the square which sold bird seed to entice the critters.
Thanks to a clean-up initiative introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone at the turn of the 21st century however, the pigeons have since flocked elsewhere, robbing the square of its ornithological character. It’s now easy to forget just how prevalent those tough little city birds were.
When they ruled the roost the pigeons made quite a mess and it was the statue of Naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, standing at the centre of Trafalgar Square, which bore the brunt of their droppings. Consequently his statue often required a scrub- easier said than done when said sculpture is perched upon a 170 ft column.
The chaps responsible for maintaining Nelson’s statue in days gone by were hardy blokes for sure; scaling the dizzying heights with steeplejack knowhow and practically zero safety gear. Their boldness was famously highlighted in 1977 when legendary children’s TV presenter, John Noakes– who sadly died on the 29th May 2017- joined them up top for an episode of Blue Peter. Just watching John scale the rickety ladders is enough to make your palms sweat… click below to view if you dare!
This wasn’t the only time the hair-raising process of cleaning Nelson’s Column was captured on film- please click below to view earlier footage which appears to date from the late 1950s/early 60s.
Back in 1960, the Rank Organisation’s ‘Look at Life’ division (which created short, factual films for cinemas across the UK) made a documentary focusing on London’s famous black taxis.
In nostalgic terms this short film is a real treat. Here are some highlights:
The opening sequence features a traditional horse-drawn hansom cab trotting over Waterloo Bridge. The cab was driven by Fred Jones who, then aged 75, was old enough to have embarked upon his career long before the combustion engine took over. London’s last horse-drawn cab was withdrawn in 1947.
According to the film, in 1960 there were “about 6,000 taxis in London.” In 2017 that figure now stands at around 25,000, alongside approximately 115,000 private hire cars. The narrator also informs us that in 1960 there were 2,000 less cabs than before the war- a subtle reminder of the impact WWII had on the trade.
One of the older incarnations of the Public Carriage Office (the body responsible for regulating the capital’s taxis) can be glimpsed in the film. In those days it was based at 109 Lambeth Road, moving to Islington’s Penton Street a few years later in 1966. The office is now located in Southwark.
In the early 1960s Knowledge students tended to explore London on bicycles. Mopeds are now the vehicle of choice.
Although this was filmed in the early 1960s, the Knowledge school I attended looked pretty similar to this; big maps, books spread out and lots of anxious students. The school featured here was run by the Royal British Legion for ex-servicemen and was based on Kennington Oval. According to the film, the course took one year in 1960… today the average time to complete The Knowledge is at least four times that.
Tough driving tests are still required today. Luckily I didn’t have to suffer an audience when I took mine.
In 1960 there was a lovely mix of old taxi models on the road.
In this modern day and age with everybody glued to apps, London cabbies are often unfairly accused of being ‘dinosaurs’ (even though we had a taxi app long before a certain American multinational started splashing its billions about). But as this film shows, cabbies were embracing technology almost 60 years ago by utilising mobile radio units- quite a feat back then.
On older cabs built in the 1940s and 50s (such as the Austin FX3) luggage compartments were open to the elements meaning suitcases could get quite soggy in wet weather. In the winter, this also meant cabbies had to wrap up warm.
Like today, many cabbies rented their taxis from a garage in the early 60s…. and I must say it looked like the fleets ran a far slicker operation back then. A daily wash and check up for your vehicle, a welfare section, a sports club, cafeteria and a free ride home- that’s the sort of service we can only dream of nowadays.
When this documentary was made, taxi driver identity badges were huge with little change in design since the Victorian era. No wonder Charles Dickens once claimed the large brass labels made cabbies look as if they’d been “catalogued in some collection of rarities.”
Until the 1980s, taxi meters were mechanical and, as shown in the documentary, they had to go through vigorous testing at the National Physical Laboratories before being allowed on the road.
At the end of the film, we’re told that “Tips are going up these days, the average is between a shilling and two bob.” Hmm…I wouldn’t quite say that’s the case in 2017!
To watch the full film, please click below…
36 years ago today, on the 8th December 1980, John Lennon was shot dead in New York. He was just 40 years old. The image above was taken on the 27th November 1966 outside a public lavatory on Soho’s Broadwick Street, and shows John playing London’s swankiest toilet attendant in a sketch for the BBC comedy show, ‘Not Only But Also‘.