Archaeology suggests that there were boats for hire from the early days of Roman London and there is no reason to doubt that this continued through the dark ages. Our first records of conveyances for hire come from the 12th century. Public transport in London has always been a hot issue. The watermen objected to the coming of the hackney cabs, the cabbies to the coming of the trams and buses and all to the coming of the motor vehicle and the railways. This series explores the development (and demise) of the various forms of public transport "enjoyed" by Londoners down to today's clashes over access charges and a dreadful commuter train system.
There is archaeological evidence that boats were used in Roman London to ferry people across the river for a fee. The river was much wider in that period and there was, of course, only one bridge, London Bridge, until Putney Bridge was opened in 1729 and Westminster Bridge in 1750. It is not therefore surprising that some form of ferry system operated then and will undoubtedly have continued through the succeeding Saxon and early mediaeval periods. The earliest records of public transport on the river and on land are from the 12th century.
The first persons who we know were licenced to ply for hire were the Watermen who carried passengers across and up and down the river for a fee. These were clearly a chatty breed and, apparently, a good source of up to the minute news as is plain from the diaries of Samuel Pepys. They were originally licenced by Royal Charter which had to be renewed on the accession of each reigning monarch. This changed in 1193 when Richard I gave control of the waterways to the City of London. It was confirmed in 1393 by Richard II by which time the City authorities governed the entire River from the Medway in Kent to Staines in Surrey (roughly from Rochester to Heathrow in today's geography). A hint of some problems in the matter of fares charged is given by the fact that in 1372, the City authorities found it necessary to order the Watermen to limit their fare between the City and Westminster to 2d.
Richard II was also responsible for issuing the first known patent for the provision of hacknies for hire in 1396 which set down the charges as follows:
"There shall be taken for the hire of a hakenie from Suthwuk (Southwark) in London to Rochester 12d; from Rochester to Canterbury 12d; and from Canterbury to Dover 6d and from town to town according to the rayte of 12d and number of miles" The horses could be hired from hackneymen's stables, which were set at intervals along the route from London to various Towns. These stables became known as hackney stages. During the reign of Elizabeth the first horse-drawn vehicles for public transport began to appear in England. The lighter vehicles used in Town were known as Hackney Carriages whilst the sturdier vehicles which plied between the towns were known as Hackney Coaches. Association with the hackney stages soon transmuted the latter into Stage Coaches.
This was the beginning of the decline of water transport in London. The watermen fought hard against the new abomination just as their successors, the cabbies, would fight against the introduction of the horse-drawn tram and bus and these would fight against the introduction of the motor vehicles of the early 20th century. They all, fought against the introduction of the train whose early speeds in excess of five miles an hour would, it was claimed, break the necks of the unfortunate passengers.
This series will explore the histories of the various forms of public transport -above and below ground - which have carried the denizens of London about their business ever since the city was first established by the Romans. The articles already published are given in the index below.
London's Trams and Trolleybuses