Business a Rocky Road for Hansom Cab Pioneer

Hansom cabs wait for business in a London street
Hansom cabs wait for business in a London street

by Ray Setterfield

December 23, 1834 — The Hansom cab – for decades one of the most popular means of getting about in London, and the vehicle of choice for dashing detective Sherlock Holmes – was patented on this day. But its inventor, Joseph Hansom, made next to nothing from the enterprise.

Hansom, born in 1803, was a talented architect and something of an entrepreneur. But he was hopeless at finance, as his first major contract was to prove. Still in his mid-20s, he won a commission, against stiff competition, to design and build a new town hall for the burgeoning city of Birmingham.

His rivals for the work included Charles Barry, the man who went on to create the Palace of Westminster.

The town hall was built in a striking Roman style with grand, impressive pillars. Unfortunately, in his desperation to win the contract, Hansom had promised to pay for any cost overruns out of his own pocket and when these came in the final stages of construction he could not pay his creditors. He was declared bankrupt in 1834.

Obviously needing funds, Hansom looked round for a money-making opportunity – and found it on the streets of London.

It was a time when unwieldy four-wheeled Hackney carriages were being phased out and replaced with more manageable two-wheeled “flies”. But they were unstable and notoriously dangerous, being prone to overturning.

Hansom came up with a design that made them a lot safer, but just as quick and maneuverable. He patented it as the Hansom Safety Cab, then sold the rights for £10,000 to the Safety Cabriolet & Two-Wheel Carriage Company, which began producing them in earnest. By 1900, there were more than 7,000 Hansom cabs rattling over the capital’s cobbles.

Sadly, Hansom’s lack of financial acumen meant that he did not receive the £10,000, but just £300 for his “time and trouble”.

The next business venture of this remarkable man also proved endurable, but a personal financial flop. In 1843, he spotted a gap in the market and established a magazine called “The Builder”, aimed at architects and builders.

It flourished and continues to do so, though it was renamed “Building” in 1966. But its success was of little benefit to Hansom, because lack of money meant he soon had to relinquish the editorship.

Older and wiser, he went back to what he loved best: designing churches. He died in 1882, aged 78.

Published: October 24, 2016

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