Monday, November 5, 2018

Cabmen's Lunch

It all started with a single, simple question: can you take us to a cabmen's shelter where we can get some lunch? I know you are thinking: what on Earth is a cabmen's shelter? I'll start there.

And by "there" I mean the late 1800s, more precisely in the 1870s. And yes, that was before cabbies drove cars. Back then in London, cabbies drove carts powered by, well, a single horse. I'm sure there were far fewer cabbies on the road at that time than there are now but apparently, drivers spending time in pubs between fares was a particular problem in the city. And some folks wanted to remedy this.

Their solution? Build a series of miniature restaurants with a tiny kitchen and small seating area that would cater only to cab drivers. These buildings, sized to fit on the street in a spot typically occupied by a cab and horse, were erected all over London at a cost of about £200 each. The funding for each of what would eventually be 60 or so of these structures was provided by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, a charity started by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1874. The goal was to provide cabmen with "good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices" while also keeping them off the drink and providing safer rides for the general public.

THAT is a cabmen's shelter.

Today, there are just 13 of these shelters in existence and they are all protected. To go sit inside one of these things and get a meal you have to be a London cabbie. No exceptions. After all, that is why the things were put there in the first place. But if you are willing to get some food to take away, some offer window service to the general public, including to tourists like me interested in London's history. My aim was to get some grub at one of these spots on this trip.

On our way to whatever cabmen's shelter our cabbie is taking us to.
So how do you find a cabmen's shelter? Well, I figured why not just hail a cab and ask the driver. Sure, there are lists available on various websites but in a rare departure from what sometimes for me are strictly scripted holiday agendas, I figured why not ask a cabbie and see where I ended up.

Maybe a word or two about London cabbies is in order. If I asked something vague like this of a cab driver in Washington or Arlington or anywhere else close to where I live, I would not expect good results. Heck, about 50% of the time when I hop into a cab in my adopted hometown I either have to (a) give turn-by-turn directions to my destination to my cabbie or (b) wait for the cabbie to punch the address into his (or her) GPS and then live with the results. Sometimes the routes we take under option (b) make no sense whatsoever. That wouldn't happen in London. That's because London cabbies have "The Knowledge".

The Knowledge is not some mutant power or some cheap parlor trick, it's a test that all London cabbies have to take before they are granted their license to drive a black cab. It's been called by some the most difficult test in the world. It requires London cabbies to know absolutely everything located within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Doesn't sound too hard? That's 25,000 streets and everything on them. Every roundabout, every dead end, every housing estate, every hospital, every sports arena, every park, every monument, every pub. Everything. Think about how many pubs there are in London (there are a lot if you don't know). They need to know where they all are.

As it turned out, the cabman we flagged down had to think about our request. He admitted he'd never used a cabmen's shelter. So we waited outside the cab for what seemed like a couple of minutes but was probably actually just about 15 seconds or so until he knew where he was going to take us. We hopped in, fastened our seatbelts (have to be safe!) and we were off. He knew. He had The Knowledge.

We hailed our cab just a couple of blocks from the Bank of England. We ended up at the west corner of Russell Square, just about 2 miles away. It cost us £11.60, including a small tip for the cabbie. Totally worth it. Let's have some lunch.

We found ourselves outside a green (Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green to be precise) wooden shed about 8 feet wide by 19 feet long with a small door in the middle portion of the long, non-traffic side and a serving window just to the right of the door. All the other cabmen's shelters in the city are similarly sized, although we didn't know that when we were deposited in Russell Square (we walked by a second the next day near the Embankment Tube station), but the exact configuration may differ a little.

Inside our cabmen's shelter was Jude Holmes (we found out her name later) and about the tiniest kitchen I have ever seen in any place I've ordered food from. We found Jude by stepping a couple of steps up to the serving window, not by walking through the door (we dare not do that!) reserved just for the cabbies. Two sandwiches, please, including a Cumberland sausage, bacon and egg big sub for me. And that would be with English bacon, not the inferior American stuff. Jude clarified our order along the way with a series of questions, each one ending the word "darling". Good stuff!

Efficiency. Sausages and bacon pre-cooked and just needing a bit of warming up. My egg is in the pan!
If you are looking for a gourmet haute cuisine experience, look elsewhere. But if you want some classic English energy food to keep you going through a long day of playing tourist (or driving a cab, I guess) step up and order some food at a cabmen's shelter. I unknowingly made a wise choice with my sandwich order because at least one part of it was freshly prepared. Given the potential volume of orders required to be filled by a single cook, some food items are precooked or microwaved. Can't really do either with an egg that comes with a runny yolk. 

I suppose there are some shelters which come with no seating area for non-cabbies. We got lucky with Jude's spot because she's got a couple of picnic tables outside (painted Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green of course) for people not in the trade. 

My foot long (or is it 30 cm?) protein and carb sub was gone in maybe 10 minutes. Classic English sausage, rashers of bacon with a ton of meat and a fresh cooked egg on a buttered white bread roll. How can you get much more English than that in a sandwich without adding something messy like baked beans or Branston? No messing about with fancy good for you stuff like lettuce or tomato or anything resembling salad; just fuel to keep you going for the rest of the day. Maybe not wise as an everyday lunch but once a trip between pies and scotch eggs is OK. Or maybe traditional English food is just not that healthy after all.

Tucking in to a very English lunch sandwich.
Lest you think our cabbie that got us to our lunch spot represented all cabbies in London in his abstinence from these establishments, while we were sitting and eating our lunch, a black cab pulled up to a parking spot near our cabmen's shelter, got out of his car and headed straight through the green door for some lunch or maybe just a cup of tea. These things are legit used by cabmen to this day. They are a slice of London's history that is largely overlooked by most tourists. Hopefully this post inspires someone else to give one of these things a shot.

On our cab ride to lunch, I offered to our driver that he probably didn't get asked for a fare to a cabmen's shelter, since it took him a minute to think of where to go. His response: "Never. Ever." There's a first time for everything I guess. We left happy and full and ready for an afternoon spent underground at an old air-raid shelter near Clapham Common. We took the tube located across Russell Square but we could have hailed a cab I guess. And the driver wouldn't have needed any directions.

How We Did It
You don't have to take a black cab to a cabmen's shelter but it seemed like the way to go to us. I mean what better way to be taken to somewhere like this than by one of the very people they were originally set up to serve. If you are interested in duplicating our experience, just flag down a cab and ask the driver the question I asked at the beginning of this post.

If you want to target a specific cabmen's shelter to visit or want to find one near where you might be doing other things, there's a list of all 13 remaining shelters on the Cabmen's Shelter Fund Wikipedia page. I have no idea if this list is correct or not but Wikipedia rarely steers me incorrectly and I don't think anyone's trying to Maurice Jarre people who are looking for lunch in London.

Interestingly, there's a note on the Wikipedia page that says the off limits parts of these shelters are open to the public during the annual Open House London event each September. I searched for "cabmen's shelter" on their 2018 website and found nothing but it might be worth checking out availability if you are in town on that weekend. Happy hunting! Say hi to Jude for me if you visit Russell Square.

For those of you wondering about the single sex nomenclature I've used...I'm using the term "cabmen's shelter" (rather than "cabperson's shelter") because that's what they are called. That's not to say there aren't cabwomen in London. Just that these shelters aren't called that.


  1. Really interesting post, I've lived in London for 10 years and I've never heard of (or noticed) these!