I was very impressed with the prolific output of Joseph Hansom. Hansom and Welch were chosen as the architects for Birmingham Town Hall. Construction began in 1832 but sadly Hansom went bankrupt during construction, having tendered too low. It eventually didn’t matter since the building was completed in 1834 and still looks terrific now, especially after its very expensive 1996 refurbishment.
Joseph Hansom tended towards the favourite taste of Victorian Catholic designers, Gothic Revival. If I had to select just one of Hansom’s many religious buildings, I would chose Plymouth Cathedral. In 1850, under Catholic emancipation, Plymouth became the centre of the archbishopric covering Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. So land was bought in town for a new cathedral in February 1856, and Joseph Hansom and Charles Hansom were the architects chosen to design the building. This time the work proceeded smoothly and the Cathedral was opened with Mass in March 1858. It served the region well, until the building was bombed in 1941.
Hansom CabIn all, this architect designed some 200 buildings. Hansom was particularly responsible for designing schools, churches, university buildings, theological centres and libraries.
But until I read Country Life magazine (25th July 2012), it did not occur to me that this was the architect whose name went down in history, not for churches but for taxis. In December 1834 Hansom registered the design of a Patent Safety Cab, soon called the Hansom Cab.
I understand that the Hansom Cab was specifically designed to combine speed with safety, with a low centre of gravity and large wheels, both for turning around city corners with ease. But what happened in 1834 that impelled a busy architect to leave his buildings for a year or so, to focus on a technological problem outside his normal area of expertise?
Hansom's Cathedral of St Mary and St Boniface, Plymouth
To summon up a cab was simple, as Conan Doyle explained. A shout or whistle would bring one trotting up, if there was not already one at the curb. A hansom was often necessary in Dr. Watson's profession; he liked the fashionable cab-whistle many Londoners carried. One blast from such a whistle would call a four-wheeler, two a hansom. A hansom was even more necessary in Sherlock Holmes' profession, but he favoured vocally hailing cabs, as can be seen in his books. The speed with which it delivered Holmes to the scene of the crime was of course vital. Of the sixty recorded cases of Sherlock Holmes available today, nineteen contain specific references to hansom cabs.
The first Hansom Cab was seen first in London in 1835, then in other British cities, and even cities outside Britain. I love the idea that in elegant cities like St Petersburg, a York-born invention was attracting the crowds and fitting into the local cityscape. But after WW1, horse drawn cabs had had their day. The city streets were instead being used by motor vehicles.
Although this blog post was written months ago, its publication coincides beautifully with the filming of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a mystery fiction novel by the English author Fergus Hume. The story was set in Melbourne in 1886, telling of a mysterious murder involving a body discovered in a hansom cab. If you consider the title of the novel, the image on the book's front cover and the fact that the author chose my city (Melbourne), this is definitely Life copying Art.
Fergus Hume's novel, first published in 1888.