The Knowledge of London – or how to become a London Cabby (the best cab drivers in the world) in four “easy” years by Geoffrey Riesel, Gett UK, Chairman

Since 1600 public carriages for hire have been at the centre of London life.

Aristocratic families, had their own coaches with coats of arms displayed and subsequently these were among the first hackney carriages to ply for hire.

These came just before the French Haquenee (Hackney carriage) or Cabriolet (Cabs) which first appeared in London around 1820.

The Bersey electric powered, horseless carriage, appeared in 1897, followed by the first Internal Combustion engine cab in 1903. The first petrol powered cab in London was a French-built Prunel, introduced in 1903.

At that time London had more than 11,000 horse drawn cabs.

The last horse drawn cab ended service as late as 1947. There are now over 20,000 licensed London taxis.

Regulation of the trade and the famous Knowledge of London passed to the Metropolitan Police in 1850 and was undertaken by the Public Carriage Office, which was originally in an annex of New Scotland Yard in Whitehall, in 1919, it moved to 109 Lambeth Road until 1966, when it moved to 15 Penton Street, Islington.

In 2010 it moved again to the Palestra Building at 197 Blackfriars Road, Southwark as part of TfL, once licensing had moved to the Mayor of London with the creation of the GLA in 2000.

Committing it all to memory

The London taxi driver is obliged to be able to decide routes immediately in response to a passenger request or traffic conditions, rather than looking at a map, or relying on GPS navigation or asking a controller by radio.

As a result, the “Knowledge of London” is the in-depth study that one must complete to obtain a licence to drive a London taxi.

The Knowledge is a series of tests, known as appearances, that candidates who want to become London Cabbies, must pass to show that they know the name and location of pretty much every street, hundreds of thousands of points of interest and the shortest or quickest route between all of them, off by heart.

The history of the Knowledge, some say, dates back to Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London’s Crystal Palace played host to a huge amount visitors and tourists.

Apparently, this inundated the city with complaints about incompetent cabmen, thus motivating the authorities to introduce a more demanding licensing procedure.

The story may be mythical, but the Knowledge was definitely in place by 1884: and records for that year contain a mention of 1,931 applicants for the “examination as to the ‘knowledge’ of London, its major streets, squares and public buildings.”

Drivers were required by the Public Carriage Office (the PCO was a subdivision of Metropolitan Police) to know an area within six miles of Charing Cross, which incorporates 113 square miles.

Currently the PCO is part of Transport for London (TfL) and issues candidates with what is known as the ‘blue book’ (heaven knows why, as it used to be pink!) The Blue book lists 320 routes (called ‘runs’) to be learned, actually the candidate needs to know them back to front as well, which is essentially 640 runs and together with all the places of interest and important landmarks (known as ‘points’) they need to commit all of these, to memory.

It takes an average of four years to learn and pass the written and oral examinations of the ‘All London Knowledge’, after which drivers are issued with a “Green badge,” entitling them to work anywhere in Greater London.

Some candidates are content to become Yellow Badge Drivers or Suburban Sector drivers. These candidates can apply at a lesser level, whereby a driver must be able to demonstrate a full knowledge of routes within one of nine suburban sectors and a partial knowledge of adjoining sectors, including radial routes into central London. Successful suburban candidates are licensed to ply for hire only within their own designated sector.

These exhaustive processes ensure that London’s taxi drivers have a comprehensive understanding of the capital’s geography and are invulnerable from the risks of technical failure or simply an inability to find the correct destination due to a lack of capability to spell the street or place correctly in the Sat Nav.

London Taxi drivers have bigger brains

Acquiring the Knowledge has been shown, in a study supported by the Wellcome Trust, by neuroscientist Dr. Eleanor Maguire, reporting in 2000 that test subjects who had spent an average of two years learning the Knowledge had a larger right hippocampus (part of the brain) than control subjects, and the longer they had thereafter worked as a black cab driver the larger their hippocampus or brain was.