Omnibus drivers and ex-horse-cab drivers do not have to pass this topographical test. But all alike have to undergo a driving test of the type of vehicle for which a licence is required.
First of all, there is a preliminary examination in the yard, so that an examiner is not called upon to risk life and limb--to say nothing of those of the public--before he is sure that the candidate has at least a rudimentary knowledge of driving.
Afterwards, there is a more complete test under the difficult conditions of the West End. Should a man fail at his first test, he is not allowed to appear again for fourteen days; if at his second, he is put back for a month; at his third, for two months. His failure at his fourth and final examination is inexorable. Ex-horse-cab drivers are allowed two extra tests. A fee of a half-crown is payable for each of the last two tests.
The necessity of these precautions is evident when it is considered what harm might be done by an ignorant, careless, dishonest, or short-sighted driver, yet I have come to the conclusion that when a cabman gets his licence he has earned it. But the Public Carriage Department has first of all to consider the safety of the public.
I have tried to make clear some of the work that devolves upon the staff. But that is by no means all. Now and again a warning has to be issued to drivers and proprietors on some particular subject. Here is a typical one:
"In view of the number of accidents in the streets of the Metropolis, and of the numerous complaints of the public as to the reckless driving of certain drivers of public vehicles, the Commissioner of Police gives notice that every case of conviction for dangerous and reckless driving will entail serious consequences, and the renewal of the drivers' licences may be imperilled.
"Repeated convictions for exceeding the speed limit by drivers of public vehicles will be considered to constitute evidence of reckless driving."
Such hints bring home to drivers a remembrance that their livelihood depends upon their good conduct. They never know when they may be under surveillance, and they know that every time they transgress it is entered in the records, which are scrutinised when an application comes for a renewal of licence. Nearly 200 licences were cancelled or recalled in 1913.
There is a Committee of Appeal at Scotland Yard, to which most cases of this kind are referred, so that no man is deprived of his licence without a fair hearing and reasonable cause. This committee heard no fewer than 1,648 cases during 1913.
Some of us may recall painful memories of the early days of taxicabs, when taximeters were not altogether above suspicion, and deft manipulation with a hatpin or some other jugglery was possible, by which fares and cab-owners were defrauded.
Those days have passed. A taximeter when it has once been sealed by Scotland Yard is now a sternly conscientious instrument, with a regard for the truth that might shame George Washington. There is a separate register of taximeters kept cross-indexed to cabs, so that the number of the latter is all that is necessary to reveal the record of a particular taximeter.
Eight different kinds of badges are issued, varying in colour. Thus an officer can tell at a glance who holds a conductor's licence, who has a horse-cab licence and who a taxi-cab licence. In a few cases composite badges are allowed, by which a man may act either as driver or conductor, or as driver of a horse or motor vehicle.
All men of the department are police officers, but they are something more. They are living directories of London and its suburbs from Colney Heath, Herts, to Todworth Heath, Surrey, from Lark Hall, Essex, to Staines Moor, Middlesex; they are skilful engineers; they have a keen eye for the defects and qualities of a horse; they can drive a horse or a motor car, they know the conditions of traffic in Piccadilly Circus or in the deserted roads about Croydon.
Above all, and in this they are again police officers, they have a very sure appreciation of human nature. They do not harass those with whom they are concerned unnecessarily, but whether it is the London County Council, a powerful omnibus corporation, or an unlucky hansom driver, they act impartially, without fear or favour.
Outside their own province they have nothing to do with crime, though it sometimes happens that their records are useful to other departments of Scotland Yard. In reality, the actual police functions of the Public Carriage Department are few, and for this reason there are people who hold that it should be entirely separated from the force. The argument is a forcible one, yet it is not complete.
Time was when all licences were issued from Somerset House. But even then the police were asked to carry out certain enquiry work. It has been suggested that the London County Council should take it over. But the London County Council is not an impartial body in regard to public carriages. It owns tramway cars which are run in opposition to motor omnibuses. A Traffic Board for London might solve the difficulty.
But, however plausible such theoretical reasons for separating this work from the police may sound, one thing is certain. The duties could not be more efficiently performed than they are at present. A perfect system has been devised by which not only are the perils of the street minimised for pedestrians, but the comfort and convenience of all who travel by public vehicles are ensured, whether it be the millionaire in a taxi, or the factory hand in a workman's tramway car.
The Public Carriage Department has learnt its business. It has grown up with the growth of motor traction. It knows the tricks of the trade, and those who would throw dust in its eyes must needs be ingenious. To hand over its duties to an outside body would result, at any rate for a time, in something like chaos.
LOST, STOLEN, OR STRAYED.
This is the legend of the lost centipede that once held undisputed sway of the Lost Property Office at Scotland Yard before it came to an untimely end. It arrived with a cab-driver, housed in a little tin box, comfortably lined and pierced with air-holes. Casually an official opened the box, caught one glimpse of its contents, and jumped for safety while the centipede pleased at the opportunity of stretching its multitude of legs, cantered incontinently for the shelter of a pile of lost articles.
But even a centipede cannot defy Scotland Yard with impunity. The forces of the law rallied, and, headed by an intrepid inspector with a fire shovel, eventually tracked down the insect--or should it be animal?--and placed him under arrest.
Trial and execution followed summarily, and the honest cab-driver went empty away.
The Lost Property Office is not, as is popularly supposed, a general depository for all articles found in London. It receives only things found in public carriages--tramway cars, omnibuses, and cabs. Other articles are dealt with by the police in the divisions where they happen to be found. But, even as it is, it keeps a large staff busy month in, month out.
In the basement of Scotland Yard there are many rooms filled with articles varying from a navvy's pickaxe to costly jewels. Take an example of one year's working of the department. There were 90,214 articles deposited. Here is a rough classification of things dealt with in one year:
Bags 9,340 Men's clothing 6,749 Women's clothing 7,942 Jewellery 2,395 Opera Glasses 723 Purses 4,340 Rugs 273 Sticks 2,134 Umbrellas 35,319 Watches 451 Miscellaneous articles 20,548
Of each of these things a minute record is taken before it is stored in one of the large rooms, with barred windows, in the basement. Umbrellas, sticks, and bags, for instance, are classified, each under half a dozen or more heads, and the card index with different coloured cards for various months, enables an article to be discovered instantly. Articles to the value of 39,859 were restored to their owners.
Suppose you left an umbrella in a cab on June 16th, enquiry at Scotland Yard would enable it to be picked out at once, if it had reached them.
You describe it as having a curved handle, mounted with imitation silver. At once an official turns to the blue cards in the index. Under "umbrellas" he turns to the subdivision W.M.C., which, being interpreted, means "white metal crook handle," and your umbrella is handed back to you. But you do not get it for nothing. There is a reward to pay to the cabman. In the case of an umbrella, or such small article, your own suggestion will be probably adopted, but on most things the scale fixed for gold, jewellery, and bank notes applies. This is, up to 10, 3s. in the , and over that sum an amount to be fixed by the Commissioner.
The rewards paid out annually form no inconsiderable sum. Recently figures have not been published, but an idea can be obtained from those given a year or so ago. Then 32,238 drivers and conductors shared between them nearly 5,000. One lucky cabman got 100; six received between 20 and 100.
These rewards are mostly for articles claimed, which numbered 31,338 of the declared value of 31,560, out of 73,721. The rest, with a few exceptions, were returned to the finders after an interval of three months. This return to cabmen and conductors is an act of grace--not a right. In some cases where a thing is of value, and remains unclaimed, it is sold, and a percentage of the proceeds given to the finder.
While I was in the office a black cat strolled leisurely out from behind one of the crowded sacks, and rubbed itself against the knee of one of the officials. "Left in a tram car," he explained. "We had a tortoise, some gold fish, and a canary a few days ago, but they have been claimed.
It was suggested that we might save space by having the cat look after the fish and the canary, but we did not think it advisable."
Almost any kind of a shop might be stocked with the loot of the Lost Property Office. There are false teeth, books, golf clubs, pickaxes, snuff-boxes, and ladies' stoles, stuffed fish, and wax flowers, petrol, and motor tyres, boots, and watch-chains, every conceivable kind of portable property that an absent-minded person might forget.
Each month's articles are kept separate, so that at the end of three months unclaimed things can be dealt with. A great safe swallows up all articles of jewellery or money of the value of 1 or more. I have seen a cabman hand over the counter an exquisite pearl worth several hundred pounds. It was examined, and then carefully sealed and placed in the safe. Constant handling of these things has made the officials quick and accurate judges of their value.
The authorities are not content to merely look after articles until they are claimed. Every effort is made to trace the losers, and a large clerical staff is constantly at work sending out letters where the property is marked or identifiable in any way, or where a cabman has remembered the address to which he has carried the supposed losers. More than 40,000 letters are sent out annually in such cases, and there are, in addition, something like 50,000 written enquiries to answer in a year.
This alone will show something of the monstrous business with which the officials have to deal. There is, of course, a constant stream of enquirers at the two offices, one at each side of the great red-brick building. One of these offices receives lost articles, the other restores them. Intermediately there are the vast store-rooms through which the accumulations progress every month, till in the third month all unclaimed things are ready to hand in the "outgoing" office.
Nothing but a well-organised system could avoid confusion, and confusion there is none. It is all part of a great business conducted on business principles. Every article, every farthing of money is recorded, with the circumstances under which it found its way to the Lost Property Office and its description, so that of the scores of thousands of things which pass through the hands of the officials, a ready history of each one can be quickly referred to.
There are queer visitors sometimes--persons who make preposterous claims for something they may have heard has been lost. These are firmly but effectively dealt with. On the other hand, sometimes articles of value are never claimed solely for the reason that their owners have no wish to make known their movements or whereabouts on a particular day.
Now and again the authorities find it necessary to remind people of the existence of the Lost Property Office. The following advertisement is typical of those inserted in daily newspapers periodically:
"METROPOLITAN POLICE.--Found in public carriages and deposited with police during June and July, numerous articles, including a bank note, a purse containing cash, a bracelet set stones, and a purse containing a bank note. Application for property lost in public carriages should be made personally, or by letter, to the Lost Property Office, New Scotland Yard, S.W. Office hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m."
Once every three months articles that have been unclaimed are sold by auction. The average proceeds of these sales are about 60, which is handed over to the Board of Inland Revenue. The Metropolitan Police receive no benefit from the vast machinery they keep in motion to guard the public from its own carelessness.
I cannot do better than conclude this chapter with the advice proffered to all those who use public vehicles: "The very great majority of articles deposited have been left _inside_ cabs. Hirers, therefore, might with advantage make it a rule not to pay and discharge the cab before they are satisfied that nothing is left in the cab."