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The Curious Story of London's Little Green Shelters

Picture of Georgina Wilson-Powell
Updated: 15 May 2017
They’re easy to miss. Dotted around London are around a dozen of these dark green wooden shelters — they could be gardening huts or storage sheds. They’re often on squares or parks where you can park a car, like Russell Square or Grosvenor Gardens.

But the shelters are much more sociable than their lack of windows would suggest. Cab shelters were originally built for cabbies at the end of the 19th century (that is, for a horse and cab, which is where the word comes from) to get a hot cup of tea and something to eat while the horses were resting, rather than hang out in the busy pubs.

Cabman's shelter
Look carefully and you’ll see a serving hatch for tea | © Geograph

The first one was built in 1875 and originally there were 60 dotted around London, all serving cheap food, fry ups and mugs of tea to the city’s cabbies. The horses disappeared and cars replaced cabs, but the cabbie’s shelters went on serving. Today about 10 cabbies can fit in each one. They still operate as cafés-cum-secret clubs where the cabbies can chat through their days. The food is some of the cheapest in London and the camaraderie is something special as the drivers sit and put the world to rights.

Only on a very few occasions have these shelters even let a non-taxi driver inside or served them a brew. Prince Charles is one, Joanna Lumley another.

There are a dozen or so are still operating but despite all being Grade 2 listed buildings (which means they can’t be knocked down), they are under threat as the black cabs’ dominance on the roads have been challenged by Uber and other on-demand apps. Rather than depending on an app, London cabbies have to pass the Knowledge — an encyclopaedic exam of 25,000 streets. It takes up to four years to learn it all and not rely on GPS, yet they’re up against cheaper, more technological approach taken by on-demand car apps.

Next time you see a Cabman’s Shelter you’ll be able to imagine what’s going on inside — tea and fry ups mainly.