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Your carriage awaits, Mr Holmes

Many investigations began with a carriage pulling up outside 221b Baker Street:

As he spoke there was the sharp sound of horses’ hoofs and grating wheels against the curb, followed by a sharp pull at the bell. Holmes whistled. “A pair, by the sound,” said he. “Yes,” he continued, glancing out of the window. “A nice little brougham and a pair of beauties. A hundred and fifty guineas apiece. There’s money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else.”

A Scandal In Bohemia, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1891.

It definitely had to be a man of means driving that brougham — it was a private conveyance for the socially advantaged, not only for “dukes and marquises, and people of that sort”, as Household Words (in the person of Charles Dickens) noted in 1851, but also for members of the prosperous middle classes; if you called in a society doctor for a home consultation, it was a fair bet that he would arrive in a brougham. It was a one- or two-horse closed four-wheeled carriage, compact and manoeuvrable, the horse-era equivalent of a town car. Its name commemorates a former Lord Chancellor, the Scotsman Henry Brougham, later the first Baron Brougham and Vaux, a brilliant and genial man, famous in his time but forgotten now.

Whenever Holmes and Watson needed to rush off to some exotic location, such as Norwood or Leatherhead, their first action was frequently the same as modern men in a hurry — they called a cab. These were horse-driven, of course: motorized ones didn’t appear in any numbers in London until 1905. Cab was a contraction of cabriolet, a light two-wheeled one-horse vehicle, which had been around since the middle of the seventeenth century in France, but had first appeared for hire in London in 1823 (and was being called cab by 1827 at the latest). The name shares an origin with the ballet leap cabriole; both derive from French cabrioler, to leap in the air like a goat, which ultimately derives from Latin caper, a goat, the origin of our verb to leap about in a lively or playful way. The French gave it that name because of its curious bouncy motion. Conan Doyle never uses the full term in the Sherlock Holmes stories, since by the time he was writing, near the end of the nineteenth century, cabriolet was rare. Its abbreviation had been generalized to refer to a number of vehicles, both two- and four-wheeled, that had in common that they were available for hire on the street.

The classic one, which is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a period film or television programme, was the hansom. This had been invented by the man who designed Birmingham Town Hall, Joseph Hansom. He patented his safety cab on 23 December 1834, with the intention of making a existing two-wheeled vehicle safer by preventing it tipping over after an accident. His vehicles were built on a square framework on two wheels each 7½ feet in diameter. The hansom cabs in the Sherlock Holmes stories didn’t actually incorporate many of Hansom’s ideas but they kept his name (it was almost Hansom’s only legacy, since he never made much money out of his invention and building the town hall bankrupted him). The cabman sat high up at the back — in the open air, as all drivers did at the period — and talked to his passengers through a small hatch in the roof. The passengers weren't altogether protected from the weather, either:

You observe that you have some splashes on the left sleeve and shoulder of your coat. Had you sat in the centre of a hansom you would probably have had no splashes, and if you had they would certainly have been symmetrical. Therefore it is clear that you sat at the side. Therefore it is equally clear that you had a companion.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, in the Strand Magazine, Dec. 1911.

A four-wheeled cab based on the brougham was named the clarence, after the then Duke of Clarence, later William IV, but acquired the slang name of growler, from the noise its steel-rimmed wheels made on the road (jokers later quipped that it actually referred to the noises made by its bad-tempered drivers). Holmes, as befits a man who could identify 140 varieties of tobacco ash, was familiar with the type and applied his deductive skills:

I satisfied myself that it was a cab and not a private carriage by the narrow gauge of the wheels. The ordinary London growler is considerably less wide than a gentleman’s brougham.

A Study in Scarlet, 1888, Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story. Perhaps surprisingly in view of his later popularity, he had great trouble placing it with a publisher.

A slightly larger version had four wheels and so was boringly known as a four-wheeler; it features in another story, in which the wonderfully named Mr Hosmer Angel disappears:

Hosmer came for us in a hansom, but as there were two of us he put us both into it and stepped himself into a four-wheeler, which happened to be the only other cab in the street.

A Case of Identity, in the Strand Magazine, Aug. 1891.

You may now fully appreciate this apocryphal tale:

On a foggy evening a man came rushing out of the Savoy Theatre in London after the first night of HMS Pinafore. He saw a figure in a long coat pacing about on the pavement whom he took to be the doorman, but who was actually W S Gilbert of Arthur Sullivan fame. “Call me a cab,” he shouted, “and be quick about it!” Gilbert took his cigar out of his mouth and eyed the man critically: “Certainly. You are a four-wheeler”. Infuriated, the man responded, “You impudent fellow! What the devil do you mean?” Replied Gilbert: “Well, you asked me to call you a cab, and I can hardly call you hansom.”

Several versions have appeared, such as that in the New York Times in December 1899 and in Some Players of 1906 by the American actress Amy Leslie, in which Ms Leslie makes Gilbert the butt of the joke. This version, much improved on both, was told me by Michael Hornsby.

Types and makes of horse-drawn carriages were then as varied as makes of car are today. Among others Conan Doyle has his heroes travel in are the gig:

I had descended from my gig and was standing in front of him, when I saw his eyes fix themselves over my shoulder, and stare past me with an expression of the most dreadful horror.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902.

A gig was a light two-wheeled one-horse open carriage, in word-history terms a flighty girl, since that was a much older sense, itself borrowed from a more literal sense of something that whirled, such as one of those old children’s tops that were spun by whipping them with a string. The trap was a variant of the gig, whose distinguishing feature was that it was on springs to ease the ride, not always successfully to judge from the creation in the 1830s of rattle-trap for a vehicle that gave a rough ride.

Another two-wheeler was the dog-cart, with open seats placed back to back across the body of the vehicle, given that name because at one time it incorporated a box under the seat for sportsmen’s dogs. The wagonette was a larger cart with four wheels and a seat or bench at each side facing inwards:

The train pulled up at a small wayside station and we all descended. Outside, beyond the low, white fence, a wagonette with a pair of cobs was waiting.

The Hound of the Baskervilles. A cob was a short-legged, stout variety of horse, probably from the old word meaning stout, rounded, or sturdy that’s also the source of cobnut, another name for a hazelnut.

Conan Doyle was unusual among writers of his time in mentioning so many types of vehicle. But there were lots of others. This description of Derby Day at Epsom shows how varied conveyances were at the time:

All ranks and conditions of men and women are jumbled together on the Course; even as all ranks and kinds of vehicles are visible on the road, from the regimental drag of the 90th Hussars to the spring-cart of the small East-End tradesman, who drives down his wife and “missus” for a day’s outing; from the open landau, — with four spanking greys, and postilions in blue jackets, buckskins, and white silk hints, — to the free and independent costermonger, with his pal in the “shallow,” tranquilly piloting his “little ’oss,” or, perchance, his donkey, through the seething throng.

London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895.

The drag (in full park drag) was a private version of the stagecoach or road coach, pulled by four matched horses and with seating on top; a spring-cart was a fast little passenger vehicle with two wheels supported on springs, hence the name; a shallow was the cart from which a costermonger sold his produce, with a flat space for goods behind the driver’s seat, which had room for a passenger. The landau, a very posh conveyance as you may gather, appears in just one Sherlock Holmes story:

Away they went, and I was just wondering whether I should not do well to follow them when up the lane came a neat little landau, the coachman with his coat only half-buttoned, and his tie under his ear, while all the tags of his harness were sticking out of the buckles. It hadn’t pulled up before she shot out of the hall door and into it. I only caught a glimpse of her at the moment, but she was a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for.

A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891. The woman is, of course, Irene Adler.

The landau could be pulled by four horses (a four-in-hand, from the four sets of reins held by the driver), though two was more common. It was low-slung, with four seats facing each other in pairs, usually open but with folding tops front and rear that could be raised and closed together in bad weather. The landau was an excellent vehicle for being seen in, which is why it features in so many pictures of royalty or lord mayors in ceremonial processions even today. It’s named after Landau in Germany, where it was invented in the eighteenth century.

A related vehicle makes a fleeting appearance in another tale:

Within a quarter of an hour we saw the big open yellow barouche coming down the long avenue, with two splendid, high-stepping gray carriage horses in the shafts.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, first published in the Strand Magazine in April, 1927.

The barouche was just as posh as the landau but it had just the one folding top, at the rear, with the two backward-facing seats behind the driver open to the elements. The name comes from the German dialect word Barutsche that derives via Italian from Latin birotus, two-wheeled. Along the etymological route from Latin two extra wheels were added, which reminds us not to rely on a word’s history for its meaning. The barouche was a development of the calash of the previous century (French calèche, though ultimately from the Polish kołasa, meaning a wheeled-carriage). It was definitely a vehicle to aspire to, as was made clear a century earlier:

His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche.

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, 1811.

The phaeton was a light, open, four-wheeled vehicle, a dashing and speedy type, the sports car of Victorian days, dangerous in the wrong hands. Appropriately, it was named after the Greek Phaethon, son of Helios the sun-god, who got into such difficulties while driving his father’s chariot of the sun. The stanhope and the tilbury (named after its inventor, not the place in Essex) were fashionable versions. It is absent from the Sherlock Holmes stories but is in a contemporary detective story:

By this time his elegant mail phaeton, with its magnificent horses and Indian servant on the seat behind was as well-known as Her Majesty's state equipage, and attracted almost as much attention.

The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds by Guy Boothby, 1897, anthologised in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Hugh Green, 1970. Boothby was an Australian writer, who published more than 50 books after settling in England in 1894, most of which have been forgotten. The mail-phaeton was a two-seater version drawn by a pair of horses, so named because it used springs designed for use on fast mail coaches.

One of the odder names for a conveyance was fly. This was a light, one-horse covered carriage. It had been introduced at Brighton in 1816 and had at first been drawn by men, presumably being something like a rickshaw. Later, a horse was used instead, when the name came to refer to a small vehicle for hire. The Oxford English Dictionary conjectures that its name was short for fly-by-night. As a linguistic curiosity, the verb fly also existed, meaning to travel by a fly; unlike the more common sense, its past tense was regular: “Tuesday, Poole flied us all the way to Sir T Acland’s Somersetshire seat of Holnicot.”

The spectators reluctantly trooped out, the jurymen stood up and stretched themselves, and the two constables, under the guidance of the sergeant, carried the wretched Draper in a fainting condition to a closed fly that was waiting outside.

The Man With The Nailed Shoes, in John Thorndyke's Cases, by R Austin Freeman. 1909. Another almost forgotten writer, his stories featured the medico-legal forensic investigator Dr John Thorndyke, a more plausible and sober rival of Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle might also have mentioned the victoria, a four-wheeled pleasure carriage for two with a folding top and a raised seat in front for the driver (named after Her Gracious Majesty); the sociable (short for sociable-coach), a larger vehicle for pleasure trips, said to be a cross between a barouche and a victoria; the governess-cart, a light two-wheeled vehicle with seats face to face at the sides (not by any means always used by governesses); and the brake or shooting brake, a country vehicle for a driver, gamekeeper and up to six sportsmen, with their dogs, guns and game borne along the sides in slatted racks.

Some terms for horse-drawn carriages have since been borrowed by the makers of motor cars. In Britain, shooting brake is an old-fashioned term for an estate car or station wagon, with cargo space at the rear. A cabriolet can now be a type of car with a roof that folds down. A coupé was originally a short four-wheeled closed carriage with an inside seat for two, so called because it was a cut-down vehicle.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Jul. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 July 2011.