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Hobson’s choice

Q From Homer Cox: I am surprised that the expression Hobson’s choice does not appear in your online archive, as I was hoping to find out whether there was a real Hobson involved.

A There was indeed a real Mr Hobson. He was the proprietor of an extremely prosperous carrier’s business that ran between Cambridge and London. Thomas Hobson took it over when his father of the same name died in 1568. The Dictionary of National Biography says that he “conducted the business with extraordinary success, and amassed a handsome fortune”. He continued to travel to London in person until shortly before his death in 1631, aged about 86. John Milton wrote two poems about him shortly after his death, in one of which he said that he died of enforced idleness, having been prevented from travelling because of an outbreak of plague: “And surely Death could never have prevailed, / Had not his weekly course of carriage failed”.

However, it wasn’t his carrier’s firm that gave rise to the term, but his other business of hiring out horses. Many of his customers were undergraduates; these young men often treated his horses very badly, driving them too hard and wearing them out. He kept telling them that they’d get to London just as quickly if they didn’t push mounts so hard, but that had no effect. So, to give his horses some time to recover, he instituted a rota. The most recently returned horse was put at the back of the stable queue, and customers had to take the next one available at the front, which was therefore the most rested. There were no exceptions to the rule: if the customer didn’t like the horse he was offered, he could take his custom elsewhere. So Hobson’s choice was no choice at all.

Richard Steele put it this way in an article in the Spectator of 10 October 1712: “When a Man came for a Horse, he was led into the Stable, where there was great Choice, but he obliged him to take the Horse which stood next to the Stable-Door; so that every Customer was alike well served according to his Chance, and every Horse ridden with the same Justice: From whence it became a Proverb, when what ought to be your Election was forced upon you, to say, ‘Hobson’s Choice’”.

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Page created 19 Feb 2005