A question I’m sometimes asked by passengers in the taxi is “How long did it take you to pass?”
By this, they mean how long did it take to pass ‘The Knowledge of London’ (usually shortened to ‘The Knowledge’), the process of study and examination which you’re required to pass before you’re allowed to drive a famous London Taxi.
The answer to this question depends on the individual and the era in which they passed. Personally, it took me 4 ½ years which is currently about the average (although I’ve known some who were a lot quicker and others who are still stuck on the process).
Although I get asked this question, those who enquire often have little idea what studying the Knowledge actually entails, and there are many more people who have no idea that we have to take such a test at all!
Licenced London Taxi Drivers are required to know every road and place of interest in the main London area; that is anywhere within a six mile radius of Charing Cross (a major railway station just up from Trafalgar Square, before which lies the official centre of London).
Although Licenced Taxis in London date back to the time of Oliver Cromwell, the requirement of studying this vast area is a relatively recent one- it was only introduced during the Victorian Era; in the 1850s!
In 1851, the ‘Great Exhibition’ was held in London’s Hyde Park. In those days, Great Britain boasted a huge Empire, upon which the Sun famously ‘never set’, and London was at the centre of that mighty power.
The Great Exhibition was intended to be a celebration of all that was British and all that was part of the Empire; a massive showcase for Victorian technology, engineering and innovation.
Housed in a vast hall, constructed from cast-iron and glass (depicted in the above illustration), The Great Exhibition was one of the first truly international events; the Great, Great Grandfather of the modern expo, and people flocked from all over to savour its imperial delights.
Events on this scale are a useful way of testing a city’s infrastructure and, one of the main complaints visitors to the London of 1851 had, was that the cab drivers (horse-drawn in those days, of course), had no idea where they were going! (They must have been bad back then- how difficult could it have been to find a giant, gleaming glass hall in the middle of one of London’s main parks?!)
Following this grievance, it was decided that London’s Cab Drivers would have to take a test, to prove that they knew the road system and could transport their passengers with confidence. Apparently, this idea of testing a potential cabbie’s knowledge was suggested by Queen Victoria’s husband; Prince Albert.
The Knowledge has evolved and grown since then, although the initial intention of the system remains the same; to ensure that potential London Taxi Drivers develop a solid grasp of the area in which they intend to convey the public. Studying the Knowledge is a very intense process. I shall do my best to describe what is involved, and to give you an idea of what those 4 ½ years were like to live through.
Before you can even begin studying the Knowledge, there are several criteria you must satisfy. Firstly, you have to have a clean criminal record; a CRB check is carried out for this purpose. Minor infringements, such as any points on your driving licence, must be declared. If you fail to do so and the Public Carriage Office (the body in charge of taxis in London) later find out, you’re in trouble!
As well as proving you are of ‘good character’, a medical check is also required. Naturally, the CRB and medical checks have to be paid for; the first expenses on a very costly road! There is no outside financial support for those on the course. If you want to be a London Cabbie, you have to fund the training yourself.
After these requirements are met, you are officially accepted as a student of the Knowledge (in cabbie’s speak, this makes you a ‘Knowledge Boy’ or ‘Knowledge Girl’, regardless of your age). Until very recently, becoming a Knowledge student began with the ‘Acceptance Interview.’ From what I understand, this formality has now been replaced by an information pack, which is sent to the potential student’s home. That’s a shame, because the Acceptance Interview was a good taste of the process to come.
The ‘interview’ was in fact a group talk. I had my Acceptance Interview (and the majority of my exams- or ‘appearances’ as they are known in the trade) at the old Public Carriage Office on Penton Street in Islington, North London.
The offices on Penton Street (which are now the HQ of London’s bicycle hire scheme; the PCO has since moved to the ultra-modern 'Palestra' building in Southwark), were an incredibly intimidating place. On the outside, the building is relatively modern; a typical 1960s concrete office block, built to replace the original PCO which was based in Lambeth.
Despite the late 20th Century exterior, the interior had a far more old fashioned atmosphere. The Penton Street office was characterized by long corridors (one of which was nicknamed ‘the corridor or fear- which I’ll explain later), heavy wooden doors and floor lino coloured in a typical institutional grey. If you can imagine the most oppressive characteristics of a typically traditional school, then you’ll be close to getting a feel for the old PCO. Most cabbies who underwent their apprenticeship at Penton Street have rather unpleasant memories of the place!
In 1979, Thames Television (an old licensee of ITV) broadcast a comedy-drama play about The Knowledge (perhaps unsurprisingly, called ‘The Knowledge’). Written by the late Jack Rosenthal, the play is fondly recalled by those who watched it and, in 2000, the BFI included it in their list of top 100 Best British Television Programmes. The Knowledge was filmed on location around London, including many scenes within the Penton Street PCO. Although over 30 years old and primarily a comedy, the play is a pretty accurate portrayal of what the training of a London Taxi Driver involves. Jack Rosenthal’s play can be found on YouTube.
Sometime later, in 1996, the BBC made Streetwise; a Modern Times documentary about the Knowledge process. Again, this featured many scenes filmed at Penton Street, and the show gave a very good indication of what being a Knowledge student involves. Sadly, this documentary is now rather hard to come by.
Going back to my personal experience, my Acceptance Interview/group talk was held in a relatively large room on the ground floor of the PCO. It was about the only room in the building to have been recently decorated, probably to lure potential Knowledge students into a false sense of security! The floor was covered in a blue carpet, and on the walls, there were several photos of old taxis and their cabmen, complete with moustaches, bowler hats and long coats. There were also several glass cabinets, comprising a sort of mini-museum, displaying antique taxi paraphernalia (such as mechanical taximeters and old ‘for hire’ lights).
In this room, there were rows of small desks; each designed for one person to sit at. Apart from the lack of a little inkwell in the corner, these desks were pretty much like the ones you’d find in school. Upon arrival for the talk, you were invited to sit at one of these desks and await the examiner who was presenting that day.
Sitting and waiting there felt very much like the first day at school. There were about 15 candidates, most of us wearing smart suits (vital protocol when a Knowledge student visits the PCO) and, mainly due to nerves, there was silence; nobody said a word (once passed of course, a group of London cabbies are far from quiet!)
Although Knowledge of London examiners have a fearsome reputation, the examiner who gave my talk came across as quite amicable. However, he did make a point of insisting that this talk was informal; once past this point, things became very serious and regimented!
During the talk, which lasted for about one hour, we were told how to study for the Knowledge and provided with a copy of the ‘Blue Book’ (a publication which I’ll explain in a moment). The handful of people who were not smartly dressed that day were let off the hook.
“However”, said the examiner, “from now on, every time you’re up here for an appearance” (an exam), “you’ve got to look the part. We only accept suits- jackets buttoned up. Shoes must be polished. Your hair must be tidy. If you’ve got a problem with that, you can say so now ladies and gents, but you’ll have to walk afterwards.”
This comment created a brief, silent buzz, rather like in a wedding ceremony when the gathered spectators are asked if they know of any reason why the nuptials shouldn’t get hitched.
Unsurprisingly, nobody piped up.
Satisfied that we were going to play ball, the examiner then moved on to provide us with a little statistic; a factoid which I believe all potential cabbies are told (and, is generally true).It is even mentioned in Jack Rosenthal’s film.
“Most of you won’t pass. The drop-out rate is around 70%. That’s the way it is, folks. Some decide it’s not for them; a lot of people can’t handle the amounts of information they have to deal with for this. Once you begin The Knowledge, your life is taken over."
With that wonderful bit of encouragement, the examiner wrapped up and wished us good luck.
And that was it, we were on our own!
Earlier, I mentioned ‘The Blue Book’ which all Knowledge students are provided with at the beginning of their quest. I remember my copy well; a dinky A-5 sized book with fresh-smelling, glossy paper. The cover featured a modern-art type illustration of a smart little taxi, driving through a zig-zaggy representation of London Town. Inside, there were a number of pages repeating what the examiner had just told us. These were followed by lists of the 320 ‘Knowledge Runs’.
It was an exciting pamphlet to own, giving the feeling that you were in on a little secret, handed down from generation to generation; the key to mastering London. The little book was also deceptive. It made The Knowledge look like a straight-forward, neatly packaged process… which it certainly isn’t!
The 320 ‘runs’ (or, more accurately, routes) contained in the Blue Book form the basis of learning The Knowledge; they are tools which enable you to efficiently explore every corner of London, thus etching an image of the enormous map upon your brain.
Using the runs, the Knowledge Boy or Girl has to physically drive and learn every street in the Knowledge area which, as mentioned earlier, is a six mile radius around Charing Cross.
That area contains approximately 25,000 roads and streets.
There are also many thousands more ‘points of interest’ (shortened to points) on these roads which have to be seen, noted and committed to memory
Over the years, the number of runs and the start and end points have varied slightly. However, the fundamentals remain the same. The first run has always been “Manor House to Gibson Square.”
Situated next to Finsbury Park in North London, Manor House is a busy road junction and a station on the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line. Gibson Square is a smart, peaceful, leafy square in Islington, built during the Georgian era.
So, on their first run, the Knowledge student will make their way to the Manor House junction (if they can find it… I couldn’t at first and found it easier to start with the second run; Thornhill Square to Queen Square!)
Once at Manor House, the student has to study the area approximately a quarter of a mile around the start point. This means driving around all of the roads in the vicinity; learning the names, noting any one-way roads, and working out ways to overcome any turning restrictions.
There are also points to be discovered and learnt. A point can be many things; a hotel, pub, bar, restaurant, school, police station, fire station, court, place of worship, park, theatre, museum, gallery, apartment block, stadium, leisure centre, a shop, statue etc. etc.; the list goes on.
Most Knowledge Boys and Girls tend to carry out their driving on a moped or scooter, as it’s easy to manoeuvre and relatively cheap on fuel. Having said that, I did recently witness a Knowledge Boy on a bicycle; the common Knowledge vehicle of choice prior to the 1960s!
Once satisfied they have grasped the ¼ mile radius around Manor House, the student then has to drive the route to Gibson Square. The route, as with all Runs, should be the straightest, most direct possible. It also has to be committed to memory; the student has to be able to recite every road name and every turn taken. So, Manor House to Gibson Square is generally described along the lines of:
“Leave Manor House Station on the left, Green Lanes.
Right: Brownswood Road.
Left: Blackstock Road.
Forward: Highbury Park.
Forward: Highbury Grove.
Right: St Paul’s Road
Comply (you use this word when you come to a junction or roundabout): Highbury Corner.
Leave By: Upper Street.
Right: Islington Park Street.
Left: College Cross.
Right: Barnsbury Street
Left: Milner Square.
Forward: Milner Place.
Set down Gibson Square facing."
These routes are learnt parrot-fashion, rather like a child learning their times-tables. Seemingly easy at first, but by the time you’ve driven 320 routes, that’s a lot of runs to recite, and many are a lot longer than Manor House to Gibson Square!
Most Knowledge students recite at least 80 runs a day (often more depending on the stage they're at); a process known as ‘calling your Blue Book.” After a lot of practice, most students can call these routes very fast; calling the Blue Book is a great treadmill for the brain!
Calling the runs can be done at home with a nice cup of tea. However, the real work is done out on the road.
Going back to the run, the Knowledge Student has now reached their destination; Gibson Square.
Once there, they have to repeat the same process they carried out at Manor House; that is to drive a quarter mile around the area, learning all of the roads, restrictions and points of interest. Once satisfied, it’s onto the next run! Naturally, this is a slow and methodical process.
It may not seem like it at first but, after a while, these little quarter-mile radii (two for each run, so that’s 640 of them), along with the longer routes in between, begin to merge together, a bit like a fiddly jigsaw puzzle.
After studying every run, the student will have covered the entire Knowledge zone and will be quite familiar with the area they are required to know… however, that is far from the end of it!
Next time, I’ll be writing my personal experiences of The Knowledge, including the exam stage… the dreaded appearances!