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Note 4

The Cab Stand Controversy

 

Though the Straygate owners had no part in the Improvement Commissioners' responsibilities of controlling the hackney carriages and licensing they were in the happy position of being able to profit from the hackney business. What the conditions and the organisation of the business were like before licensing and so-called control were introduced in 1841 it is impossible to say. It is more than likely that the cab stands were sited near the hotels, for one complaint in the days when the Commissioners were still struggling to bring some order into the organisation was that when a shout went up for a cab from the entrance of a hotel there was a mad dash of carriages to get there first. By-laws were needed to put an end to that.

Whether either cabs or donkey carriages were allowed to stand, not on the highway but, on the verges of the Stray is not known, but it is known that shortly after they came into being, the Commissioners negotiated with the Stray Committee for carriage stands to be marked out on the edge of the Stray. It was even agreed that the Commissioners and the Stray Committee should share the cost of setting up posts and marking out the stands.

Under the Act, the Commissioners were empowered to charge 2s. 6d. for every hackney licence issued and among the numerous problems they had to cope with as a newly formed and inexperienced body was the tendency of their Clerks, in succession, to take the licensing clause literally: "That for every such licence there shall be paid to the Clerk of the Commissioners the sum of two shillings and sixpence".

It was hardly to their liking that whereas they, on the community's behalf, charged a mere 2s. 6d. for a licence and had difficulty to boot in making their Clerk pay the money into the Commissioners' account, the Stray Committee, with no responsibility for control or surveillance, extracted a rent of 10s. a year for each carriage which occupied a stand on the Stray.

As time went by, the manifest advantages of the Stray Committee's being a statutory and virtually unassailable body were not lost on the Commissioners who profited nothing from their public service. Inevitably, the day came when one or two Commissioners persuaded their colleagues that the Stray Committee had no authority to charge for the stands on the Stray's verges. This on the flimsy grounds that the roads crossing the Stray were supposed to be 60 feet wide and that if any road were narrower than that, as presumably most were, then so much of the verge of the Stray as came within 30 feet of the road's centre was in fact highway for which the Stray Committee could not legally make a charge by way of rent.

This theory was advanced at a time when the Commissioners would have been wiser not to tangle with the Stray Committee who had the redoubtable Samuel Powell Jnr. as their legal adviser. It was the 1849-50 period when the Commissioners were going through a very troublesome period having quarreled with the Gas Company to the point where for the great part of 1849 Harrogate had no street lighting. A strongly radical influence had invaded the board of Commissioners and there was an inclination to pick a quarrel with anybody. To the Commissioners in that mood, the Stray Committee seemed to be an ideal opponent. Either entirely forgetful of the arrangement for stands they had made years before or else heedless of it, they foolishly advised the cab proprietors not to pay rent for their stands.

The Stray Committee, not unreasonably, told the Commissioners they were willing to "treat" for the use of the Stray but that if this offer were refused then the posts and stands on the Stray verges must be removed within 14 days. The Commissioners bluntly refused to negotiate. Between the two bodies it was the unfortunate cabmen who suffered. Relying on the authority of the Commissioners, they refused to pay rent for their stands. The Stray Committee either removed the posts of the stands or else ordered the cabmen to stand their vehicles on the road. That brought the Highways Surveyor into the picture, for he said he would not tolerate the obstruction of the highway caused by the standing cabs.

This dispute continued for 18 months. At one point, finding the Highways Surveyor to be unfriendly, the Commissioners said they would negotiate with the Stray Owners and told them so only shortly afterwards to cancel the meeting on the grounds that having at the outset refused to "treat" with the Stray Owners they could not act contrary to that registered decision. Mr. Powell, who at that period did not have much time for the Commissioners having but recently resigned from that body along with several other respectable members disgusted at the grip the radical element was exercising on it, did not hesitate to accuse the ''remnant'' or ''rump'' as the remaining Commissioners had come to be called, of bad faith. The Commissioners took no action, but it seems that in the following season, 1851, the hackney carriages were once more standing on the Stray's verges and without delay the Stray Owners took the cab proprietors to the Knaresborough Court.

It was argued on the cab men's behalf that the roads were too narrow because the Stray encroached on them. Prompted by the Commissioners the cab men had refused to pay rent last year and were still refusing to pay. The Magistrates dismissed the case, possibly feeling it prudent to leave it to a higher court since the subject involved such specialised material as the Enclosure Acts and the Enclosure Award. Bloody but unbowed, the Stray Committee said it would appeal to a divisional court and without more ado issued writs against the unfortunate cab men. A special meeting of the Commissioners was called and though John Barber (of the George Hotel) and the Rev. William Barker (a somewhat confused leader of the radical element among the Commissioners) wanted to back the cab proprietors the more cautious of their brethren resisted the temptation to become involved in litigation, the Commissioners already having accumulated a most unfortunate and disastrous record of failure in the courts. Now was certainly not the time to add to the record. The higher the Commissioners went in the courts, the more unsuccessful they were. Their empowering Act was not looked upon favourably by judges.

Consequently, the special meeting of Commissioners threw the towel in, agreed to meet with the Stray Committee, and to reach an arrangement to stop the action. They also agreed to pay 6, half the costs involved in the writs provided the cab proprietors paid the other half. Thus the Stray Committee won hands down and the cab men, badly let down by the Commissioners had to meet half the costs of the action in addition once more to paying rent for their stands on the Stray. Nothing about the dispute helped to sweeten relations between the Commissioners, the Stray Owners, and the cab proprietors.

 
 

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