Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
All that Glisters is not Gold : Henry Mayhew, co-founder of ‘Punch’, tells two anecdotes about the Victorian cabbie.
All that Glisters is not Gold

From ‘London Characters, and the Humorous Side of London Life’ by Henry Mayhew (1812-1887).

‘London Characters’ was a tissue of light-hearted observations on everyday life in the capital written by Henry Mayhew, co-founder of the satirical magazine ‘Punch’. Mayhew made a career out of satisfying the middle classes’ curiosity about the working man, something the working man did not always appreciate.

IMPRANSUS Jones* did a neat thing the other day. He got into a cab, when, after a bit, he recollected that he had no money, or chance of borrowing any. He suddenly checked the driver in a great hurry, and said he had dropped a sovereign in the straw.* He told the cabman that he would go to a friend’s a few doors off and get a light. As he was pretending to do so, the cabman, as Jones had expected, drove off rapidly. Thus the biter is sometimes bit.

There is a clergyman in London who tells a story of a cabman driving him home, and to whom he was about to pay two shillings.* He took the coins out of his waistcoat pocket, and then suddenly recollecting the peculiar glitter, he called out, “Stop, cabman, I’ve given you two sovereigns by mistake.” “Then your honour’s seen the last of them,” said the cabman, flogging into his horse as fast as he could. Then my friend felt again, and found that he had given to the cabman two bright new farthings which he had that day received, and was keeping as a curiosity for his children.*

* A pseudonym, possibly for the author: one of the sections in ‘London Characters’ is supposedly written by a Mr Jones. Impransus is Latin for ‘dinner-less’, and was frequently used in the Victorian era and before as a humorous way of saying ‘broke’. Dr Johnson once signed a letter to his publisher with ‘Impransus’.

* A sovereign is a gold coin worth one pound sterling. Although they are not normally used today, sovereigns remain in circulation and are still minted at the Royal Mint in Wales and under licence in India. A dropped sovereign in 1880 was roughly equivalent to a mislaid £91 in 2017. See Measuring Worth.

* On Britain’s former coinage, prior to decimalisation in 1970, a shilling was one twentieth of a pound, or twelve pennies (a pound was 240 pennies). A fare of two shillings was roughly equivalent to £9 in 2017.

* A farthing was a quarter of a penny: two farthings made a ha’penny. A penny in 1880 would be around 37p in 2017. So the cabman gave up £9 (two shillings) in the belief he had got away with £180 (2 sovereigns), whereas in fact he had about 18p (two farthings).

From ‘London Characters, and the Humorous Side of London Life’ by Henry Mayhew (1812-1887).

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