The Knowledge. No it’s not the name of a new quiz show, but if it were, it would make Double Jeopardy seem like a game of Candy Land.
Challenging doesn’t go anywhere near describing what must be the world’s most difficult test. Only the most ardent should apply. It also helps if you’re British. It helps more if you were born in London and grew up traipsing the city’s labyrinth of 25,000 streets, committing their names and whereabouts to memory, along with the locations of 1,400 landmarks.
Yes, the examination to become a London cabbie is as rigorous as earning a law or medical degree.
The Knowledge, as this quintessential British exam is known, has been around since 1851, when visitors descended on London in the hundreds of thousands to attend the first ever World’s Fair exhibition at Crystal Palace. The Great Exhibition featured magnificent diamonds, industrial inventions, works of art, and every kind of collection imaginable. The over 800,000 square foot glass building that housed the exhibits was the first to offer the luxury of public conveniences, for which people paid one penny to use. Hence the saying “spending a penny”, which incidentally, only became obsolete in 1971 with the advent of decimalization when pennies went out of circulation and were replaced by the 2p piece. Thereby, making the stingier of us give a little more thought than we might normally before deciding whether or not to use the loo. Or to quote a conflicted Danish prince, “to pee or not to pee? That is the question”.
But I digress; back to The Great Exhibition of 1851. It may have had the Koh-I-Noor diamond, it may have had public restrooms, but what it didn’t provide was competent cabbies capable of transporting the six million visitors. The Public Carriage Office was inundated with complaints and responded by establishing standards for the horse-drawn hackney carriages. Those standards included passing an exam known as the Knowledge. Although horse drawn cabs no longer exist - the last to be licensed was in 1947 - the procedures required to qualify as a London taxi driver remain as rigorous today as they were 164 years ago. If not more so.
“To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an 'All London' taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross". So states the official blue guidebook issued to test takers. A tough assignment, but doable. Except that within the 1,242 square miles would-be-cabbies also need to know, “all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists”.
Far more difficult, but still doable. Until you throw in the finer points that are not stated in the guide book; which direction for instance are the streets running; which streets are one-way, which are dead ends; from which streets do you enter and exit the myriad of traffic circles and what is the location of everything and anything a passenger might ask to be taken to; pubs, laundromats, banks, convenience stores, flower stands. Nothing is off limits to the examiners who seem as determined to hang onto the green badge they hand out to a successful test taker, as the prospective cabbie is to earn it.
It takes more than determination, though, to pass the test. To memorize London in its entirety and to demonstrate your knowledge through a series of oral exams, which become progressively more difficult, takes an intellectual prowess and years of study. It also helps if you have a two wheeled mode of transportation and raingear.
The first portion of the test requires the Knowledge boy - or nowadays Knowledge girl - as they are known, to complete 320 "runs", i.e. trips from Point A to Point B, from a given list. The candidates undertake this first Herculean task in all weathers; their maps and notepads strapped onto the windscreens of their rented motorbikes. Once completed, they take a short written exam, before proceeding to the first stage of a potentially endless series of oral exams, or "appearances" as they are known. During these face-to-face encounters between the candidate and the examiner, the Knowledge seeker is asked to “call a run”. This entails the ability to identify the perfect route between any two points in the City.
Each appearances consists of four runs with the number of "appearances" only being limited to the candidate’s patience. Twenty appearances over a period of a year and a half is standard. A specified number of days is given between each appearance in which to study; 56 days between the first appearance and the second, then 28 days, then 21. With each appearance the questions become more and more difficult. Each run is scored a letter grade and bad grades result in the candidate being bumped backwards; think chutes and ladders minus the luck factor.
The good news is that no one "fails" the Knowledge. You either pass, or more often than not, quit in the process. For those that pass - generally a third to a quarter of all those that take the exam - the rewards can be lucrative. Even after the overheads (which can be steep given English gas prices and the cost of buying and maintaining a black cab) a London cabbie can earn upwards of $100,000. It may be more. It may be less. With the majority of transactions being in cash, a cabbie’s real earnings are a well-guarded secret. Funny how a cabbie’s intellect goes on holiday come tax time?
There is also of course the satisfaction of knowing that you have an "enlarged hippocampus". No, that’s not a symptom of having lugged one too many heavily laden suitcases out of the trunk, but is a trait associated with navigation in birds and animals. It’s what helps them locate the food they’ve squirreled away. A few years back, scientists at the University College of London, determined that the hippocampi of London cabbies was larger-than-average and that the longer someone had been driving a taxi, the larger his hippocampus. Apparently it’s particularly plump in the posterior hippocampus. Which might not be of concern to the Knowledge boys, but try telling a Knowledge girl she has a plump hippocampus and you’ll probably end up taking a detour - to the bottom of the Thames!