an ambling horse
miniature from a 13th-century Apocalypse manuscript: The 3rd seal, the black horse
(British): the official term for a taxi
The common noun hackney was originally elliptical for Hackney horse, a horse of Hackney, a town in Middlesex where horses were pastured. (It is now a borough of metropolitan London. The place name Hackney appears to be derived from Anglo-Saxon Hacan īeg, isle of Haca.)
The common noun is first recorded in the Anglo-Latin ablative form hackeneio in the account of John of Brabant’s expenses for 29th November 1292:
Pro hackeneio ferente tunicam nocturnam et res alias Johannis de Berewick’ usque Gedewourde, ix d.
For the hackney carrying the night tunic and other things of John of Berwick to Gedewourde (?), 9d.
However, the name Petrus de Hakenesho, that is, hackney-shoe, a horseshoe for a hackney, is attested as early as 1205.
One of the early mentions of the place name in Middlesex occurs as Hakeney in 1284-85 in Calendarium inquisitionum post mortem sive escaetarum, the local enquiries into the lands held by a deceased individual, in order to discover any income and rights due to the crown.
A hackney was originally a horse of middle size and quality, used for ordinary riding, as distinguished from a war-horse, a hunter or a draught-horse. In early times, it was often an ambling horse, that is, a horse moving by lifting the two feet on one side together, alternately with the two feet on the other, thus creating a smooth rocky motion.
As early as the late 14th century, The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, an alliterative poem attributed to William Langland (circa 1325–circa 1390), mentioned “hakeneyes to hyre”, so that the word came often to be taken as meaning a horse kept for hire.
In the early 17th century, from this use, the word came to be applied to a four-wheeled coach, drawn by two horses, and seated for six persons, kept for hire, first called hackney coach or simply hackney, then hackney carriage. In 1635, John Taylor (1578-1653), known as the Water Poet (he was a Thames waterman), wrote, in The olde, old, very olde man: or the age and long life of Thomas Par, about an Englishman who allegedly lived for 152 years, from 1483 to 1635:
He was eighty-one years old before there was any coach in England : For the first, that ever was seen here, was brought out of the Netherlands, by one William Boonen, a Dutchman, who gave a coach to Queen Elisabeth, for she had been seven years a Queen before she had any coach ; since when, they have increased, with a mischief, and ruined all the best house-keeping, to the undoing of the watermen¹, by the multitudes of hackney or hired coaches : But they never swarmed so thick to pester the streets, as they do now, till the year 1605, and then was the gunpowder treason hatched, and at that time did the coaches breed and multiply.
(¹ The watermen of the Thames complained because, until the arrival of the hackneys, the only way to get from one part of the City to another, or to Westminster, was by boat.)
In 1660, King Charles II (1630-85) issued A Proclamation to restrain the Abuses of Hackney Coaches in the Cities of London and Westminster, and the Suburbs thereof:
Whereas the excessive number of Hackney Coaches, and Coach Horses, in and about the Cities of London and Westminster, and the Suburbs thereof, are found to be a common nuisance to the Publique Damage of Our People by reason of their rude and disorderly standing and passing to and fro, in and about our said Cities and Suburbs, the Streets and Highways being thereby pestred and made impassable, the Pavements broken up, and the Common Passages obstructed and become dangerous, Our Peace violated, and sundry other mischiefs and evils occasioned :
We, taking into Our Princely consideration these apparent Inconveniences, and resolving that a speedy remedy be applied to meet with, and redress them for the future, do, by and with the advice of our Privy Council, publish Our Royal Will and Pleasure to be, and we do by this Our Proclamation expressly charge and command, That no Person or Persons, of what Estate, Degree, or Quality whatsoever, keeping or using any Hackney Coaches, or Coach Horses, do, from and after the Sixth Day of November next, permit or suffer the said Coaches and Horses, or any of them, to stand or remain in any the Streets or Passages in or about Our said Cities either of London or Westminster, or the Suburbs belonging to either of them, to be there hired ; but that they and every of them keep their said Coaches and Horses within their respective Coach-houses, Stables, and Yards (whither such Persons as desire to hire the same may resort for that purpose), upon pain of Our high displeasure, and such Forfeitures, Pains, and Penalties as may be inflicted for the Contempt of Our Royal Commands in the Premises, whereof we shall expect a strict Accompt.
And for the due execution of Our Pleasure herein, We do further charge and command the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of Our City of London, That they in their several Wards, and Our Justices of Peace within Our said Cities of London and Westminster, and the Liberties and Suburbs thereof, and all other Our Officers and Ministers of Justice, to whom it appertaineth, do take especial care in their respective Limits that this Our Command be duly observed, and that they from return the names of all those who shall wilfully offend in the Premises, to Our Privy Council, and to the end they may be proceeded against by Indictments and Presentments for the Nuisance, and otherwise according to the severity of the Law and Demerits of the Offenders.
Given at Our Court at Whitehall the 18th day of October in the 12th year of Our Reign².
(² Charles II’s reign began in 1660, but all legal documents were dated as if it had begun at the death of his father, Charles I (1600-49).)
However, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wrote in his diary, on Wednesday 7th November 1660:
Notwithstanding this was the first day of the King’s proclamation against hackney coaches coming into the streets to stand to be hired, yet I got one to carry me home.
And, in his Diurnal, Thomas Rugg (died 1670) wrote:
In April, 1663, the poor widows³ of hackney-coachmen petitioned for some relief, as the parliament had reduced the number of coaches to 400; there were before, in and about London, more than 2000.
(³ There were no women drivers but, following the death of her husband, a widow could take over the vehicle licence, which allowed her to rent the coach out to a licensed driver.)
For other sense developments, read hackneyed – hack
Although attested earlier in Anglo-Norman, the English common noun hackney was only borrowed by French during the Hundred Years War as hacquenée, haguenée, etc., (Modern French haquenée), to denote a similar saddle horse. (In the mid-19th century, French also adopted the English hack, abbreviation of hackney, in the sense of a horse for ordinary riding.)
From this French word:
– Italian has acchinea, and, by shortening, chinea,
– Spanish has hacanea – another noun, jaca, is from an earlier haca, from a French form haque.
– Portuguese has hacaneia, a variant of which is facaneia – faca is either from Spanish or French.
hackney carriage licence plate – image: Woking Borough Council