Thomas Hobson (c. 1544 – 1 January 1631) was an English carrier, best known as the origin of the expression Hobson’s choice.
The term “Hobson’s choice” originated in the mid-seventeenth century, after Hobson’s death. The poet John Milton made Hobson, and the phrase, well known, by satirising him several times in mock epitaphs.
Here lieth one who did most truly prove
That he could never die when he could move— John Milton, Roy Flannagan, John Milton: A short introduction.
Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the expression, was a very honourable man, for I shall ever call the man so who gets an estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a carrier; and, being a man of great abilities and invention, and one that saw where there might good profit arise, though the duller men overlooked it, this ingenious man was the first in this island who let out hackney-horses. He lived in Cambridge; and, observing that the scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large stable of horses, with boots, bridles and whips, to furnish the gentlemen at once, without going from college to college to borrow, as they have done since the death of this worthy man.
I say, Mr. Hobson kept a stable of forty good cattle, always ready and fit for travelling; but, when a man came for a horse he was led into the stable, where there was great choice, but he obliged him to take the horse which stood next to the stable-door; so that every customer was alike well served according to his chance, and every horse ridden with the same justice: from whence it became a proverb, when what ought to be your election was forced upon you, to say Hobson’s choice. This memorable man stands drawn in fresco at an inn he used in Bishopsgate-street, with an hundred pound bag under his arm, with this inscription upon the said bag:
- “The fruitful mother of an hundred more.”
Whatever tradesman will try the experiment, and begin the day after you publish this my discourse to treat his customers all alike, and all reasonably and honestly, I will ensure him the same success.— “Hezekiah Thrift”, The Spectator, 10 October 1712
Hobson arranged the delivery of mail between London and Cambridge up and down the Old North Road,[Note 1] operating a lucrativelivery stable outside the gates of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge as an innkeeper. When his horses were not needed to deliver mail, he rented them to students and academic staff of the University of Cambridge.
The George Inn in Cambridge where Hobson’s stable was situated was located on the current grounds of St. Catharine’s College and the stables were on the site of the current college chapel.
Hobson soon discovered that his fastest horses were the most popular, and thus overworked. So as not to exhaust them, he established a strict rotation system, allowing customers to rent only the next horse in line.
This policy, “this one or none” (“take it or leave it”), has come to be known as “Hobson’s choice”. It is not an absence of choice, rather choosing one thing or nothing.
In legal jargon, Hobson’s Choice is known to barristers as the “cab-rank rule“; the gentleman’s agreement that a barrister take a client who is first in line, whether the barrister likes it or not. This may come from Hobson’s choice of renting out hackney horses strictly by rote (long before the creation of the London Hackney Carriages Act 1843).[original research?]