The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939

The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939

by Peter Thorold


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In the forty odd years between 1896 — the year the Locomotives on Highways Act came into effect and the Second World War, Britain was changed for ever by the automobile. This rich, evocative and entertaining book charts that fascinating chapter of social history.

At first motoring was a sport, the car a plaything of the rich — from King Edward to Mr Toad. But soon motor transport by car, bus, motorcycle and lorry — their value confirmed many times over in the Great War — became central to the economy.

The huge growth in ownership of private cars rejuvenated countryside, towns and villages left derelict by agricultural depression and the railways. The car was also individually liberating — and glamorous too.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910670750
Publisher: Thistle Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.82(d)

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How vivid it was, London in the 1890s. The Buses and trams, horse-drawn still, with their sparkling colours, blue and green, yellow and red, set off against the sober hues of the private carriages and cabs. And how elegant, particularly in the Season, with the myriad victorias and landaus and family coaches parading in Hyde Park, the horses sleek, the footmen in livery and cockades. And the hansom cab, 'swaying delicately in unison with the horse, the whip poised like a lance in its holder ... the cotton summer cover in colours or white with tassels, made in most cases by the cabby's wife, as the wives of the gondolieris still make covers for the cabin-tops of gondolas'. The trams too had their summer covers, drawn as they might be by mules, three abreast, the one in the middle with a canopy over its head hung with bells which jingled as it trotted along. People remembered the horse buses for the atmosphere, the friendliness, how driver and passengers chatted happily together as they rode along. Frederick Willis, a south London child, recalled how an 'old lady waving her umbrella on the pavement would bring the bus right up to the kerb' and how the conductor would dextrously lift her aboard with an almost affectionate hug.

That at any rate is one side of the story, the one perpetuated by cinema and television. The other is much less enthusiastic. Take the cabs. Often enough they were old 'growlers', their frames, as a writer of the time put it, 'afflicted with innumerable gaps, chinks and crevices ... neither wind nor water-tight'. (And their horses, he went on, were miserable creatures, and their drivers little better.) The trouble with the cheery buses was that there were nothing like enough of them. In 1890 only one person in twelve in the south London suburbs commuted to work by any form of public transport. It was too expensive. There was also the noise of the traffic. Thomas Burke, writing in the 1930s, agreed that by then the volume of noise was greater than in the horse age, but declared firmly that modern traffic was less cruel to the ear: 'We have a concerted drone in place of random artillery.'

H. B. Cresswell, an architect writing in the Architectural Review in 1958, went further. The din, he said, 'was beyond all imagining', with the multitude of iron-shod hairy heels hammering on the road and the deafening side-drum tattoo of the wheels. Cresswell also described the filth.

An assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numerous corps of red-jacketed boys who dodged among the wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of 'pea soup' that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-surface as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. As somebody else put it, if, while crossing the street, you had the misfortune to get too close to a passing cab, you would emerge looking like a Dalmatian dog, spotted with thick, black, viscerous mud (much of it simply horse dung).

It was against such a background, elegant and friendly, noisy and filthy, that the motoring age in Britain came into being. The birth-date is usually taken as 14 November 1896, the day the Locomotives on Highways Act took effect, removing at last the legal barriers to motoring. Two days before, H. O. Duncan, well known as a racing bicyclist, arrived at Dover from France with the eminent French car builders Léon and Camille Bollée to take part in a celebratory motor rally from London to Brighton. To get to London at all was not easy. The petrol in the tanks of their three three-wheeler motors had been emptied out in Boulogne and it was difficult to lay hands on any replacement fuel at Dover. Eventually they tracked down some benzine (petrol) at a chemist's shop which Leon Bollée's hydrometer registered as satisfactory. Arriving by train at Victoria Station on the morning of 12 November, the three of them, with their motors, were surrounded at once by an excited crowd. A police inspector pushed his way through to declare, 'You are not to drive those instruments through the streets.' But the new act is passed, protested Duncan, and we are taking the cars no further than Holborn. Still, it was no use arguing, technically there remained a couple of days to go under the old regime, and anyway there were now half a dozen policemen on the spot whom the inspector ordered to accompany the 'things' to the Central Hall in Oxford Street (then the Holborn skating rink) where entrants for the rally were to be garaged. After much trouble, Duncan managed to hire some broken-down old hacks from a livery stable. Ropes were attached to the cars and off they started, escorted by an uproarious and jeering crowd. When the towing rope snapped in Piccadilly and the three old horses simply plodded on regardless, the joy of the crowd knew no bounds. It was indeed a comical sight, conceded Duncan wryly, the only consolation being that the Bollées understood no English.

Charles Jarrott, later a well-known racing driver and the man principally responsible for the founding of the Automobile Association, takes up the story with a description of the Central Hall on the morning of the rally:

I shall never forget the scene which met my eyes when I entered. French mechanics and German inventors, with enthusiasts of all nationalities, were mixed up in indescribable confusion. Huge flares were being carried about from one machine to another to assist in lighting up the burners for the cars, which at that time were innocent of electric ignition. An occasional petrol blaze was seen through the fog which filled the hall, making the scene resemble a veritable inferno.

According to enraged neighbours, the din made by tuning the engines went on all night.

There is no doubting the significance of this, the first Brighton Run, and more than that, the first motor rally of any sort to be held in Britain. It proclaimed the new age, and did so with true late Victorian exuberance and bravado. Gluttony, or what we would consider gluttony, was unabashed. The day started with a 9.30 breakfast (washed down by Rudesheimer 1886 and/or Château Bechevelle 1889) at the starting point, the Metropole Hotel in Northumberland Avenue. Anyone still hungry could stop off at the White Hart Hotel in Reigate, where a substantial lunch was laid on. (In Brighton a suitably lavish dinner was waiting to round off the day.) 'Plutocracy', new and flashy money, another characteristic feature of the time, was represented, indeed personified, in the organizer Harry Lawson, the partner in some recent business deals with the 'modern Midas', Ernest Hooley. Lawson was very controversial, but no more so than another participant, the American inventor and salesman Edward J. Pennington, of whom it was said that 'it seemed impossible for any sane person to disbelieve anything he stated'. They were rash indeed, however, if they did not.

The day was foggy, turning to rain, with a gale building up at Brighton for those who made it. Of the fifty-eight cars at the starting line, only thirty-eight (or, according to some accounts, only thirty-two or thirty-three) succeeded in getting under way. They were a diverse lot: three-wheelers, four-wheelers, some powered by internal combustion, some by steam, some by electricity. Since Britain's motor industry was in its infancy, apart from some esoteric home-made examples not intended for sale commercially, the vehicles were all of foreign make. Crowds of onlookers thronged the streets and balconies and house-tops, and perched on lamp-posts around the starting point. In fact, there were crowds everywhere along the route. In the first car off were Harry Lawson and his wife. They were followed by Frederick Simms, the original chairman and managing director of the (British) Daimler Motor Syndicate, accompanying the eminent Gottlieb Daimler, to whom it has been said, 'without question belongs the title of inventor of the [petrol-driven] automobile'. Then there were H. O. Duncan and the Bollées, Charles Jarrott, and Evelyn Ellis — his Panhard-Levassor is now in the Science Museum in South Kensington. A younger son of the very wealthy Lord Howard de Walden, Ellis was a former officer in the Royal Navy who had already fitted out two of his Thames launches with petrol engines. Also in the procession were a carload of French automobilists and, surprisingly, vans from Harrods and Peter Robinson, another department store, carrying parcels for delivery in Brighton.

The rally was also a race, for, after all, participants like the Bollées could not fail to see in it an excellent opportunity to advertise their cars. Who exactly did what is not always clear. The Emancipation Run was improvised at the last minute and there was no official programme to enlighten the journalists who went along — they included Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat — about either the participants or their vehicles. What is certain is that many of the cars failed to complete the course. Or at least by road. A few, it seems, were simply driven from the starting line to Victoria Station and loaded on to a train to Preston Park, a station just outside Brighton, from where — having made themselves plausibly dirty — they proceeded nonchalantly to the finish at the Brighton Metropole. Some competitors missed the breakfast but joined in part of the way along or tried to reduce the odds against them by taking a short cut. Some were distracted by the Reigate lunch. There was confusion about who actually won. The American Duryea team insisted they had and that they had been wrongly disqualified by Lawson for commercial reasons. (And certainly Lawson was not to be trusted: for instance, he pretended that the majority of entries for the run were Daimlers, for which he owned the British patent, rather than Panhard-Levassors.) The official judges were no use, since their car, a Panhard-Levassor and reputedly the fastest car in the world, had broken down and reached Brighton two hours after the first arrivals. Still, they did better than the van intended to rescue stranded cars — it did not arrive until the early hours of the next morning. Anyway, the Bollée brothers were generally accepted as the winners, taking both first and second places.

Why were the British so late into motoring? Why were the great names — Lenoir, Daimler, Otto, Benz, Maybach, Peugeot, Bollée, Serpollet — from some other country? As Charles Jarrott said, the people who really knew about cars on 14 November 1896 were foreign engineers and mechanics. How odd, since it was the British who had launched the Industrial Revolution and pioneered the railways, and it was to Britain that foreigners such as Gottlieb Daimler and Armand Peugeot had come to learn how to be engineers. 'The motor car should have been British', wrote Thomas Edison in 1901; that would have been natural, 'You first invented it in the 1830s, you have the mechanics and the roads.'

As it happened, the versatile and energetic engineers and businessmen of the early steam age had not overlooked the possibilities of self-propelled transport on roads. In fact, road locomotives predated the railways. Richard Trevithick, a Cornish mining engineer, set up his London Steam Carriage Company, which worked the streets of north London, as early as 1803. In the 1820s technical improvements made steam motoring more practicable. In the 1830s the Squire and Macerone Steam Coach ran daily from Paddington to Edgware and Harrow and was capable on level ground of cruising at 20mph. Walter Hancock, a remarkably determined operator, drove his steam car through the packed streets of the City of London in 1838. Then there was the Steam Carriage Company of Scotland, which ran a fleet of six steam carriages devised by John Scott Russell, designer and builder of the SS Great Eastern. This company operated a coach service between Glasgow and Paisley, with locomotives capable of carrying thirty or forty passengers inside plus a tender for six inside and twenty outside. Other pioneers were Sir Charles Dance, who ran four trips a day between Gloucester and Cheltenham, and Sir Goldsworthy Gurney. There was even, in the 1830s, an automobile periodical called the Journal of Elemental Locomotion.

One school of thought at about this time considered that the use of locomotives on roads might make the construction of railways unnecessary. A select committee of the House of Commons, reporting in 1831, concluded that steam power was likely to replace horses on the roads and recommended that discrimination against steam locomotives on turnpike roads should be prohibited. Yet by 1840 the first automobile age was to all intents and purposes finished. In 1859 there was a revival, but it petered out. One reason was concern over damage to roads and bridges, another the risk of boiler explosion and injury to people and property. A witness before an 1873 parliamentary select committee on locomotives on roads stated that he had once been involved with steam buses but had withdrawn following an explosion which resulted in loss of life. And the original recommendation to prevent discrimination, while accepted by the House of Commons, was rejected by the Lords. The turnpike trusts, which controlled the main highways, did discriminate, their proprietors claiming with reason that 'locomotives' damaged the road surface. Nevertheless, the difference in pricing was extreme: in one example, while a horse-drawn coach would be charged a toll of 3s (15p), a steam carriage would be obliged to pay £2. And very important was the antagonism of the railway companies. Their shareholders, having got rid of horse traffic — at any rate, all but the most local, which they did not want anyway — had no wish to see competition appear from another source.

Whatever the view of the House of Commons in the 1830s, it had changed a generation later. Parliamentary acts of 1861 and 1865 restricted the permissible speed for self-propelled road vehicles to 4mph in open country and 2mph in towns, and required that they be manned by a crew of two, with another person walking at least sixty yards in front displaying a red flag or, at night, a red lantern. For anything resembling a motor car, such conditions were impossible.

The profound effect of the railways on economic and social life, in a negative sense at least, was nowhere more noticeable than on the great highways, the old mail roads, which swept their way through the countryside of Britain. Deprived of the long-distance traffic, passenger and freight, for which they had been constructed, their purpose was gone. They resembled the Roman roads after the dissolution of the Empire. In the 1860s George Eliot could write:

Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads: the great roadside inns were still brilliant with well-polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and the repartees of jocose ostlers; the mail still announced itself by the merry notes of the horn; the hedge-cutter or the rick-thatcher might still know the exact hour by the unfailing yet otherwise meteoric apparition of the pea-green Tally-ho or the yellow Independent; and elderly gentlemen in pony-chaises, quartering nervously to make way for the rolling swinging swiftness, had not ceased to remark that times were finely changed since they used to see pack-horses and hear the tinkling of their bells on this very highway.

In his Uncommercial Traveller, published in 1861, Charles Dickens described coming on a turnpike and finding it eloquent 'respecting the change which had fallen on the road. The Turnpike-house was all overgrown with ivy; and the Turnpike-keeper, unable to get a living out of the tolls, plied the trade of cobbler.' There were enterprising tourists, such as Andrew Carnegie, who relished the horse-age version of the open road and were delighted by the emptiness. Carnegie, the immensely rich American stell magnate and philanthropist, wrote a charming description of rural England and Scotland in 1881. With family and friends he travelled in a hired 'four-in-hand' from Brighton to Inverness. His mood was buoyant, boisterous even; he enjoyed almost everything he saw. What a wonderful way to travel, he wrote: 'Everything of rural England is seen, and how exquisitely beautiful it all is, this quiet, peaceful, orderly land!' As to the roads: 'We bowl over them as balls do over billiard-tables.' In the north, travelling from the Lake District to Carlisle, the roads were as 'perfect as they can be made'.

Most people, however, took a different view. Twenty years after Carnegie's trip, J. St Loe Strachey, the editor of the Spectator, remarked how gloomy it was to travel the once magnificent old mail roads and often to see no one for miles. Moreover, whatever Carnegie and later Edison may have said, many of them had undoubtedly deteriorated. 'It is well, perhaps, that the great supporters of our roads in years long since past cannot see them in their present altered and dilapidated state, looking almost like country lanes' was one comment. Another contemporary deplored the sad fate of the country posting inns, with their great empty yards and the windows of the upper rooms all shuttered. Once they had been 'the scenes of life and cheerfulness, but now [were] reduced to a tap-room and accommodation for a lodger or two'. The Australian S. F. Edge, perhaps the most flamboyant of motoring pioneers and a champion motor racer, remembered in the 1930s how even the Brighton Road in early motoring days was sometimes so narrow that not more than a couple of carts could pass each other. When a hole appeared in the road, 'a few shovels of stones were thrown into it and horses' hoofs and cart wheels were left to do the rest'. The turnpike trusts had gone into liquidation, leaving penurious parish authorities to cope with maintenance. In 1878 Parliament passed the responsibility to local districts and ten years later to the newly established county councils and county boroughs. The reorganization was clumsy and unsuccessful.


Excerpted from "The Motoring Age"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Peter Thorold.
Excerpted by permission of Thistle Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, ix,
Chapter 1 Prelude, 1,
Chapter 2 Mr Toad and Kindred Spirits, 24,
Chapter 3 Upheaval, 70,
Chapter 4 The Rediscovery of Arcadia, 109,
Chapter 5 The Roaring Twenties, 148,
Chapter 6 The Open Road to Brighton, 177,
Chapter 7 Road Against Rail, 211,
Chapter 8 Coming to Terms, 240,
Chapter 9 Metroland Magnified, 283,
Chapter 10 Aftermath, 325,
Sources, 365,

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