One of the favourite postcards of my collection shows a policeman being chased by an early motorcar.
The card was posted n 1904 and has an interesting message “Have you seen any motor-cars on the road lately?”
In 1896, there was a mention that a motorcar took part in a parade at the Eastbourne Spring Fair and that same year a Mr Cornell of Tunbridge drove his new motorcar from Tunbridge, a journey that took him five hours.
The year 1896 was an important date in motoring. In November the Locomotive Act increased the speed limit from 4mph (2mph in towns) to 14 mph and, to celebrate, a ‘motor run’ was arranged between London and Brighton. Some 33 motorcars set off but only 17 arrived.
Ironically, the vehicles were surrounded by thousands of cyclists to help them on their way.
This was brave indeed – not because the cyclists were in danger of being knocked over, but because, prior to the run, the Board of Trade warned that there was a strong possibility of the motorcars ‘exploding in the street’.
In London a new motorcar took part in the Lord Mayor’s Procession that same month and the Sussex Express reported that ‘onlookers were rather disappointed that it did not blow up!’
A columnist for the Sussex Express (Madam Rose) went to see the London to Brighton run but was not impressed. She said the ‘horseless vehicles’ were ungainly, smelly and dangerous. She said that the petrol engines were un-reliable and suggested that if they were to succeed, they would need to be powered by electricity.
The first motorcar accidents seem to have had two main causes; either the brakes failed as the car was negotiating a steep hill or the injured party was in a horse-drawn vehicle which crashed after the horse bolted at the noise of a car passing.
In January, 1899, Alwyn Andrews, of the Avenue, Eastbourne, was fined £5 for ‘driving a motorcar furiously’ by local magistrates, one of the first motoring convictions in Sussex. When East Sussex County Council met at Lewes a few days later, the subject of motorcars was brought up by Councillor Burtenshaw, of Hailsham, who said that they were becoming a source of considerable danger. Maybe he was referring to the case of motorist Percy Brennan who had appeared before Hailsham magistrates, also on a charge of furious driving. Several people gave evidence that his motorcar was going too fast in North Street and, despite claiming that the car could do no more than 8mph, he was fined 10 shillings.
In May 1899, George Arnold appeared before Mark Cross Magistrates charged with speeding through Mayfield. There was a considerable discussion in court as to the speed of his motor car. Some witnesses attested that it was going as fast as 15mph, although the motorist claimed that it was not capable of travelling at more that 12mph. The bench decided that it would be unsafe to convict and found him not guilty. But that was not the end of the case; Arnold had also been stopped for not stopping a motorcar when requested to do so.
As a former police officer I assumed that the offence was for failing to stop for a police officer, but it appears that at this time anyone could request a motorcar driver to stop and it was an offence not to do so.
Following the ‘speeding’ incident, Arnold had driven towards a cross-roads at which a cart was crossing. A man and his wife on horseback were concerned that there may be an accident, so he held up his hand and asked the car-driver to stop but he failed to do so and there was nearly a collision. The witness was so annoyed that he overtook the car, stopping his horse in front of it and demanded his name and address. Arnold was fined £9.
Because of the way some motorists drove through Arundel, in September 1899, the local council decided to erect special noticeboards to warn motorists. These were probably the first traffic signs in Sussex aimed at car drivers.
There are now 35 million vehicles licensed in Great Britain and it would be surprising to find a road anywhere in the county without cars. How quaint that postcard seems today.