It was a Friday evening in early June 1876 and Henry Stokes and his wife and son were coming home from a day out at the races. As they family rode in their cart along the Balham Road in south London another vehicle – a wagonette – was, unbeknown to the Stokes, careering towards them.
Police constable Hill had seen the wagonette (literally, a small sprung wagon, drawn by one or two horses) and realized it was going too fast. London’s streets were pretty crowded in the nineteenth century and all sorts of users could be found on them. There were tens of thousands of horse drawn carts, coaches, hansoms and carriages, as well as omnibus, trams, pedestrians, horse riders, and the occasional.
PC Hill shouted a warning to the driver of the wagonette to slow down and ‘be more careful’ but he was ignored. Moments later there was a crash as the wagon and two horses collided with the other cart from behind. All three of the family were thrown into the road. Fortunately Mr Stokes and his son only suffered mild bruising but Mrs Stokes was hurt quite badly, and a doctor was summoned.
The copper arrested the other driver who gave his name as Edward Kirk. Kirk was an off duty omnibus driver so really should have known better. At Wandsworth Police Court PC testified that Kirk was doing around 12-14 miles an hour, which may not sound fast by today’s standards but was quite fast for a horse drawn vehicle at the time (most travelled at between 608 miles an hour in the city).
More damning for Kirk was an allegation that he was drunk in charge of the wagonette. Kirk denied this and produced a doctor that supported his statement but the police – in the shape of sergeant Bearman – handed over a medical certificate from a different doctor (presumably one that examined the driver at the police station) which said he was. Faced with conflicting medical records Mr Bridge (the magistrate) chose to believe the police and fined Kirk £2 (or one month in prison).
He told Henry Stokes that if he wanted compensation for the damage to his cart and, more importantly, to cover the medical expenses incurred by his wife’s injury, he should bring an action in the county court. If he did the whole episode was likely to have been an expensive one for the omnibus driver who may well – given the public nature of the case and its reportage – have lost his job. The fine was not a small one anyway, around £125, or more than a couple of week’s salary for the bus driver, so he may have struggled to find that and have gone to prison instead.
Today, while the driving charge would stand (if there was a policeman anywhere to be found to see the incident) the civil damages would of course be dealt with by an insurance claim. Now of course, the injuries may well be worse since we travel much faster, and Kirk (or rather his insurers) might be facing claims of whiplash injury from Mrs Stokes. He would of course almost certainly have lost his license, and therefore his livelihood as well.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 05, 1876]