‘Furious driving’ and RTAs: have we lost control of our streets?

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While the Metropolitan Police courts dealt with all manner of crimes, misdemeanors, and complaints, the press only selectively reported them. Sensational cases, hard rending ones, and those which reflected a current concern were the most likely to grab the ‘headlines’ in the later 1800s.

On 12 January 1881 the Morning Post chose to focus attention on dangerous driving in central London, highlighting three cases that came before the Westminster magistrate Mr Partridge. Of course none of these involved cars or vans or motorcycles; none of the vehicles we associate with road traffic accidents had been invented in the 1880s, everything was horse drawn in Victorian capital.

Yet accidents were fairly common, and being run over by a horse drawn cart or carriage was just as likely to result in injury and death as being hit by a car today. More so perhaps, since medicine was much less effective and the emergency services much less well equipped.

Speeding was termed ‘Furious driving’ – driving or riding that endangered life – and was punishable by a fine or imprisonment; cab drivers found drunk by police could be arrested, those driving ‘furiously’ would be charged accordingly. Drunk driving was clearly as much of a problem in the 1800s as it was in the 1900s.

On 11 January John Smith was charged before Mr Partridge at Westminster with being drunk in charge of his hansom cab and running over a little girl. Smith had been driving along the Fulham Road and turned quickly (too quickly really) into Marlborough Road, just as Rhoda Thompson was crossing it.

Smith’s cab hit the child who went under the wheels and was run over. A policeman saw the incident and intervened, making sure Rhoda was taken to St George’s Hospital. The cab driver appeared to be drunk and so he was escorted to the nearest police station to be charged. In court Smith said he was distressed by the accident but not drunk and said the officer must have mistaken his shock for inebriation.  The magistrate was told that the girl was still in hospital and her condition not yet known, with that in mind he remanded Smith in custody to see what happened.

Next up before him were George Franklin (21), James Galleymore (also 21) and Fredrick Drake (a labourer, whose age was not given). Franklin and Galleymore were carmen, the nineteenth-century equivalent of van delivery drivers today. Franklin had been arrested for being drunk in charge of a horse and cart and knocking down John Silcock in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Galleymore and Drake were both drunk and disorder the court was told and the former was also charged with assaulting PC Campion (506T) at Chelsea Police station.

Franklin was driving a van ‘rapidly’ as it went round the corner by the police station, just as Silcock was crossing the road. Silcock, an elderly man who was employed as a timekeeper by the London Omnibus Company, was knocked down but, fortunately, not badly hurt. He’d been carrying a small child in his arms and miraculously, she was also unharmed.

Mr Partridge, perhaps minded to make an example of the trio, said ‘he was determined to do all in his power to put down this reckless driving in the streets’. He sentenced Franklin to two months in prison with hard labour, gave Galleymore six weeks, and fined Drake 10s for being drunk (warning him he’d also go to gaol if he failed to pay).

Finally, John Lincoln was brought up to face a charge of being drunk in charge of his Hackney cab. On Monday evening Lincoln’s cab had collided with a ‘light spring van’ being driven by William Dyerson on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Such was the force of the crash that Mrs Dyerson was thrown out of the van onto the street, breaking her arm.

A policeman saw the whole incident unfold and rushed to help the lady. Lincoln was arrested and the officer declared he was drunk and driving ‘recklessly’. Mr Partridge decided the incident was severe enough to require a jury trial and committed him to the next sessions of the peace.

Lincoln (who gave his age as 52) appeared at the quarter sessions on 24 January 1881 where he was found not guilty of furious driving but was convicted of willful misconduct, and of causing ‘bodily harm’ to Jane Dyerson. The court fined him 20s.

In the streets around me a 20mph speed limit is in place, because there are several schools near by. This doesn’t stop people driving ‘furiously’ and on the main road cars and vans frequently race across the zebra crossing, even when pedestrians are halfway across it.  They know that they are very unlikely to be caught or prosecuted for doing so, and so can speed and endanger lives with impunity.

I’ve raised it with the council who aren’t interested. I’ve raised it with the police who were too busy to even respond to me. It seems that unless someone dies we don’t road traffic incidents as seriously as Mr Partridge once did.

[from Morning Post, 12 January, 1881]

A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

A family day out at the races ends in court

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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]