Wednesday, June 10, 2015

London Traffic Rules of the 1800s

Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Temple Bar 1830
Loretta reports:

Recently, I explored the mystery of Rotten Row's rules of the road.

Today, I thought we’d look at some general rules of the road for 19th century London.

To being with, there weren’t any. Right. Through most of the 1800s, with a few exceptions, you drove or rode on whatever side of the road you wanted to.

“For much of the century there were, legally, no rules for traffic in most streets.  In the 1840s, buses were equipped with two straps that ran along the roof and ended in two rings hooked to the driver’s arms. When passengers wanted to get down on the left side of the road, they pulled the left strap, for the right, the right strap, and the buses veered across the roads to stop as requested.  Some street had informal traffic arrangements.” One example was Paternoster Row, home of booksellers, publishers, news agents, etc. Here, One day a month, on “Magazine Day,” “‘the carts and vehicles ... enter the Row from the western end, and draw up with horses’ heads towards Cheapside.’”*

In 1852, because of traffic jams at Marble Arch, the police issued the following notice: “‘Metropolitan stage-carriages are to keep to the left, or proper side, according to the direction in which they are going, and must set down their company on that side. No metropolitan stage–carriage, can be allowed to cross the street or road to take up or set down passengers.’”

These rules are the exceptions to the lack of rules. So let’s picture the traffic.

Temple Bar Gate, which seems rather spacious in the above 1830s painting, was a little more than 20 feet across. It stood in one of London’s three main east-west routes. “Carriages were more than six feet wide, and carts often much more.” Now imagine carts, wagons, carriages (including hackneys), riders, pedestrians, all trying to get from St. Paul’s to Pall Mall, arriving at Temple Bar and making a stupendous bottleneck. The 1870 illustration below shows how much room coaches took up.
Temple Bar 1870
The gate wasn’t taken down until 1878.  Fortunately for nerdy historians, Christopher Wren’s handsome arch wasn’t destroyed, but re-erected in 1880 in Theobolds park in Hertfordshire, then eventually re-erected in London in 2004 in Paternoster Row, where you can see it restored to its former glory, and not getting in anybody's way.

*All quotations from Judith Flanders, The Victorian City.  (The book's time span actually reaches to pre-Victorian London.)

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Drayton Bird said...

What unadulterated pleasure your blog brings!

Anonymous said...

It's been the equivalent to an earworm. It drove me a bit crazy. I always thought that driving on the left was the rule, albeit an informal one. And I am not gleefully trying to prove the nerdettes incorrect, but I kicked it around a bit by reading reports of traffic accidents in the 19th century and looking at some scraps of film from the very end of the 1800s.
Yes, traffic in London faced local hazards such as narrow medieval lanes and the Temple Bar and especially Butchers' Row until it was demolished.
And I have a suspicion that some of the traffic chaos captured in those early films of, say, the Bank intersection in London was taken just because of the chaos. Nevertheless most films taken of more orderly progress tend to show drivers keeping to what was known as the 'proper side', that is to say the left. This term is re-iterated over and over in accident reports throughout the century, both nationally and in London so it must have been universally understood.
Here are just a few examples of what I mean.
As early as 1802 a puffed up ex-mayor of London, Sir John Farmer had to pay a £10 fine after he horsewhipped an innocent carter following a traffic accident for getting in his way, despite the fact that the higgler was "as near the proper side of the road as the bank would permit him to be" and Farmer was on the "wrong side of the road" in a street wide enough for five carriages to pass abreast. That happened in Greenwich.
In October 1814 a convoy of three mail coaches -- for Exeter, Worcester, and Bath -- were travelling together, too fast and on the wrong side of the road, according to witnesses, in Hammersmith, heading for their first stop at Hounslow. The second one crashed into a chaise, running over and killing a man who was knocked from the carriage.
1850 and a cabman waiting at the rank in Horseguards Road shouted to a man to keep to his "proper side" before he was hit and knocked unconscious. Another Hansom piloted by a drunken cabby in 1870 crashed into a fellow cab who was "on its proper side of the way". That happened in Fleet Street.
In the back of my mind I recall that there were some archaeological findings -- now they may not be conclusive -- that asserted the Bronze Age driver in Britain drove on the left. How on earth? I hear you say. The conclusion was drawn like this. Continual wagon ruts are often preserved, especially at entrance ways to villages. The likelihood is that full carts came into the village and empty ones returned to the fields. Reasonable so far. The pattern the diggers discovered, was, again this is from memory, that without fail the heavy ruts were on the left and the lesser ones on the right. Proof? No way, but interesting...

Anonymous said...

Later I discovered this.
As they say in those wonderful court room dramas, "May it please your worship... May I bring to your attention m'lud, the Highways Act of 1835, s78 which says in part

"And be it further enacted... if the Driver of any Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage whatsoever, or of any Horses, Mules, or other Beast of Draught or Burthen, meeting any other Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, or Horses, Mules, or other Beasts of Burthen, shall not keep his Waggon, Cart, or Carriage, or Horses, Mules, or other Beasts of Burthen, on the Left or Near Side of the Road; or if any Person shall in any Manner wilfully prevent any other Person from passing him, or any Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, or Horses, Mules, or other Beasts of Burthen, under his Care, upon such Highway, or by Negligence or Misbehaviour prevent, hinder, or interrupt the free Passage of any Person, Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, or Horses, Mules, or other Beasts of Burthen, on any Highway, or shall not keep his Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, or Horses, Mules, or other Beasts of Burthen, on the Left or Near Side of the Road, for the Purpose of allowing such Passage; or if any Person riding any Horse or Beast, or driving any Sort of Carriage, shall ride or drive the same furiously so as to endanger the Life or Limb of any Passenger; every Person so offending in any of the Cases aforesaid, and being convicted of any such Offence, either by his own Confession, the View of a Justice, or by the Oath of One or more credible Witnesses, before any Two Justices of the Peace, shall, in addition to any Civil Action to which he may make himself liable, for every such Offence forfeit any Sum not exceeding Five Pounds in case such Driver shall not be the Owner of such Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, and in case the Offender be the Owner of such Waggon, Cart, or other Carriage, then any Sum not exceeding Ten Pounds, and in either of the said Cases shall, in default of Payment, be committed to the Common Gaol or House of Correction, there to he kept to hard Labour, for any Time not exceeding Six Weeks."

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