Before The Act

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108

The English are great on anniversaries. Which is why the VCC, encouraged by my learned friend Malcom Jeal, is arranging for Victorian motors to drive next summer over some of the route taken by the Hon Evelyn Ellis, son of Lord Howard de Walden, in 1895 on his 3½ hp Daimler-engined Panhard-Levassor, from Micheldever to Datchet.

1 suggested 22 years ago that someone with an appropriate veteran car might like to re-enact it. No-one did. But 100 years after it took place the situation is different. The roads of this country had reverted before 1895 to the peaceful aspect they had known prior to the coming of the the turnpike trusts. The railway had replaced the stage coach. The tramping herds of cattle, sheep and pigs were sent by rail, pack horses had passed silently away, gentleman and commercial travellers alike had ceased to travel on horseback, the ox-teams had gone, dog-drawn vehicles were illegal. Tranquillity had returned — until the bicycle boom. That was bad enough. But obviously country-folk did not want the noise and dust of passing horseless-carriages.

Whether Ellis realised, when he set out on the aforesaid journey with Frederick Simms as his passenger, that he was starting a movement that would revolutionise life in all the civilised countries of the world seems unlikely. More so that he was just enjoying the novelty of his ingenious new toy. If the latter, surely all who have found pleasure in motoring since should acknowledge that pioneering outing? Ellis had bought the Panhard in Paris on June 25 1895 and it arrived via Le Havre at Southampton on July 3. It was presumably railed to Michedever, the nearest station to Winchester, and Ellis drove it on July 5 to his house at Datchet. (The house, Rosenau, still stands beside the Thames and the Panhard is in London’s Science Museum.) Whether or not Ellis appreciated the significance of his drive, he knew he was breaking the law, for the speed-limit stood at four mph (two mph in towns) and he was running at twice or three times that pace. Ellis was in fact disappointed that the police did not apprehend him, hoping to thus draw attention to motorists’ difficulties; but they accepted his normal carriage licence and did not prosecute. Perhaps they were awed by a noble’s title.

Malcolm Jeal and others have thoroughly researched the subject and are satisfied that the Panhard was the first car to be imported into this country and that Ellis’s was the first motor-drive on British roads. However, in matters of history there is often the proverbial fly-in-the-ointment. In this case a faintly buzzing fly was awakened in 1944, when The Motor sought to establish when the British Motor Industry was founded. It commissioned the pioneer motorist Lt Comdr Montague Grahame-White to write about it. He, too, was convinced that the claims made for Ellis were correct. This was contested by St John Nixon, although he was under eight at the relevant time. Nixon said that Henry Hewetson had imported a Benz in 1894, and used it on Surrey roads — but 1903 seems more likely.

The matter became a leading topic of vituperative motoring investigation, with authorities like historian John Shearman and Laurence Pomeroy of The Motor going to considerable lengths to get a committee to resolve the matter. To no avail! It was generally conceeded that Hewetson’s claim was in doubt, that he may even have forged a date on the Benz invoice. Then an amusing thing happened. Nixon was editor of the VCC magazine in 1945 and he put the Panhard’s picture on its cover, captioned as “either the second or third petrol-car to come to England”!

He persisted with the Hewetson claim. But Grahame-White was then the VCC President, and he retorted with his view that the Panhard was definitely the first to be imported.

Any car used here before the new Act was passed on November 14 1896 would have been unable to comply with the absurdly low speed-limits set by previous Acts, although the red-flag or lantern stipulation had, since 1878, been at the discretion of local districts. As few had by 1894 or 95 seen a motor-car, or “light locomotive” as they were then known, it is doubtful whether many would have demanded a flag-man, or drivers have known in which districts they were supposed to provide one. . .

Sir David Salomons had held an exhibition of five autocars at his place in Tunbridge Wells a month before the 1896 Act became law. So towed there by horses or brought on drays? — unless the fact that Salomons was the town’s Mayor may have, again, turned away policemen’s eyes?

I did my own research into the intriguing Ellis/Hewetson claims. I had a hard task with HO Duncan’s World On Wheels (1200 pages, no Index!) and found nothing. My Guinness Book of Car Facts & Feats contents itself with just a joke about Ellis and his father’s distaste of the Panhard. Charles Jarrott, who was there at the time, has it in his classic Ten Years of Motors and Motoring that “Mr Hewetson and the Hon Evelyn Ellis had both driven their cars in England (before 1896) on the open road. . .”, and implies that a flag-man should have preceded them.

Anthony Bird in The Motor Car 1765-1914 ignores the matter. But T R Nicholson, in his three-volume Birth of the British Motor Car, sides with Hewetson, saying his Benz was here by November 1894 and driven illegally at about that time; but he devotes far more space to Ellis’s journey, ignoring the fact that neither car was of British origin! But in his book on museums he backs Ellis! Nixon, of course, endorses the Benz claim. More to the point, Alfred Harmsworth, in The Badminton Library — Motors (1902), backs the Ellis date; Motorcade says Ellis bought a Panhard after their FTD race time at Bordeaux in 1895, but that J A Koosen imported a Lutzmann that year.

This “chicken/egg” problem is for scholars. It need not concern those contemplating the proposed re-enactment. Already enquiries have been received from 20 owners of pre-1901 veterans, and the Jaguar-Daimler Heritage Trust want to run the ex-Ted Wooley 1897 Daimler, recently so well restored by Tim Moore.