There is a generally mistaken impression that the so-called Emancipation Run, which took place from London to Brighton, on November 14, 1896, was organised not only to try to show that the horseless-carriage had become a practical proposition, but to celebrate the rescinding of the notorious “Red Flag Act”, which had seriously hampered the everyday utilisation of the new form of transport — the motor car.
In fact, although many historians still adhere to this theory and it will probably surface again this month, when the RAC/VCC Brighton Run takes place on November 7, it is untrue. The facts are that what this 1896 Run marked was the establishment of the coming into force of the Locomotives on Highways Act (the term “locomotives” showed that Parliament was still thinking in terms of traction-engines and steam-rollers, not of cars). This new Act replaced the Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act of 1878, which had rescinded the previous proviso that a person carrying a red flag had to walk in front of any moving mechanically-propelled vehicles which ventured onto public roads.
Although this change in the laws relating to road vehicles was a small step towards rendering the motor-car a useable form of transport, it still imposed severe restrictions. For instance, the speed limit of such road vehicles was lifted, but only to 14 mph, and there was provision for local Government boards to reduce this to 12 mph, or in some cases, it appears, to even less. This is illustrated in a report in a leading Kentish newspaper about what had happened to Mr William Arnold (later to make the Arnold Motor Carriages, one of which survives and has competed in the recent Brighton Runs) when he was driving the Benz which he had imported from Germany, the first car to be seen in Kent. On January 20, 1896, PC Heard of Paddock Wood was looking through a window of his cottage that faced on to the Maidstone Road, when he saw this horseless carriage go past at what he said was about eight mph, with two people riding on it. When it got to the bridge over the railway “a large quantity of steam and smoke issued from beneath it”.
The conscientious Constable immediately went in pursuit — on his bicycle presumably — and half-an-hour later caught up with the Benz on the Maidstone Road, “where the carriage was going at a fast rate”. He held up his hand and it stopped. He told Mr Arnold, “who was on the vehicle”, that it was a case coming within the meaning of the Locomotive Act (surely that was for a Court to decide?) and when asked if his name was on the car Mr Arnold said it wasn’t, but produced his Inland Revenue Licence permitting him to use a four-wheeled carriage. The Constable said three persons should have been in charge, one walking in front of the carriage — but no mention of the need for a red flag so the policeman apparently knew the Law. On the first charge Mr Arnold was fined 5/-(25p) and £2.11/- costs, on three other summonses over the affair 1/- (5p) and 9/- (45p) costs on each — interesting how the legal charges are much greater than the fines!
So this pioneer motor ride cost the unfortunate Benz owner over £4 when a sovereign was wealth indeed. We have troubles as car owners in 1993 but perhaps those who drive out of Hyde Park on November 7 should take heart and rejoice that they are unlikely to be charged under the Locomotive Acts of 1878 or 1896!