First motor cars: a Cumbrian take

First motor cars isn’t a particularly Cumbrian topic, but if you’ve ever driven over Kirkstone Pass, you’ll appreciate the anecdote at the end of this post.

First motor cars – or not quite

The West Cumberland Times recorded on November 14, 1896:

Motor cars will today be run for the first time on English highways.

In this simple statement of fact is suggested the germ of a great revolution.

The first motor cars – or horseless carriages, or auto-cars – had been running on French roads for a while (and were classed by the UK as traction engines).

The ‘revolution’ in the UK in November 1896 was a car run from London to Brighton. An event still commemorated by an annual Veteran Car Run, which you can read all about here.

The West Cumberland Times wasn’t correct in stating the 1896 run was the first time cars had driven on English roads.

The famous red flag

Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, 3 August 1895.

The new horseless carriage

A London syndicate has secured the patent rights fo the United Kingdom and the colonies of the Panhard and Levassor horseless carriage, which will by-and-by be seen in our streets.

At present, such vehicles cannot be driven through the streets unless a man precedes them waving a red flag. A very simple Act of Parliament could, of course, rectify this, and the syndicate will have an opportunity of showing what it can do.

Two of the directors tried one of the machines the other day between London and Datchet, arriving at the last-named place in five hours and a half.

Datchet is around 22 miles from London, and according to Google Maps (when I checked the distance), you could walk it in around seven hours!

For those who speak French (or trust translation tools) you can real about Panhard and Levassor’s original horseless carriage here: 

first motor cars, Cumbrian Characters, Panhard and Levassor,
One of Panhard and Levassor’s first motor cars

First motor cars: mixed opinion in Cumbria

In June 1896, enthusiam for the horseless carriage, ‘or auto-car’, was high. With rumours a new company was to be formed in Workington for the manufacture of bicycles, auto-cars, etc.

The Millom Gazette announced two months later:

THE HORSELESS CARRIAGE. The horseless carriage will make its entree into public life next month, and popular opinion is disposed to give it a favourable reception. 

Novelty is no longer looked upon as evil, and the new mode of locomotion will not have to battle with the prejudices that beset the early days of railways.’

The Gazette tempered the news with a forecast that it would take along while before cars replaced horse-drawn traffic.

It also foresaw dangers.

In the railway the machines are comparatively few, they are under the control of highly-trained men, and the vehicles they draw are confined to a fixed track, and their progress is controlled by a code of elaborate carefully devised rules, framed with the object of avoiding accident. 

The machinery of the motorcar, if its use becomes general, evidently cannot in most cases be under the charge of experts, and its movements will be left to the unaided judgment of its driver.

Not built for Cumbrian terrain!  

 Nothing jumps out from the news archives as to when the first horseless carriage appeared on Cumbrian roads – or how people reacted. 

But there is an undated story in  William Palmer’s book More Odd Corners in English Lakeland (4th edition 1946).

William tells the story of Old Music, the ‘slipper man’ (?), who ‘grew purse-proud on casual silver and coppers’ from coach drivers and passengers on Kirkstone Pass. And carried a gallon of beer to his ‘job’ aiding coaches when they reached the bottom of the pass.

That’s horse-drawn coaches. Which had one wheel chained as a brake, and an iron skid pan protecting its tyre from damage on the road.

When the coaching season ended in September, Old Music would spend all his money, comb the grass in the pass for lost coins, then head home to Milnthorpe, to spend winter in the workhouse.

He died before cars became a regular feature on the pass: his nerve ‘never recovered from the shock of the first horseless carriage which crossed Kirkstone’. 

“Man, I was sleepin’ a bit adm I was roused by the grund shakin’! 

“Then round the corner there cam’ a threshing machine wi’oot ayther hosses or traction engine – gr-r-ring bang, thump, shak’, and it was past.

“Well, when I had sat a bit I thought to mysel’, thou divvle, if thou tifts and bangs like that at the bottom of Kirkstone, it’s matterless thinking that thou’ll be gang to t’top. Thou’ll blow up.

“And blow up it did. 

“It took four horses to fetch the bits back.”