The rules of the road in the 19th century

It’s been the equivalent to an earworm. It has been driving me a bit crazy after I read on another great history site that there were no traffic rules in 19th century London. The estimable site is Two Nerdy History Girls.

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, the Temple Bar and especially Butchers’ Row until it was demolished.

Butcher's Row

And I have a suspicion that some of the traffic chaos captured in those early films of, say, the Bank intersection in London were taken simply 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 following a traffic accident after he horsewhipped an innocent carter  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 through Hammersmith heading for their first stop at Hounslow, too fast and on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, according to independent witnesses. The second one crashed into a chaise, running over and killing a man who had been knocked from his carriage.

It’s 1850 and a cabman standing at the rank in Horseguards Road and holding his horse’s head 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 which was parked “on its proper side of the way”. That happened in Fleet Street.

Then I came upon this conclusive proof that there were rules of the road throughout the reign of Victoria and most probably for hundreds of years before. 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 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.”

So of course the next questions are these:-

Was the ‘proper’ side of the road in France, Prussia and the rest of Europe always the right?

When America was a colony was its rule of the road once the same as the mother country?

When and how did it change?

I’ll get back to you on those, unless anyone out there has the answers already, preferably suggestions that don’t involve the old canard of the necessity of a free sword arm, which seems to be dragged out on most occasions such as this.

One more thing: In the back of my mind I recall that there were some archaeological findings — now they may not be conclusive — that asserted (I think) Bronze Age wagon drivers 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 hill fort villages. The likelihood must be that full carts had come into the village and empty ones returned to the fields. Reasonable so far. The pattern the diggers discovered was that  the heavy ruts were on the left and the lesser ones on the right. Proof? No way, but interesting…

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2 Responses to The rules of the road in the 19th century

  1. Road rules are extremely variable and interesting. Thank you for the run-down.


  2. actonbooks says:

    You’re welcome… and thanks for the Stan Jones reminiscence too


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