Your Little Reminders

A ramble through the history of British roads, laws, taxes, turnpikes, tolls, Vehicle Excise Duty, tax discs and all that!

The British tax disc has a long history from 1921 to 2014 when it reached its unfortunate demise as a result of changing technology and some would say the globalisation and big brother nature of society today.

At its inception in 1921 the tax disc was just a stage in the development of Vehicle Excise Duty in Great Britain and a part of the story of the rise and fall of the country's transport infrastructure. It's part of a story of how it has funded and supported the Uk's economic, as well as military, growth that stretches back into antiquity.

Click the text in the light blue title panals below to open and close each part of the journey and begin your exploration!

The Pre Roman era, ley lines, trackways, Romans and their roads

The importance and use of roads probably extends back as far as civilization has existed. There is evidence of wooden roads and tracks from the neolithic age (8,000 years ago). Many of these ridgeways and trackways were used for trading and ceremonial purposes as well as travel. The routes of some still remain today as modern roads.

Some of the routes of these trackways, or Ley Lines as they were penned by Alfred Watkins in 1921 were straight lines formed by line of sight between waymarkers such as standing stones, tumuli, barrows or hill tops.

Those ancient routes that crossed marshy land were constructed of logs and branches of birch and alder laid lengthwise and covered with brushwood. They were pegged securely into the marshy ground with wooden stakes.

The Romans brought the first great leap in transport infrastructure. During their four centuries (43 to 410 AD) of occupation the Romans carefully constructed approximately 2,000 miles of well drained roads with good foundations and stone surface. Though primarily for the quick and efficient movement of the Roman military and their supplies the system was fundamental to the development of trade and commerce in Roman Britain.

With their occupation the Romans also brought their laws which, from a transport perspective, focused on the repairing of roads, making those landowners whose land the roads passed over responsible and set dimensions (8 feet wide normally and 16 feet wide on a bend). They also introduced the concept of Public Roads, making access available to all, the prohibition from blocking them, that whoever damages them shall repair them, along with the fact that the public could not lose the right to use them through disuse. Distances were also marked off at one thousand paces (about one mile) intervals.

It can't be said that people had a particular side of the road to travel on at this time, it may well have been on the left on the much espoused theory that most people were right handed and it kept their sword or spear arm on the side nearest the oncoming traveller. There is some anecdotal evidence from the analysis of cart tracks to and from a Roman quarry that deeper tracks, presumably from laden vehicles travelling from the quarry, where on the left hand side.

After the departure of the Romans the road system was still used but slowly deteriorated, probably through a lack of skills and central co-ordination. No real roads of similar quality were constructed for a further 1400 years until the Turnpikes and rise of the Industrial revolution, Georgian and Victorian eras and no grand construction of any major new networks till the motorway network system of the mid/late 20th Century.

Roads and their maintenance in the Dark Ages and congestion is not modern!

The Anglo Saxon kings that followed the Romans did not build roads, or ways as they called them, but with the change of emphasis within Anglo Saxon laws it seemed that the road was a special place under royal jurisdiction where a traveller or stranger could pass, in theory, freely and without fear. If they stepped off the highway people could be branded thieves and may have lead to them being slain or put to ransom! In the modern day this could be seen as an extreme form of punishment for trespass but in fact just reflects the time, where there was a distrust of strangers and hostility to theft and the determination to eliminate it extreme. Feuding was also rife and, balanced by the fact that the king was expected to protect the defenceless as a Christian duty, there was a driver to try and protect travellers from harm and revenge.

The Norman Conquest, though not changing much of the Anglo Saxon laws, established the feudal and manorial systems. Henry 1 made an Act in the early 1100’s which defined a King's Highway as one that is always open and no man shall shut and its breadth being wide enough for two carts to pass or 16 armed horseman to ride abreast.

Upkeep of roads became a manorial obligation of the landowner but eventually with the collapse of the Norman founded manorial system the Tudor period saw these powers transferred to the parish along with many other powers.

The earliest known statutes affecting roads appear at this time, the Statute of Winchester in 1285 declared that for roads between market towns : ... there be neither dyke, underwood, nor bush whereby a man may lurk to do hurt, near to the way, within two hundred foot of the one side and two hundred foot on the other side; so that this statute shall not extend unto oaks, nor unto great trees, so as it shall be clear underneath. in an attempt to reduce the amount of robberies and murders that was on the increase at the time.

Any road or bridge building carried out in this period was fragmented and it seemed particularly difficult to enforce any maintenance. Pavages were used as a medieval toll to maintain or improve a street or road, while pontages were used for the same effect for bridges. These were collected by persons appointed under a letters patent issued by the King.

Transport petitions were submitted to Parliament about roads. The Parliament Rolls record of 1290 has Walter Goodlake of Wallingford seeking permission to levy tolls on a stretch of road to carry out repairs and in 1304, a road leading to Salisbury was placed in the charge of the bishop to ensure its repair, and even the first toll roads started to appear (eg 1346 - Gray’s Inn Lane in London).

The earliest petition that became a Private Act about a road is a statute of 1421, dedicating a recently-repaired road and bridges between Abingdon and Dorchester-on-Thames to public use.

The beginnings of the agricultural revolution and the stage coach may have contributed to a drive to bring some rational to infrastructure development. Wheeled transport became more common, the loads they carried increased, and so did its impact on the roads that existed.

Throughout this time most traffic was by foot or horse, with goods which could not be carried by coastal or river traffic transported by pack horses, carts or wagons. Most roads were of dirt and compacted clay and often wandered as people and traffic tried to find dry ground as road conditions became difficult and this perhaps contributed to the sometimes meandering nature of some of our modern country roads that have followed old traditional routes. The later Enclosure Acts also contributed to the change from straight line roads to the meandering nature of our roads today with changes caused by property and land interests of people or organisations with influence.

In 1555 Parishes were made responsible for repairing their own roads. This initially involved parishioners working four, later changed to six, days a year on the roads under the supervision of surveyors appointed by churchwardens. The methods and materials used through incompetence, ignorance and apathy (possible because those tasked with the responsibility neither used or benefited from the activity) did not achieve the desired effects and though various amendments, fines and Highway Rates were proposed, and in theory imposed, no great improvements were seen.

The term road itself did not make an appearance in the language till the 1600’s. The Anglo Saxon way, as in foot -way ,high -way, horse -way, cause -way , drift -way, common -way or carriage - way, predominated and is still found today in our descriptions along with motor-way, by -way, bridle -way. The word road (or roade) is generally believed to be from the Old English rad, to ride or journey.

Conditions of roads at this time appear to have been appalling and the subject of much comment. As industry started to grow the need to move materials to the new ironworks, such as coal and ore, led to quite destructive effects and the movement of these materials at this time was often associated with a requirement to provide a fee and provide loads of gravel in proportion to the material carried or a load.

The Department of Transport indicates that under a 1648 Act parishes were required to put guideposts at crossroads, however it is reported that there was sporadic implementation and there are other references to Justices given the power to place direction or finger posts in an Act of 1697.

The rise in popularity of coach travel coupled with the need for movement of agricultural and manufacturing materials, for both innovation and its products, to support a growing population and flowering industrial revolution, lead to a focus on transport infrastructure and the first turnpike in 1663.

Indeed traffic congestion had become such an issue in London that in 1636 Charles I issued a proclamation restricting the number of hackney coaches to 50 and preventing them from carrying passengers less than three miles. In 1654 Oliver Cromwell authorised the establishment of the Fellowship of Master Hackney Coachmen, leading to the present day definition of hackney carriages and the forerunner of the current licensing system of taxis in the UK.

Turnpikes, Tolls and driving on the left

Formed under a Turnpike Act, for the next two hundred years Turnpike Authorities or Trusts were empowered to collect contributions from certain travellers for a particular stretch of road towards the upkeep of road. People on foot, the military and the Royal Mail coaches were exempt from charges.

Turnpike roads did not establish many actual new sections of road but upgraded many sections of the existing extremely poor road network.

The first turnpike was on the New Great North Road between Herfordshire (at Wadesmill) and Huntingdonshire (at Stilton) in 1663.

There was a great deal of local opposition to turnpikes and the establishment of new Turnpike Authorities, but pressures of increased traffic and the need to bolster the overland transport system at a time when war with France threatened coastal trade lead to an evolution of the system to form the first Turnpike Trust in 1714. Turnpike Trusts gradually replaced the parishes as the agency responsible for road repair for certain stretches of roads.

It could be said that proposals for new Turnpike Acts, and therefore an associated toll, were generally made by those from whom it may benefit.

There was opposition to tolls in some quarters from people with whom the tolls affected, including colliers and farmers.Turnpike riots were one among other popular protests and subjects of social unrest of the time (which included Enclosure Riots and Food Riots) and lead to the destruction of some turnpikes such as at Bristol in May 1749 and in Leeds, Wakefield and Beeston in July 1753 and latterly the Rebecca Riots in Wales of 1839 to 1843.

Not only did people face tolls on turnpikes, and any contributions they made to parish rates for the maintenance and use of roads, but Parliament also imposed taxes on horses and carriages through the Horse tax (1784-1874) and Carriages tax (1747-1782).

Efforts were made to try and improve roads and limit damage by vehicles through various statutes, such as the General Highways Act of 1773. This has been attributed as the first recommendation to drive on the left hand side after congestion over London Bridge was successfully managed in 1722 by the Mayor appointing three men, the perhaps first traffic police, to ensure traffic kept to the left and did not stop and the introduction of mileposts and guideposts on the nation's highways all of which was more formalised once again in the Highways Act 1835.

It is also around this time that other parts of the world started to differ from the driving on the left concept. In pre revolutionary France it was reportedly custom for the aristocrats to drive their horses and coaches on the left, the sans culottes or common people, preferred to walk on the right hand side of the road to face the oncoming carriages of the aristos. Post revolution, aristos, in an effort to try and appear anonymous, joined their fellow citoyens on the right. Maximilien Robespierre imposed driving on the right in Paris during the revolution and Napoleon later instructed his armies to march on the right hand side of the road. This rule was imposed on those countries he conquered. Similarly the US changed from left to right on the advice of the French General Lafayette while he was giving military help to the revolutionaries during the American War of Independence (or The American Revolutionary War) between 1775 and 1783. As may have been expected, countries and territories that became part of the British Empire adopted the British drive on the left.

Turnpikes Trusts were established for 21 year periods, after which they expired but were invariably repeatedly renewed. The trusts were very successful and over the next 100 years the turnpike system slowly developed and expanded across the country forming the arteries connecting the nation's population centres with 942 Trusts covering over 22,000 miles of road with purportedly 8,000 tollgates and side bars (simple toll gates) covering one fifth of the country's road network.

The success drew attention eventually to the need to improve and repair other roads not covered by the Trusts whose maintenance still remained with the parishes or with borough councils, local boards of health or improvement commissioners in towns. This led to groups of parishes being banded together to form Highway Districts as cost effective and efficient administrative units to manage the task under the Highways Act 1835. They were supported by a Highway Rate levied on the landowners. This same Act also required carts, wagons and carriages to have the owners name legibly displayed. The Act is also memorable for introducing the concept of Dangerous Driving and driving on the left hand side of the road, as well as penalties for riding on footpaths.

Time and technology wait for no man, and with the advent of the industrial revolution came steam power and its utilisation in the rapid establishment of a rail network.

In 1834, a Mr Hancock started a steam coach called the Era, carrying up to 14 passengers from Paddington to Regents Park and the City. In the following year a Mr Church built an omnibus capable of carrying 40 passengers for the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company, however, the steam train soon pushed these developments into the background.

Though there was innovation within road construction at this time, by people such as Thomas Telford and John McAdam, the use of the new rail network to rapidly move large amounts of materials and people soon led to a rapid decline in the amount of traffic, and associated income, for the turnpike system and from the 1840’s to 1885 the Turnpike Trusts had almost all been left to expire. As they did so the cost of maintaining turnpike roads passed to the parish they lay in, which was unpopular. Turnpike Tolls were eventually abolished by Parliament in March 1870.

The beginning of centralisation and control - seat belts and traffic lights and not a car in sight!

The rapid onset of the Industrial revolution, steam engine and the relentless rise of the highly profitable rail network (rail mania as it was termed), both overland and underground, led to a prolifery of legislation to try and control the effects of the new technology in locamotives (.. a locomotive propelled by steam or any other than animal power...), including steam powered road locomotives - better known as traction engines, and manage behaviour and the road infrastructure itself. The effects encompassed the environmental consequences of smoke, safety of people, animals and other vehicles as well as damage to the roads and bridges they traversed.

Even the humble bicycle now starts to show its appearance (without pedal power), firstly imported from Europe in 1817, and then English cartwright's took up the idea and began manufacturing them. In 1839 mechanically powered (pedal powered) bicycles started to appear and as they grew in popularity added their own contribution to the road network and to the hazards other mechanical powered devices would encounter.

There has been some conjecture that the new legislation on road locomotives was framed to protect the interests of the investors in railways and horse coaches and carriages by hampering the development of the motor industry and road transport and that this led to the UK falling behind in these areas compared with its peers of the time.

The Highway Act of 1835 had already introduced the concept of dangerous driving, identification of vehicle owners and nuisance on footpaths, several Acts of Parliament, collectively known as the Locomotive Acts, were passed between 1861 and 1896 to try and enhance these controls. They included specifying and amending vehicle speed limits, dimensions and placing restrictions on the vehicles on where they could go and how they were operated.

Concern on road behaviour started to peek through, particularly in London, for example: That every Driver of a Hackney Carriage, or Driver or Conductor of a Metropolitan Stage Carriage who shall be guilty of wanton or furious driving, or who by Carelessness or wilful Misbehaviour shall cause any Hurt or Damage to any Person or Property being in any Street or Highway, and also every Driver, Conductor, or Waterman who during his Employment shall be drunk, or shall make use of any insulting or abusive Language, or shall be guilty of any insulting Gesture or any Misbehaviour, shall for every such Offence forfeit the Sum of Three Pounds; in the Hackney and Carriage Act 1843.

In 1853 Sir George Cayley, an aviation engineering pioneer and perhaps the father of the aeroplane, is accredited with inventing the seat belt (a crude lap belt), for use in the trial flight of a glider in that year, an idea later developed for road transport.

Further efforts to coordinate things were made with the power of Justices to compel parishes to form Highway Boards to control Highway Districts through the Highways Act 1862.

The first traffic signals in Britain (and indeed the world) were installed outside the Houses of Parliament on 10 December 1868. They used contemporary railway signalling technology – semaphore arms for day-time use and green or red gas lamps at night. Unfortunately they exploded on the night of 2 January 1869 injuring the police constable operating them!

Early pavements and street lighting

Public safety concerns have played their part in the development of the road system as we know it today through the requirement for paving and street lighting to protect people and pedestrians from traffic and sewage passing down streets and from robberies and depredations.

Though there is some evidence of the requirement of Public illumination as far back as 1414 in London, with other references in 1417, 1668 and 1690 for lights, or lanthorns, to be .... exhibited on winter evenings or to bring out a lamp or light at various times (..between Hallowtide and Candlemas, or ..every night Michaelmas and Lady Day and to keep it burning till the hour of twelve at night) the year 1761 saw householders in London ..... whose houses fronted any street, lane or public passage, should on any dark night, set or hang out one or more lights, with cotton wicks, that should continue to burn from six o’clock at night till eleven, under the penalty of one shilling. Eventually London was lit under contract and public lamps, paid for by households, whose rent exceeded £10, while those householders who put out a light or candle themselves were exempt from paying towards the public lamps. However streets were only lit for 117 nights of the year in this system and in 1736 an application was made to Parliament to empower the mayor and council to erect glass lamps such numbers as they should judge proper, and to keep them burning from the setting of the sun, throughout the whole year. Little can be found of the lighting of other British towns and cities of this time.

The first public gas (coal gas) lights were demonstrated in Pall Mall London in 1807 and by 1813 Westminster Bridge was lit by gas. Preston followed London with gas lighting in 1825. Electric Arc street lights made their appearance in London In 1878, but Newcastle upon Tyne had the first street (Mosley Street) lit by the more familiar incandescent light bulb in February 1879.

Though paving in cities stretches back into antiquity, certainly at the time of the Romans, there was no real paving of roads or creation of pavements for the 1400 years in Britain since their demise. There is evidence to say London had streets of soft earth in 1090, with the principal streets of Holborn being paved for the first time in 1417 with further streets paved in and around London in the time of Henry VIII and in 1544, 1571, 1605 and the Smithfield Cattle Market in 1614.

The coming of the Public Health Act 1875 allowed authorities to compel the construction of Pavements and the provision of street lighting in urban areas.

The Locomotive Acts, red flags, first lights, emission controls, road signs, speed limits, vehicle licences, pedestrianisation, pedestrian crossings, drink driving and chaos!

These Locomotive Acts, starting with the 1835 Highways Act, have been said to have set the foundations for highway law as we know it today and for the birth of the motor industry.

Click the text in the light blue title panals below to open and close each part of the Acts to discover their contribution!

The Locomotive Act 1861

This initial Act included provisions such that locomotives could be tolled on turnpikes, set some size and weight vehicle specifications thought to minimise damage, iconically set the United Kingdom's first ever speed limits (10 mph on roads and 5 mph in habitated areas), required them to ....have Two efficient Lights, to be affixed conspicuously, One at each Side, on the Front of the same, between the Hours of One Hour after Sunset and One Hour before Sunrise for use at night, to be manned by at least two people, displayed the name of the owner with the vehicle weight, to enable compensation for damage caused to be paid for and fines for breaching the regulations.

Perhaps one of the first emission controls was also set here with the requirement for the locomotive consume its own smoke, however the viability of firebox technology to adequately achieve this immediately at the time is uncertain and this requirement was dropped in a later act.

The Locomotive Act 1865

Infamously known as the Red Flag Act, imposed a third man on a vehicle, and that .... one of such persons, while the locomotive is in motion, shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it is necessary to stop, and shall in case of need assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same.. It lowered the speed limit to 4 mph along any turnpike road or public highway or 2 mph through any city, town, or village, and prohibited sounding of whistles or letting off steam on the road, and required it to stop ... if the flag man stopped or any other person with a horse, or carriage drawn by a horse, putting his hand as a signal to require such locomotive to be stopped.

Modification to some of the vehicle specifications was made and it allowed local authorities above a certain size to limit hours locomotives could pass through their area. It also bolstered the identification rules by requiring both the owner's name and residence to be displayed and ...shall be affixed thereto in a conspicuous manner.

The first pedestrian crossing signal was erected in Bridge Street, Westminster, London in December 1868.

As an aside, drink driving laws also found their way onto statute for the first time in this period through the Licensing Act 1872 which introduced the offence of .. drunk while in charge on any highway or other public place of any carriage, horse, cattle, or, steam engine....

The Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878

One of the main features of this Act when it was introduced was to transfer the management of highways from Highway Boards and parishes to rural sanitary authorities and that the de -turnpiked roads (which formed the mainstay of the system connecting population centres) became main roads. The new authorities also had the power to designate roads between towns and to railway stations as ‘main roads’. Main roads were to be funded in part (fifty percent) by the county. The Act also allowed Counties' to identify bridges for the county to maintain at its expense and made provision for operators of heavy traffic that was causing excess road wear to have highway maintenance costs recovered from them. It also set up the procedure for the new authorities to discontinue any unnecessary highways and repeal or issue new bye laws and associated fines on certain matters.

It was notable for removing the red flag requirement and changed the function of one of the three men to be ..... one of such persons, while the locomotive is in motion, shall precede by at least twenty yards the locomotive on foot, and shall in case of need assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same.

Some clauses of previous Locomotive Acts were also repealed or replaced, with amendments, including some of those relating to the weight, length, and width of tyre of road locomotives and those requiring road locomotives to consume their own smoke and introduced the ability for counties through byelaws to issue annual licence fees (not exceeding £10) for locomotives in their county, excluding those purely for agricultural purposes.

The popularity and racing of bicycles were also an issue of the time, both to police and other users and this lead to much tension between them and and the various cycle clubs at both a local and national level to stop or control racing on public roads. To aid their memberscycle clubs by the 1880’s started erecting signs warning them of hazards such as steep hills and sharp corners.

Vehicle Excise Duty was first introduced for four-wheeled motor vehicles on 1 January 1889 by the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1888, where the previous definition of carriage was extended ... so as to embrace any vehicle drawn or propelled' upon a road or, tramway, or elsewhere than upon a railway, by steam or electricity, or any other mechanical power.

Over the next 20 years pressure began to build from drivers and enthusiasts of the new motorcars, or horseless carriages as they were termed, to increase speed limits for these vehicles and questioned the need for man in front.

Increases in traffic and neglect at the time had caused the condition of the national road system to deteriorated to the point where Parliament recognised that it had to take action to provide some sort of remedy. It tried to achieve this by passing the Local Government Act 1888 which created County Councils with powers to repair county roads and bridges and declare roads as major roads. The Local Government Act 1894 brought the role of Highways Boards from the parishes into the newly formed Rural and Urban District Councils.

The Locomotives on Highways Act 1896

The 1896 Act created a new class of vehicles, light locomotives, which did not have a man walking in front and had the speed limit increased to 14 mph (and then quickly reduced it to 12 mph!). It was at this point driving on the left was formally adopted and every vehicle had to carry a bell or warning device. The introduction of the Act was celebrated by The Emancipation Run from London to Brighton on the 14th November 1896, which began by Lord Winchilsea ceremoniously tearing up a red flag at the start. The annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, which emulates the Emancipation Run, has become embedded in UK motoring history as the world's longest running motoring event.

The Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 included an additional annual excise duty of two to three guineas.

The Locomotives Act 1898

Perhaps the first thought and concept of allowing and controlling of motor driven lorries or HGV’s came with this Act though it introduced many other aspects we recognise today, including the requirement to register a vehicle, however it specifically excluded any application to light locomotives as defined by the 1896 Act.

It allowed weight restrictions imposed by the 1861 Act to be eased by municipal boroughs and counties and introduced the display of the unloaded weight of each wagon (..conspicuously and legibly..) with fines for ...any owner who shall fraudulently affix theron any incorrect weight.. and limited road trains to three loaded wagons, not including the water tender without consent of the authorities. Authorities were given power to erect weighing machines and compel locomotives to use them if directed, however it allowed for compensation and arbitration if the vehicles were in fact within the legal weight or weights disputed.

The 1898 Act still provided for a third man to be be able to render assistance when meeting horses or horse drawn carriages, though there was no requirement for steam rollers and diminished requirements for plough engines travelling in convoy. It is also perhaps notable that for the first time it required that a locomotive shall be attended on the highway, even if the vehicle is stationary, so long as the fires of a locomotive are alight or that the locomotive contains sufficient motive power to move it... that perhaps translates into the modern day offence of quitting or Leaving motor vehicles unattended under Regulation 107 of The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 that has been used to catch and prosecute people leaving their keys in the car to warm it up in the middle of winter.

Having an efficient red light at the rear of the vehicle, or road train, in a conspicuous place seems also to have been introduced for the first time under this Act at specified times at night along with the requirement that all lights to have ...shutters or other contrivances as will enable the light to be temporarily screened in an effective manner.

Traffic controls and the start of pedestrianisation were also a topic of the Act. Places above a certain population were also allowed by byelaws to ..prohibit or restrict the use of locomotives on any specified highway in their county or borough on account of the highway being crowded or unfitted for locomotive traffic, or of the inconvenience caused to inhabitants, or of any other reasonable cause .. but they must allow for .... special authority for the use of a locomotive on the highway, if in any case it appears necessary for the purpose of the delivery of goods or for any other particular purpose.....

The licensing laws introduced in the 1878 Act were modified to exclude .... any locomotive not used for haulage purposes, to any steam roller, or to any locomotive belonging to a road authority when used by them within their district. and the license charge made variable at £2 per tonne over 10 tonnes as well as the initial £10 charge.

It also legislated for the first time The council of a county shall on the grant of a licence provide the person to whom the licence is granted with a licence plate, having marked upon it the date and number of the licence and the name of the council by which it is granted ..... The licence plate shall be fixed in a conspicuous position to the locomotive in respect of which it is provided, and shall not be removed, whilst the licence is in force, without the consent of the council by whom the licence has been granted. There were conditions that allowed transfer to other locomotives.

The requirement to register a locomotive was also a notable first of this 1898 Act:

All locomotives not required to be licensed under this Act shall be registered in the county in which they are ordinarily used or to be used in such manner as the county council may direct. The county council may charge such a fee not exceeding two shillings and sixpence for registration under this section as they think fit, and on registration shall provide the person applying for registration with a plate with the registered number marked upon it. The plate shall be fixed in a conspicuous position to the locomotive in respect of which it is provided, and shall not be removed without the consent of the council by whom the locomotive is registered.

The previously summary nature of the recovery of expenses of extraordinary traffic was modified such that they must be recovered through the courts.

The liabilities for penalties imposed on a locomotive before this Act were previously the responsibility of the owner, however changes were made such that penalties caused by .. by some servant, workman, or other person... became liable as if they were the owner.

There were very few light locomotives on the roads in the late nineteenth century but the numbers where growing, along with the types of power (e.g. steam, electric, gas and petrol powered).

Birth of the car, motorbikes, insurance, drink driving, fatalities and tensions build

Various claims have been made as to the first motor car in the UK between 1894 and 1896. However the 14th January 1896 did see the formation of Daimler Motor Company Ltd. This was the UK's first serial production motor car company. The first cars were produced in 1897. The British motor industry had officially begun. In these first few years the numbers were low, possibly only 14 or 15 per annum, though numbers rapidly escalated to several hundred by the 1900’s.

The first motorcycles also started to appear in the second half of the 19th century, starting with steam powered three wheelers in 1867 on the continent and in the US. The first petrol powered bicycles started appearing soon afterwards in the 1890’s (both two and three wheeled), eagerly taken on board by the then numerous bicycle manufacturers trying to harness the new technology.

These last few years at the end of the 19th Century were busy ones in motoring terms. Tragically the first recorded British motoring fatality occurred to a pedestrian, the unfortunate Mrs Bridget Driscol on the17th August 1896, followed by the issue of the first motor insurance policy by General Accident Fire and Life Assurance company in November 1896.

There were many other unfortunate firsts as well, George Smith, a 25 year old taxi driver, was the first person to be charged with drink-driving and fined at Marlborough Street Police Court in London on 10 September 1897 after crashing his electric cab into the front of 165 New Bond Street. The first recorded person charged with speeding was Walter Arnold on 28 January 1898 (exceeding the 2 mph limit and chased down by a policeman on a bicycle), and in 1899 a Mr Jeal was prosecuted for driving at a speed that was inappropriate for the traffic conditions - he was travelling at 12 mph and the court considered 4 mph fast enough given the road conditions.

Mr Henry Lindfield was sadly the first recorded driver fatality in February 1898, and the first passenger fatality was a Major Richer in February 1899.

As the numbers of motor cars, trams, buses, bicycles and people on the roads increased there was great public hostility to the motor cars and the people who drove them, particularly in the countryside. Owners of cars tended to be from the privileged classes, and influential, and this appears to have raised tensions with other users and the police who themselves were mostly of a working class background. In Parliament, in April 1903, the case of an omnibus driver, George Allendale, who had been sentenced to one month's hard labour for a second offence of furious driving while overtaking a competitor omnibus was raised and the question was asked whether similar proceeding would be taken against motor cars. The Home Secretary of the time did not offer an answer.

There were pressures both to liberalise the laws on motor travel but also pressures to control them from a public safety point of view. This formed the backdrop for the Act that was the foundation for future motor car control - the Motor Car Act 1903.

The Motor Car Act 1903, first mandatory registration of motor cars, first number plates, driving licences, petrol stations and speed trap concerns

The Motor Car Act of 14 August 1903, which took effect on 1 January 1904, introduced the driving licence, along with registration numbers and plates for motor cars and a new speed limit of 20mph. Local authorities were made responsible for signage on roads. It also became an offence not to produce a licence when requested by a constable or to drive on a public highway in an unregistered vehicle.

The Act essentially introduced measures similar to those imposed on HGV’s, in the Locomotives Act 1898, on motor cars in terms of registration and the display of registration numbers. Though no test was required for a driving licence it set minimum ages of 17 for motor cars and 14 for motorcycles.

With the rise in road use and its impact on safety the police tried to enforce the law on speeding, by timingvehicles as they passed over a certain distance of road (220 or 440 yds), but they were seen by many as being a money making exercises and even a form of Highway robbery (somethings never change.) Motoring organisations, the AA and the RAC, took to warning their members that they were approaching speed traps, in fact the AA was specifically formed to consider ways to overcome the perceived police oppression of early motorists and their use of speed-traps. This lead to deteriorating relations between the police and the Clubs, such that even a Royal Commission in 1907 commented on the fact and magistrates even appeared reluctant to use the full powers available to prosecute people warning motorists of speed traps.

Roadside petrol pumps first appeared in Britain in 1913, but were not in general use until 1921. The first roadside petrol station (just for the purpose of supplying fuel as opposed to being a garage) was opened at Aldermaston, Berkshire by the AA in 1920. The first of many such stations established around the country they were operated by AA patrolmen and exclusively for the use of AA members.

The 1903 Act remained in force until the the Road Traffic Act 1930, however in between came the Roads Act 1920 which set up the Road Fund and the little slips of paper that we know so well, the tax disc.

The Road Board, Road Fund, Tax Discs, roundabouts, white lines, drug driving, pedestrian lights, driving tests and compulsory Insurance.

Taxes on motor vehicles were introduced in 1909 and comprised a petrol tax of 3d per gallon plus an annual vehicle tax of between £2 2s and £42, depending on vehicle type and horsepower. This was to support road development and maintenance, as a hypothecated tax, and the Road Board and the road improvement grant, which financed the Board from the Exchequer, were established in March 1910 through the Development and Road Improvement Fund Act 1909.

The Road Board operated between 1910 and 1919 but did not achieve an improvement to the national road system. The Road Board disbursed its funds mainly for the reconstruction and improvement of road surfaces and very little on new roads but its great success was the reconstruction and sealing of many roads with a variety of tar and bituminous surfacings.

The Road Board was destined for failure as it had to obtain Treasury approval for all its expenditure programmes and the Treasury was firmly opposed to hypothecation of taxes, as it has remained most of the time since.

The first roundabouts were developed to assist traffic movements in Letchworth in 1909. It is reported that white lines started to appear on roads in 1914 in Ashford in Kent on the London to Folkestone road were soon to spread over the rest of the country.

1919 saw the creation of the Ministry of Transport which was established by the Ministry of Transport Act 1919 and provided for .. the transfer to the new ministry of powers and duties of any government department in respect of ..., roads, bridges … and vehicles and traffic thereon.

The Roads Act 1920 brought the end of the the Road Board and replaced it with the Road Fund and gave the power to County Councils to collect the excise duties imposed on mechanically propelled vehicles. The issued licences were to be .... fixed to and exhibited on the vehicle in respect of which it is issued. - the tax disc was born!

It also allowed motorists to apply for new driving licenses from endorsements after a 3 year conviction free period.

The 1920’s saw the start of road numbering and the designation of class I and II roads, quickly changed to A and B roads in a radial pattern around London based on the French system of road naming. Later on, in the 1940’s, the Ministry provided the following explanation for the Encyclopedia Britannica: Under this scheme the most important roads connecting large centres of population and other roads of outstanding importance from the point of view of through traffic were classified as Class I roads. Roads forming important links between Class I roads and between the smaller centres of population were classified as Class II roads. Roads of purely local importance were not classified.

The Criminal Justice Act 1925 saw an update on drink driving when it became an offence to be found drunk in charge of ANY mechanically propelled vehicle on any highway or other public place. The Road Traffic Act 1930 introduced the offence to drug drive- to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or any other public place while being ...under the influence of drink or a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle.

Manually operated three-colour traffic lights were first used in Piccadilly, London, in 1926, with automatic traffic lights making their first appearance in Princes Square, Wolverhampton, during November 1927.

1929 saw the powers of the rural and urban councils subsumed up into the roles of County Councils.

The Road Act 1930 is notable for abolishing speed limits for cars and motorcycles (it was reported in Hansard that Lord Buckmaster said on 1st December 1932 that ..the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt. For that reason I was prepared to support the removal of the restriction. Nothing can be worse than that the law of this country should be universally disregarded and that courts of law should find themselves unable to secure its maintenance. It also introduced compulsory Third Party Insurance for the first time and the Highway Code.

The Highway code was first published in booklet form in Great Britain in April 1931, it cost one penny.

Pedestrian-operated street crossing lights were first installed on the Brighton Road, Croydon, Surrey, in 1932, though many ad hoc crossings had been installed around the country since the 1920’s but pedestrians had no legal right of way on them.

The driving tests was first introduced on a voluntary basis (to avoid a rush when it became compulsory), on 16 March 1935 by the Road Traffic Act 1934, but did not become official in Great Britain until 1 April 1935 and compulsory until 1 June 1935. The first driving test pass certificate in Great Britain was awarded on the 16 March 1935 to Mr R Beere of Kensington.

The 1934 Act also re-introduced speed limits with a 30 mph limit for urban areas and made provision for pedestrian crossings. Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister of Transport, introduced his Belisha Beacons in 1934. They originally showed pedestrian crossing marked by parallel rows of studs. To aid visibility stripes were soon added between the studs.

The Road Fund was to be supported by a dedicated (hypothecated) tax from the sale of road fund excise licenses. The revenues from motor vehicle taxes were paid directly into the central tax pot. The Road Fund had no revenues of its own and was merely an administrator of the grant-in-aid and received the money collected by county councils, only when it was paid back to local authorities to finance expenditure incurred on road maintenance. The Fund was in practice never spent in full and was notorious for being raided for other purposes. Hypothecation was formally ended by the Finance Act 1936 as of 1st April 1937, much to the delight of the Treasury no doubt.

Winston Churchill famously remarked on the Fund during a debate in 1936 :

...I am not even going to criticise my right hon. friend's treatment of the Raid Fund—I mean the Road Fund. That is the sort of thing that slips off one's tongue in an unguarded moment, but I agree with the Chancellor that it is a monstrous assertion that any important body of taxpayers should claim proprietary rights over the particular quota of taxation which they contribute, and that all should not be brought into an area freely justiciable by the House of Commons....

The Road Fund itself was not actually formally abolished until April 1956 via the Miscellaneous Financial Provisions Act 1955.

Trunk Roads, zebra crossings, parking meters, drink driving limits, motorways, modern speed limits, traffic wardens, modern seat belts and the death of the tax disc

The late 1930’s saw the start of a Trunk Road network and the Trunk Roads Act 1936. Though a naming system, with signs, was developed no ‘T’ roads ever made it to any signposts and the A and B system were left alone for the motorist as it is today. Progress was interrupted by the war and though plans for a good quality road system (Motor-way) plans had been discussed at the turn of the century by a Victorian civil engineer, B. H. Thwaite and looked and advocated in 1906 by John Montagu it was not picked up again till the 1940’s and further proposals made in 1946

Perforated Tax Discs made their first appearance in 1938 with a brief interruption in the war years.

In the 1940’s more countries on the continent were forced to drive on the right as opposed to the left as Hitler imposed his will on his new Third Reich, expanding the work Napoleon started in his military expansion.

Zebra crossings made their appearance on British roads for the first time in April 1949 in various trials throughout the country. Apparently various stripes of alternating colours were among the trails, eg blue and yellow and red and white before black and white were selected for the first official crossing in Slough in 1951 and flashing beacons in 1953.

Britain’s first parking meters made their appearance outside the American Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square on 10 July 1958.

The British motorway age began with the opening of the 8 ¼ miles of the Preston bypass on 5th December 1958 followed swiftly by a 72 mile section of the M1 on 2 November 1959. It could perhaps be said to have been completed in January 1991 with the opening of the M40 as the last major section of the motorway network to be completed on January 15th 1991, spanning a 33 year period. Though there is no longer a ‘grand scheme’ of motorway construction there are recent extensions to the A1 (M) and other link sections or small motorways seem to continue to be planned and open and extend the system. In 2011 the Government estimated there were 2,200 miles of motorway, which is about the same amount the Romans managed to build 1500 years previously in their 370 year occupation.

1959 also saw Volvo's Nils Bohlin, one of their designers, invent the first modern 3 point seat belt.

1960 saw the beginning of the MOT test (for vehicles over 10 years old) under the Road Act 1956. Such was the level of failures that it was reduced to 7 years, and then 3 years in 1967. A valid test certificate was made a requirement to obtain a tax disc in 1962.

Help for the police enforcing traffic parking as we know it today started in September 1960 - 50 years ago this year, when the first traffic wardens marched onto British streets in London. Unfortunately the very first ticket was issued to Dr Thomas Creighton who was answering an emergency call to help a heart attack victim. The car, left outside as he tended the victim, was ticketed and created such a public outcry that he was subsequently let off - start as you mean to go on!

Britain’s first self-service petrol pump became operational in November 1961 at Southwark Bridge, London.

The Road Traffic Act 1962 raised the stakes against drunk driving though it was not considered to be an offence to fail or refuse to supply a breath, blood or urine specimen not to do so ,without reasonable cause, could treated as supporting any evidence given on behalf of the prosecution, or as rebutting any evidence given on behalf of the defence.

Britain started to think seriously think about seat belts and in 1965 Parliament made the fitting of anchor points compulsory on new cars. The fitting of complete seatbelts on new cars was made compulsory in 1967. There was great resistance in making their actual use compulsory In 1983 a 3 year trial was begun in their compulsory use, which was made permanent in 1986.

1965 also saw the introduction of the 70mph speed limit on an experimental basis. The limit was made permanent in 1967. 8th October of the same year brought in the drink drive limit and a maximum of 80mg alcohol in 100 ml blood was introduced.

The two part driving test for motorcycles was introduced in 1982 and, one of the scourges of modern day motoring, the wheel clamp was first used on illegally parked cars on the streets of central London on the 16th May 1983.

The variable speed limit on the M25 was introduced in May 1995 allowing speed limits to be automatically adjusted to match traffic flows and the new theory test as part of the driving test wasintroduced. New photocard licences were introduced from 1 July 1999 for both first time issues and licence renewals.

Toll roads re-appeared in Britain again after almost 200 years with the of the opening of Britain's first tolled motorway, the M6 toll, in December 2003 and in September 2006 variable speed limits hit the scene on the M42 .It had automated traffic control, and also allowing hard shoulder running in peak times.

2014 saw the abolition of the tax disc after 92 years as modern technology negates it need The government's reasons were given as :

.... Motorists will no longer receive a paper tax disc to fix and exhibit to their vehicle as proof that Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) has been paid in respect of their vehicle..... The benefits of a paper tax disc have become redundant over time and abolition will provide administrative cost savings to the taxpayer and business, and removal of an administrative inconvenience to motorists ...... Since 1 January 1921 a paper based VED licence (tax disc) has been issued for motorists to display on their vehicle windscreen as evidence that VED has been paid. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the police now rely on DVLA's electronic vehicle register and tools like Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to support VED compliance.
The DVLA and police now rely on DVLA’s electronic vehicle register and use tools like Automatic Number Plate Recognition to ensure that vehicles are correctly licensed and that VED has been paid. Largely due to electronic enforcement, motorists are better informed of their responsibility to ensure that their vehicles are continuously licensed. Enforcement from the record has helped to improve compliance with non-payment of VED running at a historical low.

Reports start to emerge in 2015 that street lights don't affect crime or driving at night, a thought that may surprise many legislators of previous centuries!


Book Bibliography

  • A brief history of registration, INF57 DVLA
  • A History of Private Bill Legislation by Frederick Clifford, 1887
  • Anglo-Saxon Law: its development and impact on the english legal system, USAFA journal of legal studies vol 2 1991 by Charles E. Tucker jr.
  • Betting on Ideas: Wars, Invention, Inflation by Reuven Brenner, 1989
  • Bridges, Law and Power in medieval England 700-1400 , by A. Cooper, 2006
  • Consolidated Abstracts of the Highway Acts, 1862, 1864, the Locomotive Acts, 1861, 1865, and Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878 with the Acts in Extenso, Notes and Copious Index by James Abraham Foot, 1879
  • Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England by Frank McLynn, 1989
  • Crossing the road in Britain, 1931–1976 by Joe Moran, The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), pp. 477–496
  • I Never Knew That About England by Christopher Winn, 2005
  • Know Your TRAFFIC SIGNS Official Edition DOT, 2010
  • Left is right on the road, by Mick Hamer, pages 16 to 18 New Scientist Dec 25, 1986 - Jan 1, 1987
  • Map Of A Nation: A Biography Of The Ordnance Survey By Rachel Hewitt, 2011
  • On the Illumination of Streets, pages 163 -164 ,La Belle assemblée: or, Bell's court and fashionable magazine, Vol 24 From July 1 to December 31, 1821
  • Pratt's Law of Highways by J.T. Pratt, T.C. Kynnersley, 1865
  • Prehistoric Roads and Tracks in Somerset, England: I. Neolithic by John M. Coles and F. Alan Hibbert, 1969
  • Roman roads in Britain. Reprint of 3d ed. Society for promoting Christian knowledge, by Thomas Codrington, 1919
  • Strictures on road police, containing views of the present systems, by which roads are made and repaired together with sketches of its progress in Great Britain and Ireland from the earliest to the present. By William Greig, 1818
  • The Battle for the Roads of Britain: Police, Motorists and the Law, c.1890s to 1970s By Keith Laybourn, David Taylor, 2015
  • The effects of wheel clamps in central London: comparison of before and after studies May and Turve .University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies, 1984
  • The Handy Book of Parish Law by William Andrews Holdsworth, 1860
  • The Law of Motor Insurance By Robert M. Merkin, Jeremy Stuart-Smith, 2004
  • The Licensing of Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles Research Paper 95/81, House of Commons Library, Business and Transport Section, Fiona Poole, 30 June 1995
  • The Motorway Achievement, Volume 1 by Peter Baldwin, Robert Baldwin, 2004
  • The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, 1925
  • The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England by William Edward Tate, 1946
  • The rise and fall of the Anglo saxon Law of the Highway - Alan Cooper in Haskins Society Journal: Studies in Medieval History By Stephen Morillo, 2002
  • The Transport Revolution 1770-1985 by Dr Philip Bagwell, 2002
  • Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), BRIEFING PAPER Number SN01482, House of Commons Library By Louise Butcher 9 July 2015
  • Ways of the World: A History of the World's Roads and of the Vehicles That used them by M. G. Lay, James E. Vance, Jr. 1992
  • What Went Wrong? British Highway Development before Motorways RAC David Bayliss OBE March, 2008
  • Where To? How Far? (Part 2) by Joyce Lee and Jon Dean, Leicestershire Historian page 14 No 37, 2001

Web Bibliography

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