Walter Arnold, January 1896: Britain’s first speeding ticket?
At the start of 2022, social media users enthusiastically shared a charming and intriguing post about what has been described as “Britain’s first speeding ticket”. On January 27, for example, historian and broadcaster Dan Snow wrote on Twitter:
This week in 1896, driver Walter Arnold received Britain’s first speeding ticket. He had been caught in a motor car like this going four times the speed limit – at 8 mph. He was chased and arrested by a policeman on a bicycle.
This description was accurate and we rate it “True”. Although not mentioned by Snow or others, Snopes uncovered a similar driving infraction that occurred earlier in January 1896 but technically did not result in a speeding charge, leaving the Arnold’s incident with the apparent distinction of being the first speeding ticket in British history. We also couldn’t find any sources to back up the specific claim that Arnold was driving at 8mph or that he was picked up by a police officer on a bicycle.
The Locomotive and Speed Limit Acts of 1896
At the end of the 19th century, motor vehicles – which were not yet widely used – were regulated in the UK by a series of laws called the Locomotives Acts. the Locomotives Act 1865, in particular, contained a section that effectively imposed a two-part speed limit: 4 mph in the countryside; and 2 mph in towns and villages:
… It is not permitted to drive a … locomotive along any toll-road or public highway at a speed greater than four miles an hour, or through any town, city, or village at a speed greater than two miles per hour.
The 1865 Act was sometimes colloquially known as the “Red Flag Act” because of its third section, which – much to the amusement of modern observers – required no less than three people to operate a locomotive without animal traction, one of the who had to walk “not less than 60 meters” in front of the vehicle, waving a red flag and “[warning] riders and horse-drivers from the approach of such locomotives.
On January 20, 1896, Arnold – a “traction motor owner” with a business in East Peckham, Kent – was arrested while driving his car, most likely a “Arnold Benz” similar to the one shown in Snow’s tweet, in Paddock Wood, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, about 40 miles southeast of London. He was later charged with four offences, as a contemporary newspaper article explained:
There were four subpoenas against the defendant, namely, that the vehicle was not operated in accordance with the Locomotives Act, which requires at least three persons to be employed to drive it, and that one must precede him when he is in motion; that the owner’s name and residence were not stamped on the car; that the speed exceeded two miles and an hour; and that no license had been obtained…
Through his attorney, Arnold pleaded not guilty, claiming that the locomotive laws were written without thinking of motor vehicles and therefore did not cover such vehicles. The court found him guilty and ordered him to pay various fines and court costs.
It is not clear if Arnold deliberately got caught breaking locomotive laws, but either way, his could reasonably be considered a “test case” as part of a larger campaign to reform and relaxing existing motor vehicle regulations – which, of course, would have the indirect effect of expanding the market for Arnold’s products. Later in 1896, the British parliament duly increased the speed limit at 14 mph.
During the House of Commons debate on liberalizing the speed limit, some MPs warned of an inexorable increase in the speed of horseless carriages. One member reportedly “asked the House to imagine these things happening at 18 miles an hour,” while another member drew laughs when he “asked if they couldn’t hope to go to 20 or 25 miles an hour a day”.
Just weeks before Arnold’s lawsuit, another car salesman, this time in Glasgow, Scotland, became embroiled in a very similar case. As the Herald of Glasgow reported:
At Central Police Court yesterday…George Johnston…was charged with breaching the Locomotive Amendment Act 1878…in so far as he, being in charge of a locomotive propelled by steam, oil or other than animal traction, and designated a horseless carriage, on January 4, between 4 and 5 p.m., drove the locomotive along Buchanan Street, St. Enoch Square and Dixon Street, highways on which locomotives are prohibited from spend between 9am and 5pm, which earned him a £5 fine, or one month’s imprisonment.
Johnston doesn’t seem to have been specifically charged with speeding, and we couldn’t find any previous record of a violation of the Locomotives Acts 2/4 mph restriction, so Arnold does seem to hold that distinction, as the Snow’s tweet correctly pointed this out.
Like Arnold, Johnston also argued that his vehicle did not fall within the definitions contained in the Locomotive Act, and he pleaded not guilty. However, Judge Mitchell disagreed, found him guilty and ordered him to pay a fine of two shillings and sixpence.
Johnston was a pioneer of the automotive industry in Scotland who, like Arnold, had a vested interest in any release of speed limit, operation and registration laws. Later, with engineer and MP William Arrol, he formed the Arrol-Johnston “Mo-Car” syndicate, which was one of the first producers of motor vehicles in Scotland.
Great Britain, Great. A collection of public general statutes adopted in the year of the reign of … GW Eyre and W. Spottiswoode, Queen’s Printers, 1865.
George Johnston and the Mo-Car Syndicate. https://www.britainbycar.co.uk/springburn/538-george-johnston-and-the-mo-car-syndicate. Accessed February 3, 2022.