Early road accidents involving the first motor cars

Diane Lynch

Watling Street, the Roman road, a stretch of which runs through the parish of Flamstead, has always been a major route for travellers between London and the northwest. The old coaching inns and taverns that lined it centuries ago have been  replaced with modern equivalents: motels, restaurants, pubs, petrol stations and a lorry park.

This section of the toll road included a slight incline, which proved to be quite a problem for travellers before traffic was motorised.  In 1815 Thomas Telford was commissioned by Parliament to improve the whole route northwest.
A bypass for ‘Flamstead Hill’ was opened in 1838 and known as London Road.  This stretch of what was the A5 (now the A5183) diverges from Old Watling Street at Friars Wash. Running past the turnings into Flamstead, it has been the scene of some horrific accidents.

Two of these were in the early years of 20th century, and were recorded by local photographers and press. In each case, the then 20mph speed limit at that time for cars was being exceeded.  Already a hundred cars a day were using that stretch of road.

Thought to be the first hit-and-run victim in the country, William Clifton, a four year old boy from Markyate, was killed crossing the London Road on 18 April 1905. The car was being driven by a chauffeur employed by the brother of Sir Alfred Harmsworth, owner of the Daily Mail at that time.  The car did not stop. Public feelings ran high in the country and a reward of £100 was offered for information by, ironically, the Daily Mail. The passengers had not insisted that the driver stop, though they were aware the child had been hit, nor did they come forward with information when they knew he had been killed. It was only some time later that an anonymous letter led to the driver’s arrest.

In his summing up at Herts Assizes, the judge is reported as saying that the jury must not be prejudiced, as many were, against motor cars and all to do with them.
The chauffeur was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six months’ hard labour.  The jury recommended that the passengers’ behaviour be censured and their expenses withheld.

A second accident took place on 30 April 1906, where River Hill crosses the London Road. A horse and cart turning onto the main road were hit by a speeding car.  The Flamstead man leading the cart had a miraculous escape, but the horse was badly injured and had to be put down. The chauffeur driving the car suffered only minor injuries, but the passenger took the full force of the impact and died later of his injuries at the local Infirmary. The chauffeur was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.

During the trial, the judge is said to have admitted, “I am sorry to say that I have been in a car myself”.  

Other accidents have been recorded over the years, particularly during the 1930s. In 2021, after years of campaigning, Flamstead residents are hopeful that soon there will be a controlled, safe exit from the village onto the London Road.

Funeral procession for road accident victim 1905
E Mott (C Motley postcard collection)
Car involved in road accident on London Road 1906
E Mott (C Motley postcard collection)
London Road accident 1906
E Mott (C Motley postcard collection)
Milestone on Old Watling Street, Flamstead
D Lynch
This page was added on 28/02/2021.

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