The Cruel Capital: Two Grim Road Firsts
When not respected or used in the correct manner, roads can be very dangerous places indeed.
Driving for a career as I do, I’ve seen my fair share of road accidents; some trivial, others shockingly nasty.
In the first decade of the 21st century alone, 32,955 pedestrians, cyclists, bikers and vehicle occupants were killed on Britain’s roads, with another 3 million injured.
According to the charity, Road Peace, it is estimated that, worldwide, 4,000 people are killed on the road every single day.
Sobering figures indeed.
It was in 1926 that the British government first began to collate statistics on road deaths.
However, fatalities were taking place long before that, with London’s suburbs witnessing two grim firsts in the closing years of the 19th century.
The first ever fatality involving a car striking a pedestrian occurred at Crystal Palace, South London on 17th August 1896.
The unfortunate victim was 44-year-old, Mrs Bridget Driscoll from Croydon.
At the time of the accident, Bridget was making her way to a display of folk-dancing which was being held in Crystal Palace Park.
Stepping out onto a now vanished road called Dolphin Terrace, the unfortunate pedestrian was startled to see a car coming towards her…
It must be remembered that in 1896, cars were a true novelty.
This particular car- a Roger Benz which belonged to the Anglo-French Motor Car Company was out on the road giving demonstration rides to excited passengers, keen to have a go on the new technology.
Upon seeing the pedestrian, the car’s driver, Arthur Edsel rung a bell, shouted a warning and swerved the vehicle… but it was to no avail. The bewildered Bridget was struck and she died at the scene minutes later from a head injury.
At the time of the impact, the car was travelling at 4mph… a speed which one witness described as a “tremendous pace… as fast as a good horse can gallop.”
Despite this Victorian recklessness, it was decided that Bridget’s death was accidental, the coroner stating that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again”…
A few years later in 1899, another unfortunate first for Britain’s road network occurred, this time at Harrow in North-West London.
This incident involved one Major James Richer and a Mr Edwin Sewell.
After a distinguished military career including service in India, Major Richer had returned to London where he landed a high-ranking job with the Army and Navy department store on Westminster’s Victoria Street (today rebuilt as a branch of House of Fraser).
On the look out to expand the department store’s ever increasing range of diverse goods, Major Richer thought it would be a good idea for the large shop to start shifting cars.
With this in mind, he turned to the Daimler motor car company who were only too happy to oblige, arranging a test drive for the 25th February 1899. The chap behind the wheel would be Mr Edwin Sewell.
On the day of the demonstration, the party clambered into the 8 seater vehicle and trundled all the way up to Harrow-on-the-Hill; a picturesque location which is still home to the famously exclusive school and offers a wonderful panoramic view over the capital.
Once upon the hill, the group stopped for a meal at the King’s Head Hotel… no doubt including some liquid refreshment!
After their break, Edwin Sewell once again took to the wheel, heading north along Harrow-on-the-Hill’s high street, passing the many, cluttered buildings of the prestigious Harrow School.
As they approached the junction of Grove Hill and Peterborough Road where the path begins to slope downwards, disaster struck…
Gathering speed, the vintage vehicle’s speedometer began to notch up towards a hair-raising 14 mph, forcing Edwin to slam the brakes. This sudden action resulted in the collapse of a rear wheel, causing the Daimler to tip over.
Edwin Sewell was thrown from his mechanical charge and died instantly.
Major Richer was less lucky and ended up pinned beneath the hefty vehicle. He was rescued but died from his injuries a few days later on the 1st March.
This incident thus made the pair the UK’s first ever car occupants to die as the result of a road crash.
In 1969, a plaque was unveiled at the site of the accident to mark the event’s 70th anniversary.
Its message is simple.