Early Motoring In Bedfordshire
This publicity photo shows a motorist changing the brake-band on her Bedford manufactured Adams car [Ref.IG8/4/1] n.d.[c.1910]
In the late 1890s a new menace appeared on Bedfordshire’s roads – the new-fangled motor-car! The first car to be seen in Bedfordshire, as far as is known, belonged to Prince Ranjitsinjhi, the Indian cricketer who visited Ampthill in 1896 where he scored an ignominious duck against the local team.
The officials of the County Council’s Highways Department started to worry that motor-cars were damaging the roads as well as posing a risk to pedestrians, cyclists and horse-drawn traffic. Moreover, there was no means of tracking down offenders as early vehicles had no registration plates.
A traffic survey [Ref:Hi/TS1/1] carried out at Bromham Bridge over a ten-day period in May 1901 reveals that 4,000 cyclists crossed the bridge, together with nearly 2,000 pedestrians, 2,000 carts and nearly 2,200 saddled horses. There were just 13 cars.
Fortunately for the County Council central Government came to the rescue by passing the Motor-Car Act of 1903 which gave local authorities powers to register motor vehicles and drivers and collect the fees and use the money towards road maintenance. This system lasted until the DVLA took over in the mid-1960s. The first person to be issued with a motor licence, on 1 January 1904, was Albert James Ames, one of the Duke of Bedford’s chauffeurs at Woburn Abbey.
The first register of motor licences [Ref: TLD1] shows that just 487 licences were issued during that first year, 1904. Most of the licences were issued to the people you might expect – gentry, prominent officials, businessmen, and ‘men about town’. Only three were issued to intrepid women, namely Miss Mary Elizabeth Robinson of Milton Ernest Hall (licence 160, issued on 16 January), Gertrude Mary Green of The Larches, Luton (297: 19 April) and Mary Constance Temple of 8, Spenser Road, Bedford (435: 13 August).
The first register of owners of motor vehicles [Ref.TLI1] commences on 18 December 1903, and includes only one local woman. On 6 February 1904, Mrs Isabella Robinson of Milton Ernest Hall (mother of Mary above) is logged as the owner of a 14 horse power Clement Talbot car, registration BM153. The only other female car-owner in this first register, which goes up to January 1907, is an Alice Morris of Shepherd’s Bush who had a car with a Bedfordshire plate, BM162. What can we find out about these early pioneers? Well, Mary Elizabeth Robinson was born in Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, in 1877, the daughter of Thomas W U Robinson (c1826-1888), brewer, and Isabella Widowfield (born c1838). The widowed Isabella then lived for a time in Kensington, thence to Knill Court, Herefordshire, before purchasing Milton Ernest Hall in May 1901 [Ref:Z951/8/7-10]. Isabella obviously bought the Clement Talbot car, BM153, for her daughter Mary as a present. We have found out a little more about Mary’s life: she married Christopher C Barnes of Ipswich, a Captain in the Royal Field Artillery, at Milton Ernest Church on 12 October 1905. The mother and daughter probably returned to Durham, as we know from the register that ownership of the car was transferred to Norman Robinson of Co. Durham in November 1906.
Gertrude Mary Green was of a similar age and background to Mary E Robinson. She was born in 1876 in Luton, the eldest daughter of John W Green, a brewer, JP, and High Sheriff of Beds in 1906, and his wife Mary Anne. She married Sidney Tabor of Calverwood, Little Berkhamstead at Luton St Mary’s church on 16 October 1906.
Mary Constance Temple was born in Winkleigh, Devon, in 1856, where her father Watkin Temple (died 1904) was Vicar. She was the only child from her father’s first marriage. At the time of the 1901 census Mary (living on her own means) is shown living at 8, Spenser Road, Bedford, with her 19-year-old half-brother Watkin, an engineering student.
It is apparent that there were very few female car drivers and owners during the cradle years of motoring. Change was on the way but it was to take the First World War and the Vote to help break down the barriers.