It’s a long time since Lady Londonderry’s father, Viscount Chaplin, abolished the man with the red flag (1896), and raised the speed limit from 4 to 14 miles per hour. Her son in law introduced the driving test and raised the speed limit again to 30mph. Indeed it only seems like yesterday that we were learning to drive our Dad’s Austin 10, but it’s never too late to learn more about safe driving. At the beginning of the 20th century Bangor learned to cope with all kinds of traffic, many incidents reported in the County Down Spectator.
Horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds served the town. In June 1914, it was proposed that a motor ambulance should replace the existing horse ambulance because the animal seemed “dead beat” by the time it returned to Bangor after going to Kircubbin, twenty miles away, the same day. There is no record of the proposal being adopted. There are many stories of runaway horses being stopped by local lads who were then hailed as heroes. The fugitives seemed to favour Abbey Street in which to make their dashes – a long, straight thoroughfare which led, unhindered by modern traffic restrictions, right into the centre of Main Street. One animal, drawing a trap with two boys on board, took fright at a steam roller and got as far as the old Town Hall before being stopped, much to the disappointment of the passengers who appeared to have enjoyed the adventure.
If, after all this excitement, your horse did indeed seem “dead beat” then George Kelly, (Telegraphic Address: Nacker, Belfast) was on hand to “on receipt of telegram, remove dead or worn-out Horses or dead Cows within a radius of twenty miles from Belfast.” And, reflecting the times and reminding us that this was not yet entirely the age of mechanised transport, Field Marshall Sir John French, Cavalryman, declared “Mounted troops will play a very important part in this campaign.” However while everyone’s roses must have done very well, there was one drawback to horsedrawn traffic, recalled by local historian and Freeman of the Borough, Mr Charles F Milligan, in his book My Bangor.
“One thing I do remember about those summers of long ago was the plague of flies. This was not confined to Bangor – flies were everywhere. Flypapers were big business; every home had them hanging up. Shops that sold food put muslin over their display with a few flypapers on the top. I think that horse traffic on the roads and stabling was largely responsible. The advent of the motorcar has killed off the flies, and that at least can be put to the credit side of the motorcar.” The extent of the problem throughout the country can be gauged from a report in the Spectator that an enthusiastic anti-fly crusader paid the elementary school children a small sum for every pound of flies brought to him.
Besides being fly-free, the motor vehicle was an exciting novelty to many. Battle-lines, however, were drawn over the setting of a sensible speed limit for Seacliffe Road. Some citizens seemed to think the withdrawal of the red flag had been a retrograde step and reports of Gilbertian court cases regarding infringement of the six miles per hour speed limit (£2 fine) took up lots of newspaper columns. Before stopwatches were introduced in 1919, speeds were assessed by eye, usually by policemen or citizens “accustomed to riding in a motor-car”, and naturally their opinions differed substantially from the driver’s. One motorist was assumed to be drunk, because he wasn’t wearing a hat whilst in charge of his vehicle.
Motorcyclists were particularly hard hit and protested that it was almost impossible to ride at six miles per hour, “One runs the risk of falling off” the bikers complained. Attempts to defend themselves by claiming a speed of only five miles per hour were dismissed by the magistrate who considered that if they were riding a motorcycle it must have been at more than six miles per hour to avoid their self-confessed falling off. Thus they automatically broke the limit by staying upright. An alternative suggestion was put forward that they get off and push their bikes along Seacliffe Road.
This was greeted with dismay as, even when riding at six miles per hour, they were being overtaken by jeering fourteen-miles-per hour pedal-cyclists, who were, so far (but not for long) immune from speeding restrictions. Eventually, one rider’s speed, estimated at 17 and a half mph, necessitated a fine of 10 shillings and 14 shillings costs, as an example to others. This at a time when the land speed record for motor vehicles was around 145mph. In summer months traffic along Seacliffe Road was entirely forbidden, and even nowadays that thoroughfare has what must be the largest traffic calming bumps in existence. In Main Street where there was, curiously, no speed limit, motor vehicles exceeding six miles per hour were charged instead with reckless driving!
Bicycles, the working-man’s horse, second-hand at £4 10s, were all the rage and the Ivy Cycle manufacturer was inundated with requests for catalogues which he apologised for not sending as the scarcity of paper was holding them up. This rush for bicycles could perhaps be attributed to the petrol shortage as fuel for private vehicles was restricted and even taxis were not allowed to take people to weddings or places of entertainment without special permission. One hackney carriage driver and his passengers, a bridal party, were each summonsed because the driver had brought them from Belfast to Crawfordsburn. Unfortunately he had not obtained a special permit from the Petrol Board to enable him to travel more than three miles from the Belfast boundary.
If you expected to travel on a longer journey then Landaus, Victorias and Broughams were still available for hire, especially from the railway station. You could telephone your booking from Belfast before you got on the train and hope you were allocated a well-behaved horse. If you resorted to mechanised public transport, buses and trains were still running, but if you wanted a taxi, the Defence of the Realm regulations forbade you from whistling for it, in case your whistle was mistaken for an air raid warning!. “Well to do” young men were chastised for driving their motor-cars up and down Main Street at night without silencers, thus making a noise like German gunfire and causing elderly ladies and the writer of Town Tittle-Tattle to panic, thinking that the enemy had invaded Bangor.
Petrol rationing led to many family cars being laid up for the duration. In April 1918, under a paragraph headed “Speed the Plough” news appeared that the Trafford Engineering Co of Southport, Lancs, had invented an excellent device for making use on the land of the thousands of garaged Ford Cars. Their “Attachment” converted one of these vehicles, without damage to its original purpose, into a first class farm tractor. The result was a workable farm tractor able to plough two furrows in heavy soil at the rate of two miles an hour.
The machinery of the Great War was a mixture of horsepower, high explosive, “kannonenfutter”, and strange new weapons. During the battle of the Somme, the British revealed a “new and wonderful type of armoured motor … mysteriously referred to as Land Dreadnoughts … great weird-looking monster shapes of steel which paralysed the enemy defences.” It was the world’s first tank, the Mark 1, initially disguised during its development as a water tank for the Russians.
A source of wonderment for some time, other graphic names were applied to these metal boxes that we now call tanks, such as “Iron houses, mobile turrets … travelling forts.” Previously dismissed as pretty mechanical toys by Lord Kitchener and referred to by Lady Randolph Churchill as Winston’s caterpillars, tanks were underused at first, tentatively at the Somme, and only advancing en masse at Cambrai in 1917. Germany was also slow to recognise their potential and it wasn’t until 1918 that it used them with any significant effect. Originally, with 18 crew inside the A7V Sturmpanzerwagen were at a great disadvantage to the lightly manned British tanks. The forerunner of the British tank, an armoured car, was used by the dashing Lt Commander Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson and his team using three vehicles in his Armoured Car Expeditionary Force in Russia, one of which could be seen up until recently at the Somme Museum.
For now, we can look forward to hybrid or even fully electric vehicles. Something like a golf buggy or a van from Bangor Dairies. Won’t the ring road and the A2 to Belfast be nice and quiet? Hopefully there are enough charging spots to service us all. And of course we’ll need to keep our licences current.