Today (August 17) in London History – Britain’s first motoring fatality

Mrs Bridget Driscoll was this country’s first motoring fatality. She was killed on August 17, 1896. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Charles Dickens went into the Pickwick Club to scoff. He stayed to worship. The great G. K. Chesterton said that in his Appreciations and Criticisms of Charles Dickens. It’s lit crit at its best, at its most stirring – rendered as a profound aphorism.

I thought of it when I found out a bit more about Bridgett Driscoll’s death.

Bridgett Driscoll was this country’s first fatal car accident victim.

She was killed on this day, August 17th, 1896. 

Mrs Driscoll, she was 44 at the time, lived in Croydon Old Town. She and her sixteen-year-old daughter and a friend had been to a Crystal Palace fete. They were walking to a folk dancing display in the grounds. Three imported Roger-Benz vehicles were being exhibited at the Dolphin Terrace at Crystal Palace. They were giving demonstration rides. The third car – a horseless carriage in the parlance of the day – was driven by Arthur Edsall, a gardener from Upper Norwood. An eyewitness said it was going “as fast as a horse-drawn fire engine.”

At the inquest, estimates of the car’s speed varied. Mr Edsall said he thought he was travelling at about four miles per hour. A technical expert testified that the car could not exceed four and a half miles per hour.

Mr Edsall said he’d rung his bell and shouted “Stand back.” Bridget wasn’t able to get out of the way. She was knocked down and killed.

Arthur Edsall told the inquest he’d been driving for “getting on for three weeks.” A verdict of accidental death was returned.

So a middle-aged woman – a pedestrian – is out for a day with her daughter and her friend in south London 126 years ago. The three of them are walking from a  

Catholic League of the Cross fete – walking to a folk dancing display on the Crystal Palace grounds. A so-called horseless carriage giving demonstration rides on those grounds is puttering along at four miles an hour. It strikes the woman, knocks her over, kills her. And in an instant a living, breathing woman – a mother of three, two little boys and her sixteen-year-old daughter – – has her life snuffed. She becomes a statistic. The first traffic fatality in this country.

There are of course unanswered questions. Did the driver have any braking wherewithal? Why didn’t he steer the car properly away from those three pedestrians? Were there people on the other side of the road that he was fearful of hitting. Or was there a tree or a wall and he did not want to damage the horseless carriage, a machine doubtless beyond the means of a gardener. And there’s one other conclusion we can draw. Mrs Driscoll will have been walking on the edge of the road or closest to the edge of the road. Where the danger was greatest. Protective of her daughter and her friend – she made sure they were walking where it was safest, on the inside, the farthest from the road.

Anyway, when I came across the tale, I thought, well, this is just quirky. The country’s first traffic fatality. And the car that ploughed into her rocketing along at the bewildering speed of four miles an hour. And the cushion of its having happened well over a century ago.

That was me dropping in on that moment in London history to scoff. But I stayed to worship. I stayed to worship because I found a photograph of Bridget Driscoll. And her family. They were fine looking people. Not that it would have been any more acceptable if they’d been scruffy or shabby. 

They’re a handsome fivesome. Bridgett’s husband seated on the left-hand side of the photograph. Waistcoat, cravat, watch chain, neatly trimmed moustache. Two fine-looking little boys, hair neatly parted. Their big sister standing behind the little fellow, her hands on her hips, her hair neatly piled up. And finally Mrs Driscoll herself. Seated. Her hair parted in the middle. A fine, sober black dress. Her wrists and very attractive hands resting on her lap, the fingers of her left hand covering her right hand. An attractive face. She would have been a beauty in her youth. I’d say it’s a safe bet that her husband and her three kids loved her very much.

The photograph can’t have been taken more than a few months before the accident. That can be surmised from looking at the daughter. That’s a sixteen-year-old girl in that photograph. Looking at the photograph you can’t help but wonder how radioactive it must have been for that motherless family in the aftermath of that traffic accident. So I didn’t stay to worship – but I certainly wasn’t scoffing. I realised I was in a different place than I thought I was in, a serious place. 

Gavin Stamp – the late lamented Gavin Stamp, the architecture critic and arch opponent of the automobile – wrote a very fine piece on the 100th anniversary of that first traffic fatality. In it he draws some important distinctions between our two main forms of overland transport: trains and cars. He says the Duke of Wellington condemned railways because “they would encourage the lower classes to move about” but nevertheless trains became the most comfortable and elegant way to travel. I’ll just quote a couple of lines here – Gavin Stamp puts this so well. “It was the motor car, free of rails, and for a long time free of rules, which was democratic. Mrs Driscoll’s death inaugurated both the Motor Age and the century of the Common Man. If the car represents personal freedom, this freedom has been costly. The car has blighted the countryside, covering it with petrol stations, Little Chefs and advertisement hoardings. The ease of travel by road encourages the building of housing estates and yet more out-of-town shopping centres on undeveloped land. Universal travel by car means traffic jams, atmospheric pollution, constant noise and smells, and the suburbanisation and Americanisation of Britain. But, above all, perhaps, it means deaths, lots of them. I imagine that all the British railway victims over 150 years would fill but one of the many war cemeteries on the West Front. In contrast, in a century of motor travel in Britain, more than 500,000 people have been killed – half of the total Empire loss in the First World War and almost the same as our casualties in the Second.

Rest in peace Mrs Bridget Driscoll.

And for a Today in London recommendation. Maybe go down to Crystal Palace Park. To the Dinosaurs section of the park. Maybe one day the automobile will be as extinct as the dinosaurs. And if you really want to push the boat out – well, here’s a reminder that Aaron, a young Cambridge academic, a palaeontologist, is a London Walks guide. You can book Aaron for a private, guided tour of the Dinosaur Park. A great gift to yourself – or, if you think about, a fantastic, off-the-charts original gift for a friend or family member.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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