Today (September 10) in London History – DUI

The first ever drunk driving conviction took place on September 10th, 1897. This Today in London History podcast tells the (amusing) tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Sports cliche time. Leave it all on the field. If you’re going to do something that’s never been done before, don’t hold anything back. Make it spectacular. Put a wheel of fire around it. Go up like a rocket. Make your deed a work of art. You weren’t just the first – you did it in style. 

Ok, yes, we’ve got a first. The first ever DUI conviction. Drunken driving. Driving under the influence.

Proud to say it happened in London.  Happened in London on this day – September 10th. This day 125 years ago – September 10th, 1897. 

Now if it’s going to be a work of art – if you’re going to do it in style – you’ve gotta think composition and setting. Gotta get that right. 

Let’s think setting first. Being arrested for drunk driving on Merchant Street or Third Street or the Old Kent Road doesn’t cut it. What could be more infra dig. No, you gotta hit a three-pointer at the buzzer – gotta think big. Do it where people are going to sit up and take notice. Do it where the best people are. 

Bond Street, for example. And not just run-of-the-mill Bond Street – 165 Bond Street, one of London’s most fashionable addresses. 

And that’s what our trailblazer did. Britain’s most celebrated actor, Sir Henry Irving, lived at 165 Bond Street. 

And it’s not enough to just get the setting right. You’ve also got to get the timing right. It’s no good if you’re “driving erratically” – as the charge sheet put it – and there’s no one there to see you. An eyewitness or two is a sine qua non. Timing-wise that’s pretty good going. But what gets you into the Championship League – indeed in the Winner’s Circle – is to do it when there’s a cop there. Poised to arrest you when you bring your vehicle to a halt. 

Correction: when the world-famous actor Sir Henry Irving’s house brings your vehicle to a halt. 

So we’ve talked setting and we’ve talked timing and we’ve introduced some of our dramatis personae – I note in passing that this show will almost certainly be the only time in his illustrious career that Sir Henry Irving is in a supporting role. 

Anyway, yes, setting, timing, dramatis personae. There’s one more key ingredient. You’re going to produce a masterpiece of drunk driving – for the first-ever drunk driving conviction – you’ve got to get the composition right. 

Our hero did – and, yes, I’m saving his name for the last. All will be revealed when he takes his final bow – his curtain call. 

Anyway, composition.

To give you an idea of how perfect the composition was, we need to refer to the charge sheet. We already know our hero was driving erratically. In Bond Street. Before 165 Bond Street, one of the most exclusive addresses in London – Sir Henry Irving’s house. 

What we don’t know is the trajectory – the flight path – of that erratic driving. 

Well, we know now. 

We know from the charge sheet that the vehicle was driven onto the pavement and into the front corridor of Sir Henry Irving’s house. 

By all means, take your time. Savour what you’ve just heard. Let the import of that one carefully chosen phrase sink in. 

The vehicle wasn’t driven into the front of Sir Henry Irving’s house – it was driven into the front corridor of Sir Henry Irving’s house.

It’s a marvellous detail but I wish it weren’t so economical, so taciturn. 

I’m panting to know more.

I want to know how far into the front corridor it went. 

You know, if you garage your vehicle in the front corridor of the house of the most famous actor in England, well, did somebody hold the doors open for you? Were the dimensions of the entrance equal to the unexpected demands of a motor vehicle? Or did the vehicle go through them like saloon doors?

Was Sir Henry Irving upstairs in his study, practising the delivery of lines, when he heard an unexpected noise, came downstairs to investigate and found a motorcar in his front corridor? What was the look on his face? What did he say?

How did he say it?

And that’s where the vehicle came to rest. What’s equally intriguing is the question: what was lift-off like?

What was the all-important trajectory of the early stages of its not moonshot but starshot. We know the officer used the adverb erratically. I’m quoting here: “the driver was spotted by PC Russell 247C erratically driving his taxi onto the pavement and into the front corridor of 165 Bond Street.” That verb “spotted by” made my day – that was some alert police work. And our adverb is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Because remember, to drive into the front corridor of the house the vehicle will have had to be repositioned – in motion no less – so it was at a right angle to the street it had been proceeding along. Bond Street. I suspect there’s a lot of weaving, a lot of hairpin turns enfolded in that adverb erratically. How could it have been otherwise? How do you get from going north on Bond Street to going west onto the pavement and into the front corridor of Sir Henry Irving’s house without negotiating a series of pretty spectacular hairpin turns? Call it what you will – weaving, veering, zig-zagging, swerving – but that’ll have been the erratic progress up Bond Street that PC Russell alertly spotted and rightly concluded something was amiss. How amiss dawned on the officer a second later when the car entered the front corridor of the great thesp’s house.

Anyway, let’s our protagonist and find out what happened to him. The driver’s name was George Smith. He was 25 years old. I note in passing that the human brain is not fully developed until people are 26 years old. George Smith was a taxi driver, an employee of the Electric Cab Company. He was arrested and taken to the Marlborough Street Police Court. He ‘fessed up. He admitted he’d drunk “two or three glasses of beer.” He was fined 20 shillings. Be about £100 in today’s money. 

There are all kinds of loose ends it would be fun to time travel back to and tie up. Did George Smith lose his job? We don’t know. Was it really just “two or three glasses of beer?” I suspect not but who’s to say? What sort of condition was the vehicle in? And indeed the front corridor of Sir Henry Irving’s house? We’ll never know.

Finally, I was intrigued that it was an electric vehicle our tired and emotional young taxi driver was manoeuvering. The state he was astride a bucking bronco. 

And there you have it, the first ever drink driving conviction. One to amaze your friends with? What do you think happened on this day in London 125 years ago? I guarantee you, they’ll never guess. They might be a bit worried – might look at you a bit oddly when you tell them – but hey, being a bit bonkers that’s how you earn your stripes as a Londoner.

And a Today in London recommendation. Let’s have two today. The Marlborough Street Magistrates court closed in 1986. It’s now a five-star hotel. It’s called The Courthouse Hotel. Maybe go and have a drink in the hotel bar. Raise a glass to George Smith and PC Russell and yes, Sir Henry Irving.

And a second recommendation – maybe go and watch the proceedings for 45 minutes or so in a Magistrates Court. It’ll show you a bit of London tourists normally never see. And to my way of thinking, there’s something appealing about its not being the big hitter, the Old Bailey – the Central Criminal Court. Maybe Westminster Magistrates Court at 181 Marylebone Road. 30 million tourists a year in London and you can count on the fingers of one hand the ones who see a Magistrates Court in action.

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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