Victorian London - Transport - Road - Cars - the horseless carriage



    YES. There can be no doubt of it. Everyone has read and heard about "automotors" by this time, or seen pictures of them in the illustrated magazines, but somehow these have got mixed up with engravings of submarine boats or flying machines, and all have stood still. One has looked like any vehicle in Long Acre, and the other suggested a new patent reaping-machine. It is not till you have sat on the box of a phaeton and been for a spin along a dusty road at the rate of some ten miles an hour without whip, reins, or anything to drive in front of you, that you can realise, however faintly, the future of a "horseless carriage." I have just returned from a short excursion in one of them, but the length of the trip has nothing to do with its effect upon the passenger sitting on the box  with no animal trotting before him below the splashboard. "It takes two gallons for eighty miles," remarked the coachman by my side, as he whisked round one of the corners of the road. He spoke of them as if they were a seasoned "pair," safe to do so long a day's work, but they were harnessed somewhere "inside," in the rumble, and they certainly made themselves felt there to some extent, especially when we stopped for a moment to pick up a man at the roadside. Then they gave the vehicle a pulsation not unlike that communicated to a gig by a blown horse when pulled up after a sharp trot. But our motive power came from senseless petroleum instead of sinews, and a "relay" was ready in a can, rather than a wayside stable, and was fed with fire, not oats. 
    The impression, however, produced by the "drive" is not measured by the perceptible throbbing of the hidden engine (that, indeed, suggests a panting horse), but by the revelation of a new method of wheel progress which promises to revolutionise the whole world of man's movement upon the face of the earth, let alone the trade of all carriage builders, harness makers, and stable keepers. When men began to travel by "rail" they certainly had a new sensation, but there was the old one of having something in front "pulling" you. The name of "horse" remained, only it was called an iron one. And then a special road had to be made for it and for that which it drew. Without this it could not start nor work, and often it took years of toil before the road could be ready. When made, moreover, it would not be diverged from for a moment without danger ; but your swift "horseless carriage" is not "drawn" at all, and needs no track to be provided for it. Given the carriage, the roads of the country are at its command. The bicycle, too, though it has appeared in swarms, is really no new thing, but a butterfly - which has broken the husk of the old go-cart. Its motive power is the same, being only a fresh application of the rider's legs. Of course we all know that the horseless carriage is, in fact, no recently modern invention (indeed, the wisdom of our ancestors is committed to the truth of the saying that there is nothing new under the sun), for it has been running in France for the last two or three years, and even some half-century ago efforts were made to bring it into use in Scotland hut it is virtually a revelation to the British public which has slowly taken it in, and is beginning to realise the revolution in road traffic which it heads.
    Who can conjecture the changes likely to follow in its train? At present, so to speak, only a little puff of smoke or steam is left behind it, to disappear in a minute, but before long a manifold material procession is bound to come after the first English automotor. And this prodigious development will be the result of one of the shortest Acts of Parliament the Legislature has ever passed in these realms. The ponderous traction engine which we have all seen grinding along the country road, when touched with the magic wand of law can be potentially transformed into a multitude of vehicles, spinning or steadily advancing along the countless tracks which cover the land. What will be the good of laying down sleepers for "light railways" by the side of the turnpike or the lane when a short automotor train threads them, picking up the farmer's produce here and there on its way to the nearest station? Perhaps we shall even see a roomy horseless truck among the implements of some farmyards, ready to carry his sacks far more quickly than a crawling team. But it is in the passenger traffic of the country and the town that we may expect to see the greatest locomotive change in store for those who go about on wheels. Railways will take their place among the old-fashioned methods of procedure, and perhaps our grandchildren will smile to think of stage coaches having been ever talked of as prehistoric, since they may possibly be seen running again . . . horseless. Then, may be, too, the deserted wayside inns on the old main roads will have a new lease of life, and the horn (steam this time) be heard heralding the approach of the "Highflyer" and the " Rapid."
    But city streets, they say, will be most notably invaded. When I reached the London terminus, after my trip with the two gallons of petroleum, and saw the crowd of omnibuses and cabs waiting harnessed for their fares, and presently heard the tramp of countless hoofs as we drove home, I wondered what the thoughts of all those horses would be if they knew those which were then filling my mind. Some say that one great drawback to automotors will be the alarm caused in the minds of these patient toiling creatures, but possibly they will take an unexpected cheerful view of a revolution which sets them free from bit, blinker, and whip. And they might well chuckle to think of the little appreciated help they give in the guidance of a loaded omnibus through crowded streets. As it is, the best driver owes more than he might admit to the intelligence of his horses. They see where to go, and what to avoid, as well as he. But an automotor has no eyes, and it will need the creation and training of a new set of coachmen to steer down Bond Street or Cheapside when one is full of carriages stopping suddenly to deposit shopping ladies, and the other is choked with crowds hurrying to and from the city. We hear much now of "street accidents," but what may they become should London be invaded by the "horse-less carriage"? And then think how it would be if one of them were to bolt. We read of active policemen catching the reins of a runaway, and saving the lives of those sitting helplessly behind it, but who would snatch at the nose of an iron cab over which its driver has lost control? There are "cons" as well as "pros" in the outlook of a street invasion by blind unfeeling motors It is m the use, however, of private ones on country roads that many contemplate their adoption with safe promised enjoyment. A "Tour on Wheels " will bring a decidedly new sensation : no anxiety about uncertain stabling, or sudden lameness no tiresome carriage of hay or oats ; no breaking of harness in out-of-the-way places. Of course there is the chance of an inside pipe going wrong, or a cog coming off, and then - where are you. far from an intelligent artificer to repair the damage, or manufactory where you can buy what you want?
    Again, there is no "loving" of a reservoir ; you must feed it, indeed, but it does not care to be patted. You can't give it a carrot or lump of sugar before you start. Perhaps some ingenious inventor will enable a motor to neigh instead of "toot," but it can never become an affectionate companion who knows your voice and likes to be stroked. There is bloodless satisfaction in steering the best horseless carriage, however swiftly and safely it may carry you where you would go.
    Perhaps it is in the application of the new motive power to bicycles that we shall see it most enjoyably appreciated, for no living love has yet been felt for the "bike." I suppose the rider will be enabled occasionally to use his pedals for a change, instead of the quart of oil beneath his saddle. This being so, a field of fresh career is open to the wheelsman, without the vexation of delay by reason of accident to his boiler or oil tank, for he would only have to fall back on the power of his legs, and, barring extra weight to be carried, be riot much worse off than he was before.
    I have said nothing about the present stage of manufacture reached in the making of "motors," for, of course, they are yet in their infancy, and we may well expect as much improvement to be made in them as in any new mechanical discovery. Those in experimental use now will, if widely employed, come to be looked on with the same curiosity as is aroused by an inspection of the first steam engine that was made a hundred years ago.

article in The Leisure Hour, 1896

MOTORING.-Within the last few years England, and especially London, has gone through the throes of a revolution. Some of us wish we could say it was a silent one, but when the noise of cumbrous motor buses reaches one in the crowded streets, and the odours from the pale blue smoke that follows in their wake touch up the olfactory nerve, it is no wonder that they are not hailed as blessings in disguise, and that we are face to face with a change that is simply, from a traffic point of view, overwhelming. Of the vehicles that have come upon us with their motor power, we admit that these buses are the worst, and yet, that so great is the love of quick motion in the English race, that almost invariably you see the passenger, for choice, mount the speedier conveyance. The taxi-cabs have a somewhat snake-like movement, and have helped to make an attempt to cross a crowded thoroughfare a test of agility, yet they have proved themselves a success to their drivers. When we hear the murmurs from the countryside, and, unfortunately, of the far too many accidents from reckless speed which the law is endeavouring to and must check, we can only say that motor power has woke up England in a way that the old country was not prepared for, and which we shall all have to try and get used to, because there seems no manner of doubt whatever, that these disturbers of the public peace have come to stay and that in the future we shall have developments that will be likely to still further utilise the power which sets them going. It has created a trade of which we are glad to hear English manufacturers are obtaining their full share, and the demand from the wealthy classes for this form of motion has meant business worth striving for. The large membership of the Automobile Club and the Motor Club, the great race ground near Weybridge, and the evidences everywhere of motor power outdoing every other mode of vehicular progression, is a proof of this. The auto-cycle has joined in this development, and to-day the Coventry makers are doing their utmost to bring their productions up to perfection. The motor boat is slowly following, and the aeroplane promises to assert itself more successfully in the future.

Charles Dickens Jr. et al, Dickens Dictionary of London, c.1908 edition
(no date; based on internal evidence)