In 1922 the Earl of Mayo declared to the House of Lords
‘… I saw a letter the other day from an indignant gentleman who said he walked where he liked. He intimated that this was a free country and he had every right to walk where he liked. If he walks off the pavement in Oxford Street he will be killed to a certainty’
The topic of the debate was rather unusual. In a move which would be considered by the modern Londoner to be an extreme measure of Government interference, the ‘Nanny state’ writ large, the Lords were debating whether to force pedestrians to walk on the left hand side of the pavement. In fact, in July 1922 around 40 authorities in Greater London began to display prominent signs requiring people to walk on the left hand side.
The genesis of this move was in part the result of the rising accident rate in London. In 1924 just under 700 people were killed in traffic accidents, and a further 72,000 pedestrians injured. This was a 52 per cent increase on the rate in 1922. Sidney Webb, then President of the Board of Trade, went so far to point out that you were statistically safer working in a coal mine than you would be walking on the streets of London. To put this in perspective, in 2011 traffic collisions in Greater London caused 29,257 casualties, of which 159 people were killed. One of the chief causes of these accidents, alleged Lord Newton, President of the London Safety First Council (which later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), was that pedestrians walking on the right hand side of the pavement couldn’t see oncoming traffic behind them, and hence were more liable to inadvertently step out in front of a careering vehicle. The walk on the left regulation he proclaimed did
‘…not originate with cranks and fanatics, but is put forward by business people representing transport, such as the tramway and omnibus companies, and people of that nature.’
But if Lord Newton was demanding change, it was not going to be an easy proposition. Despite Newton’s logic it became clear that other officials did not agree with him. Perhaps the most important of these was the then City Commissioner of Police, who claimed people were safer walking on the right hand side. Newton took a dim view of the Commissioner’s ‘audacity’, thundering in the Lords
‘I think this gentleman would have been an official after the heart of the late President Kruger [the former President of the Transvaal], who was under the impression that the earth was flat.’
But the Commissioner’s view held a large amount of sway. It meant that in the City of London people were often being told to walk on the right, which had been the traditional instruction, and the resulting confusion at Borough boundaries started playing havoc. The Boroughs of Chelsea and Stepney concurred with the City. Confusion became a regular occurrence. In one example complained Newton
‘It appears that pedestrians crossing Richmond bridge are invited by overhead placards to keep to the right, whereas there is chalked upon the pavement an invitation to walk on the left. Surely this is an absurd and ridiculous state of which I do not think you could find in any other civilised country.’
But the mismatch of rules created broader issues. The London County Council, as a result of the City’s rejection, refused to display signs advocating the walk on the left rule, despite the fact the LCC itself agreed with the principle. The Metropolitan Police, similarly, decided it was best to adopt a policy of neutrality. Indeed, the primary means of forcing people to walk on the left appeared to be the Earl of Meath, who cornered unfortunate members of the public walking on the right and severely told them off.
Other issues also arose. The Times commented in 1922 that
‘Unfortunately, the first days of the new rule coincided with the first days of the summer sales, and the call of windows full of marked-down garments was difficult to resist; and it is hard to remain on the left when that may mean missing a bargain on the right.’
Lord Newton himself remarked, slightly facetiously
‘I admit that there is one section of the population to which all appeals and exhortations would be perfectly useless – I allude, of course, to those females of all ages who congregate in solid masses in front of the great drapers’ shops, and upon whom, probably, no means of persuasion short of machine guns or tanks would have any effect at all.’
It also appeared that the free-natured English psyche itself was to blame. Lord Teynham noted
‘I may say that I have had letters from a gentleman who writes to me, not without heat, indeed somewhat intemperately, saying that he would prefer to die in prison rather than walk on the left instead of the right.’
Indeed, the right of the Englishman to walk on the right hand side was described in a letter to The Times in 1935 as ‘the habit of the nation’.
But whilst Lord Newton’s campaign to force pedestrians to walk on the left hand side was well intentioned and undoubtedly common sense, it was missing a broader point. Why were so many accidents happening and why was the rate increasing? The answer lay not only with the pedestrians, but with the burgeoning number of private motor cars and the lack of legislation surrounding them. One issue, perhaps central to the whole problem, was that until 1934 there was no British driving test. As such, bad driving was almost endemic. This 1939 film gives the viewer a good idea of the hazards of the road at the time. Speeding was a major issue. The Earl of Mayo complained in 1924 that
‘I often go out to buy newspapers on Sunday morning, and I find that you cannot judge of the pace at which a modern motor car is travelling. If you are not very careful, and if the sun is in your eyes, you will find yourself in hospital “and wake up dead.” as they say in my country.’
Lord Banbury of Southam regaled the House with a strikingly vivid account of his own recent misadventure
‘Only this morning I was very nearly run over at Hyde Park Corner. An omnibus was standing by the side of the road waiting to take up passengers. I went in front, looked round to the right to see if anything was coming. I saw a taxi-cab some distance away, but, as you know, it is difficult to estimate the speed of a taxi-cab which is coming like an express train on some of our railways and to know exactly how soon it will be before it is upon you. I rather misjudged the speed of this taxi-cab. There was plenty of room, but before I could get to the refuge a few-yards away it was practically upon me. I ran and managed to reach the refuge.’
Later in the debate Earl De La Warr rather dryly suggested that it was a possibility ‘that the taxi-cab increased its speed when the driver saw the noble Lord’.
It transpired that the Metropolitan Police, whilst able to prosecute speeding drivers, were in actuality both effectively unable and reluctant to do so. To obtain a conviction the Police had to provide evidence that the driver was speeding, but the only way to do this was to use a stop watch to calculate the speed of the offending car over a set distance. This was clearly impractical, so speeding cars were unlikely to be stopped.
In any case, aside from the walk on the left campaign, other novel ideas were being developed to protect London’s pedestrian masses. In 1935, in a first which has become a standard across the UK, the first pedestrian activated traffic light was introduced in Trafalgar Square. Other ideas, however, were less successful. In 1936 the Police fixed a loudspeaker on top of a car and proceeded to shout instructions to people trying to cross the road. Though perhaps this was simply ahead of its time.
Ultimately the walk on the left campaign was only marginally successful. In 1935 there was an attempt to introduce it into the Highway Code, though, as one writer to The Times pointed out, there was no reason why any substantial number of pedestrians would bother reading it. A further complication was that, as is still the case today, when walking on a road without a pavement, pedestrians are required to walk on the right hand side, towards oncoming traffic. Another writer to The Times argued
‘The inversion confuses. “I cannot remember,” said a Swedish peasant, “whether my wife said I was to take two glasses and come home by 10, or 10 glasses and be home by two.”
It wasn’t a complete failure, however. The current Highway Code requests that pedestrians on the pavement should avoid walking on the kerbside with their back to traffic, effectively a suggestion to walk on the left. Despite this, it would seem the nation’s pedestrians remain of the inclination, so often remarked upon in the 1920s and 30s, to walk however they please.
Perhaps the Government should send out the Earl of Meath out to shout at people again. Who could say no to a face like that?
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