10th September 1897. A Cautionary Tale.

The [London] Morning Post reported a ‘first’, when Today in 1897 a London cab driver 25 years old George Smith, of Portnall Road, had the dubious distinction of being the first convicted of drunken driving.

It said that at 00.45  the vehicle swerved from one side to the other before mounting the pavement and hitting  165, New Bond Street.

The magistrate no doubt bemused at such an unusual case said: ‘You motor car drivers ought to be more careful…the police have the happy knack of stopping runaway horses, but to stop a motor is a very difficult thing’.

The cabbie said in mitigation that he had 2/3 drinks of beer, but when tasked with driving at 8 mph, he said he was going up an incline, so couldn’t have been doing more than 6 mph. He was fine 20 shillings, or one sovereign.


As we moved from the steam to the petrol age for vehicle propulsion, we find a gradual increase in penalties for drink-driving offences.

Legislation started in 1872, when it was an offence to be in charge of cattle, horses, carriage or steam-engine, whilst under the influence of drink. The fine could not exceed 40 shillings, though there was the chance of imprisonment with or without hard labour, not exceeding one month.

By the beginning of the 20thc., there were about 8,000 vehicles registered on Britain’s roads and increasing, thus by 1925 the ‘Drink-Drive Law’, related to any mechanically-propelled vehicle on the highway or public place. Now the maximum fine was £50 (pounds), or imprisonment up to 4 months; hard labour now wasn’t an option!(1)

Types of cars

Types of cars in the 1960s, with their spongy suspension and relatively poorer braking power.

By the 1960s with a rapid number of cars on the road, the government decided to toughen the legislation, for in the 1960 Road Traffic Act, it was announced that driving under drink and [now drugs]  would be penalized.


The 1960s saw the first campaign, though now considered sexist.

1962 saw The Marples Act introduce a more objective test for drunken driving; before it had been down to the ‘Police Surgeon’ to decide.(2)

By 1965 it was announced that a blood/alcohol limit would soon come in, so in January next year the Road Safety Bill stipulated a legal limit of 80 ml of blood for 100 mg of alcohol.

Two years later, Labour’s Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, introduced the breathalyser. The time of the designated alcohol-free driver had arrived.

If we are in any doubt about the efficacy of the anti-drink-driving legislation, we can note that there has been a drop, in alcohol related deaths from 1640, in 1979 (the first year for figures), to 290, in 2012.

The number of vehicles has risen from c 4 million in 1950, to c 34 million in 2010. ( Stats: Department for Transport. (DFT).

The worrying trend in 2015, is drug related convictions.

(1) Criminal Justice Act 1925.

(2) Ernest Marples, the hyperactive Tory Minister of Transport.

Ref: britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

Ref: drinkdriving.org/drink_driving-info/Image Ref.

Ref: bbc.co.uk.org/on-this-day/1897.

Ref: dailytelegraph/motoring/road safety/image poster/ad.archives.

Ref: motorway/ Image/pinterest.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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