W.S. Gilbert’s love of motor cars

Samantha PillingHistory, Latest News

Old Car

In the latter part of 1902, W.S. Gilbert introduced his first American steam motor car to Grimm’s Dyke and Harrow Weald. His love of the motor car was so strong, he converted the stables at Grim’s Dyke into garages to house the collection he subsequently amassed.

But being a Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, with a rather dry sense of humour (known as gallows humour, at the time) didn’t always mix with this new love – especially if you dared to be a motorist who flouted the law!

The 10 mile per hour crash

In a letter written to The Times in September1902, Gilbert admitted to his beloved new steam motor car being involved in a collision with a bicycle-riding clergyman. The car, driven by his gentleman-chauffeur (the rather grandly named Hardy McDonald McHardy), was travelling at a reasonable speed of 10-11 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, he failed to notice the hidden narrow lane, obscured by a dead wall. In this letter, Gilbert wanted to minimise the danger attached to motor car driving, by rallying for the 12-mile limit to stay in place.

As Gilbert later recounted in a letter to his cousin (Mary Talbot) dated October 1902:

“I dare say you’ve read in the papers I’ve taken to motoring, and that I made my debut by spoiling a parson…” he continues “The car was turned over in a ditch. I was pitched over the dashboard onto my head (I saw many stars of beautiful colours and was quite sorry when they vanished, and my wife was pitched very comfortably into a hedge.”

There was a shoal of subsequent letters appearing in The Times and from prominent motorists, including Leopold de Rothschild and Admiral Sir Richard Hamilton, declaring that Mr Gilbert’s inexperience should not be “a peg in which to hang further restrictions on this already over-persecuted form of amusement.” 

However Gilbert stood by his guns, eliciting much sympathy from the non-motorists, including the likes of Lord Ribblesdale – and the news reached as far as The New York Times.

Talking of standing by your guns…

As a JP, Gilbert was known to come down hard on those who flouted the speed limit in a motor car. However it was his serio-comic response to the suggestion of Sir Ralph Payne-Gallway, as per correspondence in The Times (dated 3 June 1903) that is long remembered today:

“I am delighted with the suggestions made… that all pedestrians shall be legally empowered to discharge shotguns at all motorists who may appear to them to be driving to the common danger.” 

Gilbert even suggested the size of shot be humanely restricted to No. 8 or No. 9! He argued it would be a “speedy and effective punishment” and would also “supply dwellers on popular highroads a comfortable increase of income.” As well as stating that “”Motor shooting for a single gun” would appeal strongly to the sporting instincts of the true Briton” that would provide ample compensation for the annoyance caused by these “enemies of mankind.”

The only fly in the ointment

However, Gilbert was also quick to point out the plan’s obvious shortcomings – before passing the solution-finding element of this back to Sir R, Payne-Gallway:

“The only difficulty that occurs to me is as to who shall undertake the rather delicate job of stopping the motor (tearing along at perhaps 35 to 40 miles an hour) after the motorist has been killed or disabled.”

Alas, presenting a rather large fly in the ointment for the non-motorists of the day!

Get your latest news updates here!
Subscribe to our email list and be amongst the first to get the latest news, entertainment alerts and special offers.
Please have a look at our Privacy Policy for more information on how we use your personal data.

Share this post!