On the highways and byways of West Cornwall today, all seems to be reassuringly normal. Here in Penzance there are, of course, the usual annoyances and dangers: fishcarts racing their catches to the trains, bicyclists careering round the Market House with their feet off the pedals, the winter state of the roads. By day, there are frisky horses trotting along in harness – drawing carts whose shafts can, within seconds, turn lethal and spear an innocent passer-by. By night, traction engines rumble and puff along the Promenade, and then labour up the St Just road with their train of coal-trucks.
There is one new danger we have not yet had to contend with. But it is coming. For the Local Government Board has been in touch with every corporation, reminding them that today marks the “inauguration of a new era. (That is the correct phrase to employ in such a connection, I believe.)” I refer, of course, to the age of the autocar, or - as it’s sometimes termed - the “automotor-car”(I’ve even seen it abbreviated to plain motor car”).
Until now, these machines have been subject to strict rules, designed to safeguard road users. Those who wish to flirt with the autocar have been limited to four miles per hour, and required to employ a man to precede them with a red flag. Otherwise, a £2 fine – plus costs. But today, the limit is to be 14 miles per hour. A smart pace, I’m sure you’ll agree. But the danger of the autocar is surely over-rated. After all, just consider the risks we run every day from those cart shafts, from “shieing and bolting horses”.
I’ve heard it said, rather wittily I thought, that “the rule of the road will in the future be autocracy”. And I can see that this might indeed come to pass. For it isn’t only the safety of these new machines; there is also the quiet to consider. No jangling of harness and bits; no smart clip-clop or dragging of hooves. And the people who concern themselves with cruelty to animals will doubtless be beside themselves with joy: no more bringing of prosecutions when cabmen – no doubt in fear of hardship to their families - drive their poor beasts on, despite sores or lameness.
If you were in London today, you might have seen a glimpse of the future. Seen for yourself how splendid the new electric cabs are, with their “green and gold” upholstery, “spring cushions”, and “accumulators beneath the body of the cab”, providing “sufficient electric force to drive a range of 40 miles”. And perhaps you will have been with the crowds attending the start of the Emancipation Run to Brighton. Some of the new auto-motorcars are driven by steam, apparently, and some even by oil.
But this is not London, nor is it Brighton. This is West Cornwall. Is anyone in these parts contemplating “discarding his carriage and pair or donkey shay for one of the new machines”? Perhaps not; at least, not yet. But “no doubt they will find their way down here in time, and we shall ere long talk of ‘motoring’ to Gurnard’s Head or the Land’s End quite as an every day matter”.
Things actually moved on fater than anyone could have imagined. Less than a year later, on 21st October 1897, the Cornishman reported that Henry Sturmey had completed the first Land's End to John O'Groats drive in 10 days.
Cornish Telegraph, Thursday 19th November 1896, based mainly on the Bystander column, page 6; other detail on page 2 (first London to Brighton run the “Emancipation Run”), page 5 (LGB communication)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locomotives_on_Highways_Act_1896 (accessed 28 10 2017)