The County Car, 1902-1906

on Friday, 14 January 2022. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

December 1903 saw the introduction of the Motor Car Act. A requirement of the new act meant that owners of existing and new vehicles had to register their motor vehicles with the local authority. Under the act, each registered vehicle was assigned a registration number, which had to be displayed at the front and the back of the car. This caused many car owners to complain, who felt they were being treated as if they drove Hackney carriages. The first car to appear in the newly opened vehicle register was a vehicle not owned by a wealthy landowner, as you may expect, but was, in fact, owned by Wiltshire County Council. This vehicle was purchased in 1902 and was used for official county business; in effect was the County Car.

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“AM-1 was registered on the 12th of December 1903 to Wiltshire County Council, Charles Septimus Adye, the County Surveyor, County Offices, Trowbridge. 10hp Benz Parsifal; four seated tonneau body, painted blue with yellow lines; 17¾cwt; County purposes”.

Charles Adye was born in Bradford-on-Avon in February 1841. Unlike his brothers and father, who were doctors, Charles studied architecture. He became the Bradford-on-Avon town surveyor and registrar of births and deaths and the County Surveyor for Wiltshire in January 1887. He lived at Westbury House, St. Margaret’s Street, Bradford-on-Avon. Westbury House was a former clothier’s mansion with three storeys and a basement built in the early part of the 18th century. His salary was £600 per year, plus £300 for travelling expenses.

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The County Council began to consider purchasing a motor car for its officers in 1902. In October of that year, the County Surveyor, Charles Adye, presented a report to the Finance, Law and Parliamentary Committee. His report contained the cost of purchasing a motor car, the annual expenditure for maintenance and the running cost. It was thought that a reliable, easy to manage four seated car that could travel up to twenty miles an hour on the level was required. The report contained a memorandum reviewing the question of the most suitable type of motor car in detail and deciding firmly in favour of a 6 H.P. steam, four seated car, made by the French firm, Gardner-Serpollet, priced at 285 guineas. Charles wrote to them to ask for the running cost of this motor car. Their reply was duly reported to the Finance Committee, that the running cost would be £10 to £15 per annum for a 6hp (¾ d per mile), plus 30 shillings per week wages for an experienced driver.

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The County Council did not act upon the recommendations but arranged to purchase an 8 H.P. double-cylinder Benz-Parsifal for £400, the equivalent to £50,000 in today’s terms. French-born Marius Barbarou designed the car. It came in several sizes, from a 952cc single-cylinder to a 588cc four-cylinder. They were shaft or chain-driven depending on the size of the engine. Unfortunately, they did not perform well, with only 172 sold in 1903. The chosen model was a two-cylinder model that was shaft driven. It had a top speed of 35-40 km per hour, 22-25 miles per hour. It was fitted with a tonneau body, which meant that it had rear seats accessed via a door at the vehicle's rear. Additional costs included the use of a lock-up in the Swan Yard, Bradford-on-Avon, charged £8 per annum, and thirty shillings per week for the services of a skilled driver.

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Wiltshire taxpayers were concerned about the cost of running a motor car, one anxious ratepayer complained to the editor of The Wiltshire Times, in June 1903 about the cost of the Benz, he wrote:

‘I was astounded to read of the enormous sum spent on the County Council car during the last twelve months; compared with my own experience with a higher power car, it seems almost incredible. Believing as I do that a motor car is an ideal mode of conveyance for a County Council Surveyor, I trust that the Council will look at the earliest opportunity to effect a sale of the present machine and purchase a suitable and up-to-date car for the use of the County Surveyor’. The Wiltshire Times, Saturday, June 10th, 1905.

Unfortunately, the following month saw the car involved in a fatal accident in Warminster. The accident was reported in The Wiltshire Times on Saturday, July 1st, 1905. The accident occurred in East Street, on Tuesday evening at 6.30. The car, driven by Ernest Albert Doddington, of 15 Budbury Place, Bradford-on-Avon, chauffer to Charles Adye, County Surveyor, who was the only person in the car, knocked down a ‘feeble’ old woman, Sarah Whatley, widow, aged 83, a resident of 24 East Street. She was taken to the house of Dr Partridge in Market Place, then taken back to her home in East Street, where she died within an hour of the accident. Eyewitnesses said it was not the driver’s fault, who was driving at a moderate speed, and immediately stopped and rendered assistance. Sarah was said to be fit for her age and was not deaf. One eyewitness, Thomas Hankey, a postman, said Ernest was driving at about six miles per hour. Thomas stated that Sarah stopped in the road within a few paces of the pavement. He did not notice any horn sound, although another eyewitness, Thomas Bellew, did hear Ernest’s horn and shout to Sarah. Ernest applied the brake, stopped, and jumped out. Ernest stated he was driving at about five to six miles per hour.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict of accidental death, and Ernest was exonerated of all blame.

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However, the Benz could not have been satisfactory because, one month after the accident, the Finance, Law and Parliamentary Committee recommended that the County Council sell the vehicle ‘having regard to the continued expenditure in connection with the present motor car.’ Therefore, it was advertised for sale and was eventually sold in early 1906 for £50.

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In 1908, AM-1 was reissued to a 14-20hp Siddeley with tonneau body; it had a cape cart hood, brass fittings and was painted pansy pink, picked out with thin white lines. It was owned by Hoël Llewellyn, the Chief Constable of the Wiltshire Constabulary. Although the car was registered for private use, the address he used was Constabulary Headquarters, Devizes.

Charles died only one year later, in July 1906, aged 65, while still in service for Wiltshire County Council. He is buried in the cemetery at Bradford-on-Avon.

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor

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