Friday, 5 February 2016

Blackout peril: 'My car skidded almost into the shop windows!'

Road accidents rocketed during WW1 blackouts
You may think 'angry motorists' are a modern phenomenon, to be found only on our fast and overcrowded 21st century roads - but nothing could be further from the truth.

Drivers have been getting worked up behind the wheel for as long as cars have been around, although a hundred years ago it wasn't traffic queues, or roadworks, or speed cameras that were causing annoyance. Rather, it was night-time blackouts that were making conditions hazardous.

Blackouts were imposed all over the country when Zeppelin airships began dropping bombs on Britain during the Great War. Street lighting was reduced, lit windows had to be covered, and the use of headlights on cars was banned. 'Only the small lamps could be used, but dimmed so that they could just merely be seen, not bright enough to cast light on the road,' wrote Maude Boucher, a Bristol mother who kept a journal throughout the Great War.

Unsurprisingly, the number of road accidents rocketed. The Times reported 22 people killed on London streets in the first week of 1916 alone. Tellingly, that number fell to 15 during the second week, when there was a succession of moonlit nights.

According to Maude Boucher, many people developed 'a stay-at-home habit' as a result of the blackout 'because they were too nervous to travel in cars or taxi-cabs.' Those who did venture out often returned somewhat shaken, as the following indignant letter, published on 16 February, 1916 in the Bristol Evening Times and Echo, reveals:
Whilst driving my car from Kingswood to the city on Sunday night, I received one of the worst shocks to my nerves I have experienced. The night, you will remember, was wet and very dark, so dark that with the small lights we are are now permitted, it was impossible to travel at anything but a slow pace, which was fortunate for me, as on nearing Lawrence Hill Bridge I found myself, before I could see it, within a few feet of the first tram standard of a section that are placed in the centre of the road. 
I missed it by inches only, and my car skidded almost into the shop windows on the other side. This is a grave danger to all users of the road that exists in numerous parts of the city, and I suggest that whilst reduced lighting orders are necessary, and in force, whoever controls the standards should have the end ones of each section painted white, or a danger lamp hung on him.
The offending tram standards at Lawrence Hill
Signed simply 'ONE WHO JUST MISSED' the letter was one of many little gems I discovered while writing my book Bristol in the Great War and it prompted me to have a look through my old Bristol photos to try and locate the scene of the near-miss. This turn-of-the-century photo (right) shows the bridge at Lawrence Hill with solid tram standards ranged down the middle of the road. It was probably one of these that our unfortunate correspondent 'missed by inches'!

It wasn't just roads that were hazardous in the dark, open water could prove lethal too, as I discovered while researching Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War. Weymouth harbour was always busy at night, with pubs packed around Hope Square, and during the Great War the area was particularly popular with convalescing Australian servicemen who were stationed in Weymouth. The sight of tipsy Aussies toppling into harbour after one too many beers often provided amusement for locals – until tragedy struck.

One stormy night in January 1916, the body of an Australian soldier was pulled from the harbour and carried into the nearby George Inn, where for over an hour efforts were made to revive him, to no avail. The inquest into the death of Private Herbert Butterworth, 33, heard that he had not been drinking and the accident was more likely to have happened because the harbour was in darkness, due to military lighting restrictions.
Weymouth harbour at the turn of the century

During the next nine days, three more bodies were pulled from the harbour: a New Zealand soldier and two locals, a servant girl, and a seaman. Once again, poor lighting was blamed. At one of the inquests a juror exclaimed: ‘It is bad enough for townspeople but what must it be like for the thousands of military men, strangers, who come to the town?’

The coroner had some stern words too: ‘I think our harbour has been very, very dangerous lately. It is not the town. It is the military authorities who have given us instructions to put the lights out.’ As a result, the lighting around the harbour was improved.

No comments:

Post a Comment