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Case studies of nineteeth-century motorists

Harold Keates Hales (1868-1942)

was of middle-class stock: his father was a draper based in Manchester, employing 20 ‘assistants’, according to the 1871 census.

Harold had been a cycle agent in 1900, living in Burslem, Staffs. In 1900 The Autocar reported that he had been summoned for ‘furiously driving a motor tricycle to the common danger’, for which he was fined 20s plus costs.

By 1929 he was living in Calcutta, at the time when he applied to join the Circle of Nineteenth-Century Motorists. On his qualification form he records driving before 1900 an 1898 1hp Beeston Humber tricycle; and a 1897 2½hp International Benz.

He became a shipping owner and Conservative MP (1931-5) for Hanley, Staffs, and is pictured here in 1935 with the Blue Ribband Trophy that he had commissioned to be awarded to the fastest ship crossing of the Atlantic.

Sources: Image at http://www.bluebird-electric.net/the_blue_ribband.htm. The Autocar, 7 July 1900; RAC Archive qualification forms. There’s even a Wikipedia page on him. My thanks to Angie Thompson for much of this information.

Samuel Okell (1838-1932)

of Bowdon, Cheshire is (probably) the first motorist in Cheshire, driving an imported Hurtu in 1897.


The story goes that at the Paris Exhibition in 1896 he ordered his first car, a HURTU, made in France . It had a 3½hp Benz single-cylinder air-cooled engine. It was a two-seater with tiller steering, wire wheels with solid rubber tyres.

However, we know the first Hurtu wasn’t made until late 1897, when the agents were the British Motor Company in London. Samuel’s car, then, has to be an 1897 or 1898 model. Samuel's son Alec said that his father used to bet the owner of the local stables Mr Willy Owen that his Hurtu could climb the hill on Vicarage Lane in Bowdon. (We don't know if he ever did.)


Image courtesy of Mrs Carolyn Okell-Jones.

Walter Richard Randolph (b. c1881)

Walter applied to join the Circle of Nineteenth-Century Motorists on 10 January 1929 and was elected on 30 January. Being elected was a serious business - he had to provide evidence he had driven a motor vehicle prior to April 1900. 

He had driven a 4hp Panhard (1896), 1¾hp Benz (1897) and 1¼hp De Dion tricycle (1899) prior to 1900, around London and 'various parts of England', covering 3,000 miles or more. 

He identified Henry Hewetson and A.H. Pass as persons able to verify this claim.

Randolph later held driving licence #737, issued by London County Council in 1904.

Derived from the Qualification Form, held at the RAC Archive.

Here he is in a photo taken in the 1950s, supplied by Barry Blight

The Circle of Nineteenth-Century Motorists 

A starting point to create a database of who was motoring in the nineteenth century is the membership of the Circle of Nineteenth-Century Motorists. This was a dining club established in 1927 by surviving pioneer motorists and offered a means for its members to get together formally a few times a year. It was, according to its letterhead, ‘A fellowship of men who owned &/or drove a motor vehicle on the King’s Highway prior to the conclusion of the 1,000 Miles Trial of the A.C.G.B.& I. on April 15th 1900’.


Membership restricted to ‘men who owned and/or drove a motor vehicle prior to the conclusion of the Thousand Miles Trial on April 15 1900’. Evidently, there were applications from people who did not, or were suspected of not, meeting that condition (see letter to Buttemer, Nov 27 1927) and so applicants were then required to confirm this.


The Archives of the Royal Automobile Club hold a file on the Circle, which includes the ‘Qualification Forms’, that is, the application forms for about 250 people. (See http://collections.royalautomobileclub.co.uk/acq-2.1). The archive also has other records relating to the Circle, for example, http://collections.royalautomobileclub.co.uk/acq-4


Being a member of the Circle clearly conferred real gravitas, as can be seen by the number of applications which were unsuccessful – some motorists who didn’t fit the criteria clearly wanted to be members. And the cut-off date (15 April 1900) must have cruel for those whose first drive was only very shortly after that date. The application form was adapted to weed out such applications, such that a referee was required to endorse the application.


Annual membership to the Circle was £1 (1932) and the annual dinner was about half a guinea (it varied), and dinner dress was required. At these dinners members were permitted to relate reminiscences of their early motoring experiences.


It’s the entertainment that gives us a good insight into how this society celebrated. These were occasions rooted in nineteenth-century ritual, but take a look at the 1935 dinner (which I imagine was typical). Held at the Trocadero Restaurant on Piccadilly Circus on 11 November 1935, it promised a ‘special Continental turn’, which turned out to be an after-dinner cabaret presented by Alexis and Dorrano ‘from the casinos on the French Riviera’. This was a couple known as ‘adagio dancers’ and a sample of their work is on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0DVt3xbecg, a British Pathe clip from the 1934 film Danse Apache – violent and shocking. And considering the great average age of the attendees, these socials required stamina: the annual dinner in 1936 (13 November, Grosvenor House, 12s 6d or 15s for guests) was intended to go beyond midnight. Don’t forget that this was also an all-male experience (even guests had to be male – see letter to Buttemer, 6.10.36).


Photographs of some of the dinners, and actual menus, are held at the RAC archive (ACQ2/2).


The Circle of Nineteenth-Century Motorists at an annual dinner, date unknown, c1930. Photo courtesy of David Burgess Wise

The Circle lasted until 1960 when just a handful of the veterans would be left. Indeed, some veterans had expired earlier and never made the Circle, eg Frank Hedges Butler (1855–1928).


Famous names from the pioneering motoring world appeared on the 1927 organising committee of the Circle: Walter Bersey, J.S. Critchley, Ernest Instone, Charles Jarrott. The personnel changed over the years but retained a core. For example, by 1932 Sir Arthur Stanley was president, Montague Grahame-White was hon sec/treasurer; and the committee consisted of above (minus Jarrott) plus Sir Percival Perry, T.B. Browne, S.F. Edge, and Edgar Duffield. By 1936 Frederick Simms was the president, and the committee was now Jarrott, Bersey, Critchley, Duffield, Percy Richardson and Grahame-White.

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