Kenneth Murchison and the 1903 Automobile Demonstration

Rosemary Bennett

The coming year will be the centenary of the 1903 London to Hertford automobile rally and local Rotary clubs plan to celebrate it. No doubt it will be a thoroughly enjoyable day but the impact on the townspeople will not be the same. In the early days of the 20th century cars were a novelty and many people were terrified of the new-fangled machines. It was to allay these fears that the original run was followed by a demonstration. To put the event into historical context this article starts with a brief outline of car development up to 1903.

The origin of the motor car dates back to 1769 when Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot of France built a steam-driven carriage. It was not at all successful and it was another 30 years before Richard Trevithick, a British engineer, designed the first steam-driven coach. It is also said that he invented the earliest form of gearbox. By the late 1820s steam coaches could comfortably match the speed of a mail coach. Sir Goldsworth Gurney was the first to commercially operate steam coaches from London to the West Country via Reading and Devizes. In 1831 Sir Charles Dance took over some of Gurney’s carriages and operated four times a day between Cheltenham and Gloucester. Some 3,000 passengers were carried in just four months. However, farmers complained that the noise upset their animals and toll gatekeepers objected to the wear and tear on the roads. In fact it was the punitive tolls that caused Gurney’s business to eventually collapse. Pressure from the railway companies, in the form of no less than 54 bills put before the British Parliament, resulted in the 1865 ‘Red Flag Act’ that decreed that no power driven vehicle should exceed 10 mph. Also all such vehicles were to be preceded by a man waving a red flag during daylight hours or a red lamp at night. The act was abolished in 1896.

Meanwhile, in France, Jean Lenoir invented the internal combustion engine This was in 1876 and it was further improved and made into a practical source of power by Nikolaus Otto, of Germany. Thereafter, it was the Germans who led the field in automobile development, in particular Daimler and Benz. In 1882, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach established a factory to improve the internal combustion engine. Karl Benz also realised that the internal combustion engine could revolutionise world transport and in 1885 he introduced a three-wheeled vehicle powered by a single cylinder engine. The following year Daimler produced the first four-wheeled road vehicle. The body, however, still resembled that of a horse-drawn carriage, but in 1886 he created a very innovative vehicle that had a metal body, belt-driven wheels, a tiller for steering and a four-speed engine. The Daimler Motoren-Gesellschaft was set up to manufacture this car that obviously had such a huge commercial potential. Daimler, producer of the Mercedes car in 1901, merged with Benz in 1926 to produce the legendary Mercedes Benz.

The 1890s was a decade of rapid growth and improvement in the car industry. However, Britain lagged behind Europe and the first cars seen on the roads in this country were imported from the continent. In 1895 Tunbridge Wells was the venue for the first motor show held in this country and the following year there was an automobile procession from London to Brighton on to celebrate the repeal of the ‘Red Flag Act’. Also in that year Daimler established Britain’s first car manufactory at Coventry. It was some years before it became independent of German control. Most of the cars produced in these early years were little more than small ‘carts’ with a rear engine placed under the seat. Within a decade the famous names of· Humber, Riley, Sunbeam, Singer, Lagonda and Napier, together with others , appeared on the scene. In France the giants were De Dion, Peugeot and Renault, while in Italy Giovanni Agnelli founded Fiat (an acronym for Fabbrica ltaliana Automobili Torino) in 1899. Another Italian brand was lsotta-Fraschini and the Italians certainly led the field when it came to sports cars. By the end of 1903 famous names also included Standard, Vauxhall and Ford. The list is by no means definitive. The rapid increase in demand for cars was primarily due to the development of the pneumatic tyre developed by Michelin for cars and Dunlop for bicycles.

All cars at this time were extremely expensive leisure toys for the well-heeled. Interest in motoring grew and clubs were founded for enthusiasts to share their pleasure and to offer assistance to fellow motorists on the road. Early cars had a habit of breaking down and rescue in the form of the AA and RAC did not exist. Automobile clubs were formed and in this way the above rescue services came into being.

One such motoring enthusiast was Hertford resident (Charles) Kenneth Murchison. In 1897 he married Evelyn Rowe and it was about this time that the couple moved to Hertford, to reside at Bengeo Lodge. Murchison immediately took an active interest in local politics and was voted on to the Borough Council to represent Bengeo in 1898. He remained on the Borough Council until 1905/6 and during this time he served on the committees for Public Health, School attendance and the Public Library; Murchison was also a Magistrate. During his period in office as Mayor of Hertford he organised an Automobile Club Rally, followed by a ‘Demonstration’.

Kenneth Murchison became a motoring devotee in 1901 after a jaunt as a passenger in a friend’s car. He was so taken with this new hobby that he promptly purchased a De Dion Voiturette for 300gns (this would have bought a modest house in Hertford at the time). He called the car Mary ”because she could be so contrary” and on an occasion, when driving through Fore Street, an elderly woman, convinced she was going to be killed by this new contraption, lay down on the road to get the matter over and done with! This gave Murchison the idea of organising a demonstration as “it was obvious that motors had come to stay” therefore ”the sooner people, and especially horses, became accustomed, the better for everyone. So on 18th May, 1903 there was a rally from London to Hertford by members of the Automobile Club, followed by a demonstration ”to prove how slowly motors could go, and how quickly they could stop,” There were various routes out of London. One was to meet outside 119 Piccadilly to travel via the Finchley Road, Tallyho Corner, Barnet and Hatfield. Eight cars set out on this route and the gathering was reported in ‘The Autocar’. A 10hp De Dion clearly caught the reporter’s attention for he lyrically described it as ”remarkably smart….with a very tasteful French limousine body.” In Hertford the vehicles were to draw up in double lines outside the Shire Hall. Altogether there were twenty-three cars with a good number of passengers. The most powerful automobile present was a 40hp Mercedes. Other makes included Daimler (there were three), Rochet-Schneider, James and Browne, Panhard, Napier and a much admired Lanchester, the owner of which had offered to perform ‘tricks’ with his car as he felt he was a particularly skilful driver. Never before had members of the Automobile Club seen so many cars gathered in one place.

At 1.30 the participants, together with county and local dignitaries, sat down to a lunch in the Shire Hall and ‘did ample justice to the cold collation. The Chief Constable for Hertfordshire, Lt. Col. Henry Daniell, who had travelled from London as a passenger in the Rochet-Schneider, gave the address. He expressed fears of the likely consequences of reckless driving advocated severe penalties for those involved in accidents and said he hoped it would not be too long before British cars were the most numerous on the road.

After lunch the vehicles were driven through the town and the ‘Demonstration’ began with comparative brake tests in Fore Street, between a car and Muchison’s own four wheeled dog-cart with his coachman,Godfrey, at the reins. A Lanchester won the first test, pulling up in 15ft 9ins. A Rochat-Schneider pulled up in 24ft 8ins, in the second test. On both occasions, the horse was left far behind, much to the chagrin of the coachman who sourly said he preferred his ”’oss”.

The next competition took place on Port Hill. After careering down the hill, all except one car pulled up within 25 yards. Kenneth Murchison, who had the Chief Constable as a passenger, wrote of Daniell ‘He looked as though we were going to shoot the rapids at Niagara.’ The one exception was the car in which Charles (later Sir Charles) Elton Longmore, Clerk to the County Council and a leading Hertford solicitor, was a passenger. It crawled down Port Hill very slowly with both brakes on! The cavalcade then moved to Hartham, where drivers were tested for their skills in manoeuvring their vehicles between and around posts laid out to make ‘a curly course.’ The cars were also driven forwards and backwards between curved white lines that had been painted on the grass.

Charles Kenneth Murchison

Charles Kenneth Murchison was born September 22nd, 1872, the son of Charles Murchison, MD, FAS of Wimpole Street London. His father was personal physician to the Duke of Connaught. Young Kenneth was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and in France and Germany. About 1905, Kenneth Murchison left Hertford. He continued as a partner in Basil Woodd* & Son until 1915 while pursuing, at the same time, a career in Parliament. Murchison stool for Parliament for the first time in 1906, as the Unionist candidate for the Stirling Boroughs but failed to get elected and, from 1907 – 11, was a member of the London County Council representing North Islington. During the 1914·18 war Murchison was with the Red Cross in France (1915) and was attached to the War Office, with Military lntelligence (1916 until 1918). Also in 1916 he became Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Thrapton Division of Northamptonshire, where he lived. Murchison was elected Union Conservative MP for East Hull from 1918 until 1922 and during this time was a member of the House of Commons Select Committee War Wealth Increase. He represented Northamptonshire from 1922 until 1929 when he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir John Baird, the Under Secretary of State at the Home Office and then to the Minister of Pensions Major Rt. Hon. G. C. Tryon. In 1927. Charles Kenneth Murchison’s work was recognised when he received a knighthood. Positions held, in connection with his home county of Northamptonshire, included that of Chairman of the Management of St. Andrew’s Hospital for Nervous and Mental Diseases; Deputy Chairman of the Quarter Sessions; Chairman of the Standing Committee and High Sheriff. He was also a member of the Order of St. John and Hon. Secretary of the Farmers Club 1795.

Kenneth Murchison’s first wife, by whom he had a daughter, died in 1937 and the following year he married Mary Crew, a widow with two sons. His book ‘The Dawn of Motoring’, written in 1942 is dedicated to his stepsons. Other works include: Account of Farmers Club 1795, pub. 1940; Family Notes and Reminiscences, 1940; and Letters to My Grandsons, 1941. He died on December 17th, 1952.

*Yes, Woodd has two ds.

This page was added on 06/01/2022.

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