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Walk this way

Simon Abernethy examines a curious solution to the rise in interwar traffic accidents.

… I saw a letter the other day from an indignant gentleman who said he walked where he liked. He intimated that this was a free country and he had every right to walk where he liked. If he walks off the pavement in Oxford Street he will be killed to a certainty

[Earl of Mayo, 1922].

After the Great War London was suffering a crisis; the number of traffic accidents was rising steadily. In 1924 Sidney Webb, then President of the Board of Trade, claimed that you were statistically safer working in a coal mine than you would be walking on the streets of the Metropolis. In that year 700 people were killed in traffic accidents, and a further 72,000 pedestrians injured, a 52 per cent increase on the rate in 1922. The solution, according to some, was a simple one. Force pedestrians to walk on the left hand side of the pavement.

One of the chief proponents of this idea was Lord Newton, President of the London Safety First Council. The walk on the left rule he proclaimed did ‘…not originate with cranks and fanatics, but is put forward by business people representing transport, such as the tramway and omnibus companies, and people of that nature.’ Newton argued that people walking on the right hand side of the pavement couldn’t see the oncoming traffic behind them. Consequently, they were more likely to accidently step out in front of vehicles. If they walked on the left, this problem was avoided. Newton’s campaign was partially successful. In July 1922 some forty London authorities began to display signs requiring that pedestrians walk on the left, but if Newton thought his battle was won, he was in for a shock.

The City Commissioner of Police, in charge of the City of London, decided that actually people were safer walking on the right. Newton was furious, proclaiming ‘I think this gentleman would have been an official after the heart of the late President Kruger, who was under the impression that the earth was flat.’ But the Commissioner’s view held a good deal of respect and was adopted by the boroughs of Stepney and Chelsea. So now in some boroughs people had to walk on the left and in others the right. The mix of regulations was bewildering, as one example Newton gave demonstrated.

It appears that pedestrians crossing Richmond bridge are invited by overhead placards to keep to the right, whereas there is chalked upon the pavement an invitation to walk on the left. Surely this is an absurd and ridiculous state of which I do not think you could find in any other civilised country.

Given the contradictions the two authorities with the most power of enforcement, the London County Council and the Metropolitan Police, decided it best to leave the whole business well alone, weakening Newton’s proposals.

There were also more practical considerations. When the walk left regulations first appeared in 1922 The Time noted

Unfortunately, the first days of the new rule coincided with the first days of the summer sales, and the call of windows full of marked-down garments was difficult to resist; and it is hard to remain on the left when that may mean missing a bargain on the right.

Newton himself remarked,

I admit that there is one section of the population to which all appeals and exhortations would be perfectly useless – I allude, of course, to those females of all ages who congregate in solid masses in front of the great drapers’ shops, and upon whom, probably, no means of persuasion short of machine guns or tanks would have any effect at all.

Indeed, it seemed that walking on the left was contrary to the nature of the English. Lord Teynham noted

I may say that I have had letters from a gentleman who writes to me, not without heat, indeed somewhat intemperately, saying that he would prefer to die in prison rather than walk on the left instead of the right.

The desire to walk on the right hand side was later described in a letter to The Times in 1935 as ‘the habit of the nation.’ Newton’s good intentions were floundering. In 1924 he tried to get the Ministry of Transport to add its backing behind his proposals. The response was positive but non-committal.

Ultimately Newton’s campaign was missing the broader point. Why was the accident rate rising? The answer was more likely linked to the actions of the burgeoning number of motorists. Until 1934 there was no driving test, so poor driving was almost endemic. Speeding was a major problem which the Metropolitan Police found difficult to tackle. To obtain a prosecution the police had to give definite evidence which involved timing a car over a specific distance with a stop watch, which was often impractical. The Earl of Mayo complained in 1924

I often go out to buy newspapers on Sunday morning, and I find that you cannot judge of the pace at which a modern motor car is travelling. If you are not very careful, and if the sun is in your eyes, you will find yourself in hospital “and wake up dead” as they say in my country.

But improvements were happening. In 1935 the first pedestrian activated traffic lights were introduced in Trafalgar Square. However, other ideas were less successful, like police giving instructions to pedestrians through a loudspeaker mounted on a police van in 1936.

Ultimately the walk on the left campaign was only marginally successful. In 1935 there was an attempt to introduce it into the Highway Code, though, as one writer to The Times pointed out, there was no reason why any substantial number of pedestrians would read it. A further complication was that when walking on a road without a pavement pedestrians were required to walk on the right hand side towards oncoming traffic. Another writer to The Times argued ‘the inversion confuses. “I cannot remember,” said a Swedish peasant, “whether my wife said I was to take two glasses and come home by 10, or 10 glasses and be home by two.’ It wasn’t a complete failure, however. The current Highway Code requests pedestrians on the pavement to avoid walking on the kerbside with their back to traffic, effectively a suggestion to walk on the left. Despite this, it would seem the nation’s pedestrians remain of the inclination, so often remarked upon in the 1920s and 30s, to walk however they please.

About Simon Abernethy

Simon Abernethy

Simon Abernethy is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge studying the relationship between social class and commuting in London. He also makes a mean pear cake.

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