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Road haulage - social impact

Some of those people who lived through the early part of the 20th century might have looked back on that period in later years, and remembered how road vehicles were then in their infancy. They might also have noted the subsequent rapid development of road transport, both in technical and in numerical terms, compared to ships and railways. Trade moves on the wheels of transport, and for the wheeled movement of goods the 19th century was the century of railway traffic, but, during the 20th century, the lorry could claim to have become indispensable as freight transport alongside the railways.

Development of powered road vehicles


James Watt (1736-1819) took out a patent, No 1432, Certain New Improvements upon Fire and Steam Engines and upon Machines worked or moved by the same, in which he proposes a steam carriage. However, Watt seems to have left it to others to develop steam carriages, some of whom and their vehicles are mentioned below.


Richard Trevithick (1717-1833) built a steam carriage to convey passengers, which made its first run this year. A friend of Trevithick said "… In the year 1801, upon Christmas Eve, coming on evening, Captain Dick got up steam, out in the high road, just outside the shop. When we see'd that Captain Dick was agoing to turn on the steam, we jumped as many as we could, maybe seven or eight of us. 'Twas a stiffish hill, but she went off like a little bird…etc". The shop mentioned is John Tyack's blacksmith shop where the vehicle was built.


Walter Hancock's steam carriage Automaton carried passengers on a regular route in London for three months. Hancock offered to carry the mails at 20mph (32kph).


Sir Goldsworth Gurney began experiments in 1823, and his vehicles became well-known as Gurney's steam carriages. In February 1829, he made a journey in his steam carriage from London to Bath and back again, travelling at 15mph (24kph). The double journey was 212 miles (341km) and was made at the request of the quartermaster general of the army.


The Steam Carriage Company of Scotland set up a service of steam coaches running between Glasgow and Paisley. The vehicles were built in Edinburgh by engineer John Scott Russell and became popular. However, the service was stopped when one of the coaches ran over a heap of stones and overturned, resulting in a number of fatalities.


Walter Hancock was one of the most successful of the early experimenters and between 1924 and 1840 he built eight or ten steam vehicles, which covered many thousands of miles with considerable reliability. Hancock's steam carriages carried passengers in London, and one of his vehicles was called Era (1833). However, by 1840, steam carriages had been forced off the roads by 1) high road toll charges levied by Turnpike Trusts - much higher than for horse-drawn carriages, 2) bad roads and 3) opposition to steam carriages by people who put obstacles on the roads to stop them.


The Locomotive Act reduced the tolls, but imposed a weight limit of 12 tons (12.2 tonnes) and a 10mph (16kph) speed limit, or 5mph (8kph) in cities, towns and villages.


John I Thornycroft (later Sir John) designed a steam road vehicle.


Thornycroft formed the Steam Carriage and Wagon Company, with works at Chiswick, London. However, Thornycroft gave up his road vehicle project for the next 31 years due to the unfavourable legislation and turned, instead, to shipbuilding.


The Red Flag Act was passed and required, among other things, that 1) a person should walk at least 60yds (55m) ahead of a road "locomotive", carrying a red flag to warn others of the oncoming vehicle, 2) the speed limit should be reduced to 4mph (6kph) or 2mph (3kph) in cities, towns and villages. This Act severely restricted development of mechanised road transport in the 19th century, to the detriment of British powered road vehicle development over the next three decades.


A special design of steam tractor for hauling ships' boilers was introduced, designed by John Yule, a Scotsman.


At this time, interest was developing in the petrol car. Lack of progress in the UK in this new field was no doubt due to the limiting effects of the restrictive legislation of 1865. However, Mr J H Knight of Farnham, Surrey, built the first petrol car made in the UK this year.


An Act was drawn up to ease legislation covering the use of powered vehicles, but passing it was postponed due to a change of government.


With the promise of less intrusive legislation for powered road vehicles, John Thornycroft foresaw the possibilities of mechanical road transport, and formed the Thornycroft Steam Wagon Company Limited for the design and manufacture of steam-driven vehicles. He built his first steam vehicle at the Chiswick works.


Having been postponed in 1895, an Act was successfully passed to ease legislation covering the use of powered vehicles, and it became law on 14 November. A person was no longer required to walk ahead of the vehicle, and the speed limit was raised to 14mph (22kph), although most local authorities were empowered to reduce it to 12mph (19kph).

The ramifications of the new Act were far-reaching. It "emancipated" the development of British powered road transport in 1896, by freeing it from legislative shackles, to the great benefit of the British economy in terms of the movement of goods, employment, the nation's manufacturing industry and vehicle exports. The new freedom to "motor" also created a demand for roads, associated employment and another product for our civil engineering industry. The passing of the Act was not before time, but had it been passed years earlier, then British steam road vehicles probably would have been more highly developed by 1896 than was the case. There would have been other ramifications had the Act been passed sooner, such as the earlier development of road transport giving us a more extensive road network with corresponding benefits to the British car industry, etc.

Development and impact of powered road transport 

Free of restrictive legislation, lorry production gathered pace. Within three years of completing their first vehicle, Thornycroft's Chiswick manufacturing shops could no longer cope with demand for the firm's steam lorries, and the company established a factory at Basingstoke in 1898. Other British firms started building road-going commercial vehicles to meet the increasing demand for road transport, e.g. Albion, Dennis, Foden, Sentinel, Garrett, Leyland, Maudslay and Vulcan. More firms joined in later on.

Such was the demand for lorries, that Thornycroft, for example, decided to stop producing upmarket cars in 1912 in order to devote all its manufacturing capacity to building lorries and other heavy vehicles. In 1916, the firm published a list of some of its petrol vehicle users in the UK. The list, summarised above, includes lorries, vans and buses and is incomplete due to space limitations, nevertheless the sheer variety and number of customers indicate the national importance of lorry transport by 1916, and it should be remembered that the figures are for just one of a number of lorry manufacturers serving the UK market.

Such was the expansion of British road transport, that by late 1924 commercial vehicle numbers had grown from 1,000 in 1903 to more than 300,000, a creditable 300 per cent growth in 21 years. Approximately 30,000 of these vehicles were steam-powered, 2,000 were electric, but the vast majority were petrol-powered in that pre-diesel age. In 1924, commercial road transport in the UK employed 64,000 more people than the whole of the country's railways, and the nation's 300,000 vehicles represented a capital of about £205,000,000, which, allowing for the differences in monetary values, is an impressively large sum. Some of the UK's stock of vehicles also represented manufacturing work for the British lorry industry.

By 1926, the market for commercial transport vehicles resulted in around 40 British manufacturers offering petrol-driven vehicles. In addition, British manufacturers competed not only with each other, but also with products sold on the British market from over 30 foreign firms! Incidentally, no diesel vehicles were then listed for the British market, they would come later.

At the coming-of-age banquet of the Commercial Motor Users Association held in November 1924 a major concern was the adequacy our roads, an issue which exercised minds 80 years ago no less than today. Sir William Joynson Hicks, Bt., MP, claimed that the Association had lobbied effectively for "the road to fit the vehicle" rather than vice versa. However, he added that there was still a great need for further improvement, and suggested that the increase in road fund taxation from £8,000,000 to £16,000,000 a year "calls for - should I say - a little mild agitation on our part"! Sir William also suggested, with considerable accuracy, that "we have barely touched the fringe of what road traffic will be in the next 20 or 30 years". This farsighted comment was, no doubt, inspired by extrapolating the considerable expansion made over the previous two decades. He went on to say, "I am bound to confess that the roads of England today are not properly adapted, are not big enough, are not wide enough or straight enough for the road traffic that is coming upon them in the next few years. We want to make transport cheaper, quicker and more effective in order that it shall be the great handmaiden of trade in this country, and contribute to the increasing prosperity of our land."

Alderman W G Lobjoit, vice-president of the CMUA, was also exercised by the road issue, and recognised the importance of taking a national approach to road building. He said "the Ministry of Transport has been one of the milestones in the development (of roads) over the last 21 years, and road-making 21 years ago was an entirely parochial affair; none thought of looking upon it from a national standpoint. However, there are still long stretches of tortuous roads which are dangerous for modern traffic and we are hoping that the measure of progress attained in the past will be accelerated". The response to such concerns led to improved roads over the decades, culminating with our present-day network of motorways which started with the M1 in 1959.

Col R E Crompton, past president of the CMUA, was thinking along the lines of what we now call integrated transport, when he said "the Ministry of Transport has been instituted to deal with the whole question of transport. It is absurd to have jealousies between railways, roads and waterways. All must work harmoniously together for good of country". The issue of integration of resources on a number of issues is also relevant today.


Some heavy vehicle users 1916

User group

Number of users in group

Government departments




Corporations & local authorities


Passenger carrying companies


Bakers, millers, corn & seed merchants


Box manufacturers






Chemical manufacturers


Co-operative societies






Express carriers & contractors




Furniture manufacturers & dealers


Gas companies


Grocery, sweet, provision & allied trades


Jute spinners


Laundries & cleaners


Leather merchants


Manufacturing chemists


Mineral water manufacturers


Oil, colour & timber merchants


Oil refineries


Paper manufacturers & stationers


Textile industry


Whiskey distillers & wine & spirit merchants



Total 329