The Onlooker, October 11, 1902
We must keep up with the times, even if in so doing we move at more than fourteen miles an hour. That is the case of the Automobile Club, condensed into a sentence. And these are the arguments on which they ground their case: in the first place, the laws regulating the speed of motor-cars are out of date. They were made in 1896, and suited that year of grace very nicely. Those were the days, the idyllic, old-world days, when the speediest of motor-cars never averaged a higher rate of speed than sixteen miles an hour. Under such circumstances, to limit the legal speed to fourteen miles an hour was perfectly sensible, for a car would have to make a special effort to break the law. Now it has to make a special effort not to break the law. Now-a-days many motor-cars can do their mile a minute.
Again, the danger of speedy vehicles does not lie, as is popularly supposed, in their speed. It lies in the effect of their speed—their inability to stop at a moment’s notice—which is not a characteristic of the automobile. It is now possible to stop a car almost dead, even when travelling at three times the rate allowed by section IV. of the Act. In this lies the key of what is called the motor problem. The man in the street (especially when he is literally in the street and not on the pavement) cannot bring himself to believe that there is no danger, except, possibly, to the nerves and the temper of the automobilist, when he sees a car advancing upon him at forty miles an hour. If he could once be brought fully to grasp the fact that the car can be brought to a standstill perhaps twice as quickly as a hansom cab, he would become an instant convert, and the motor problem would be solved. After all, so long as the automobile stops, that is the main thing. It does not matter whether, until the brake was applied, it was travelling at sixty miles an hour or only six. The Automobile Club, led by Mr. Leopold de Rothschild, have reasoned all this out to their own perfect satisfaction, and they propose to institute a species of crusade, having for its object the exposure and annihilation of that inconvenient section IV. They have even, ignoring the excellent maxim which recommends that the hare should be caught before cooked, outlined the fresh regulations which will come into force when they have brought Parliament round to their way of thinking. It is in the second of these regulations that independence is formally declared. “If the weight, unladen, of a light locomotive does not exceed two tons, then the limit of speed of fourteen miles an hour provided by section IV. of the Act shall not apply, provided the locomotive is fitted with efficient brake-power.” Then a sop is thrown to the pedestrian with nerves. The present speed limit is to apply as before in cases where a light locomotive is passing through towns, villages, or crowded places, threading its way through cattle, or when the driver is not able to see that the highway, or any road or other highway joining therewith, is unobstructed for a distance of fifty yards.
Another suggestion is that in the neighbourhood of villages and at the approaches to dangerous cross-roads or corners, “warning boards” should be erected. These would be diamond shaped, green on one side, and white on the other. They would be exceedingly useful, and, in a land which tolerates the advertisement board throughout its countryside, no objection could be taken to them on the ground that they would not be ornamental. It is to be hoped that some steps will be taken towards arranging a satisfactory compromise. People who inveigh against motor-cars should remember that they are helping to kill a British industry, a thing which, in these days when there are so many professional British industry destroyers, should not be attempted by amateurs. And it must be remembered also that the abolition of section IV. would mean also the disappearance of the “police-trap.” To be able to pass a hedge or a tree and feel that there was not a policeman crouching behind it with a stop-watch would be a great boon to the lover of Nature.
The Onlooker — A Social View of Life was a chatty threepenny weekly of the bright, gossipy class that promised “to tell you all about well-known people or people who wish to be well-known.” The paper contained court, social, theatrical and sports news. It solicited “paragraphs of social news, and short sketches and anecdotes.” P.G.’s first known female editor, Mrs. Harcourt (Alice Muriel) Williamson, ran Onlooker out of her home, which was also a base for a ‘social bureau’ she operated. The ‘Harcourt’ in her professional name as editress was a pen name. One of her book projects was The Complete Cyclist in 1897, featuring contributions by various authors including herself; it was edited by B. Fletcher Robinson, then an editor at the Daily Chronicle. The paper ultimately failed and went into receivership in 1909.
The Onlooker was a curious sale for P.G., and probably the result of his meeting Alice at a social function. As well-connected as the Bowes-Lyons were (cousins to the Royal family) I suspect it may have been through them that introductions were arranged. But what resulted was not anything at all in P.G.’s vein, and from the looks of ‘Motor Movements,’ Alice commissioned him to write an editorial for her, in favor of the repeal of the 1896 automobile speed limits, an issue pushed by The Automobile Club. (Alice and her husband were enthusiastic motorists and wrote both fiction and non-fiction books centered on the automobile.) ‘Motor Movements’ is a straightforward editorial written to order, nothing more, nothing less.
maxim . . . that the hare should be caught before cooked: The catch-phrase “First catch your hare” was widely (but incorrectly) quoted as the beginning of the recipe for jugged hare in Hannah Glasse’s influential The Art of Cookery (1747).