London's First Motor Crashes

By M@ Last edited 76 months ago
London's First Motor Crashes

Continuing our series looking at some of the grimmer chapters in London's history.

First person killed by a motor car

Bridget Driscoll holds the unenviable distinction as the first pedestrian to be killed by a car in the UK. The incident did not happen on a major road, but within Crystal Palace Park. Nor was the vehicle travelling at any great speed by modern standards — supposedly just 4mph.


On 17 August 1896, Mrs Driscoll, aged 44, was out for a stroll with her daughter May and her friend Elizabeth Murphy. While crossing Dolphin Terrace, a now-vanished road within the park, she was struck and killed by a motorised vehicle belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company.

The inquest offered two different versions of events. May Driscoll claimed that the driver had been following an erratic course, and shouted no warning. May had spotted the vehicle in time and stepped out of the way to avoid it. Her mother was struck, despite raising an umbrella in warning. One witness testified that the motor had been travelling "as fast as a bicycle". Another described the vehicle's progress "as fast as a fire-engine — in fact, as fast as a horse can gallop".

Testimony from Edith Standing, a domestic servant riding in the car, didn't quite match up. She claimed the driver, Arthur James Edsall (20), had shouted 'Stand back' and rang his bell. "Two of the three persons rushed to the left of the car, but the deceased woman seemed to lose her presence of mind, and hesitated which way to turn." Startled, like a rabbit caught in headlights, Mrs Driscoll was mowed down and killed.

The final verdict was accidental death, with no negligence on the part of the driver. Nevertheless, the Crystal Palace Company, owners of the estate and Mr Edsall's employers, agreed to pay the cost of the funeral. A further fatality occurred the following year when a child was crushed by a motor vehicle in Hackney.

By way of footnote, the name Bridget Driscoll seems to attract peculiar fates. A lady of the same name died of blood poisoning in Cardiff in 1933 after pricking her finger with a pin.

The first driver killed in an accident


A plaque in Harrow-on-the-Hill records the country's first motor accident that was fatal to the driver. As shown in the photo above, the incident occurred on 25 February 1899. Curiously, the plaque does not record the name of the unfortunate motorist, nor the circumstances. It is perfectly placed to distract passing motorists. It is also mistaken — this was not Great Britain's first fatal accident. An all-round rubbish plaque, then.

But still, let's look at what happened here. The incident involved a 'waggonette' motor vehicle, perhaps similar to this 1898 Daimler.

Image by Clive Barker under Creative Commons licence.

The vehicle contained a party of gentlemen connected with the Auxiliary Army and Navy Stores, out on an experimental run up and down Harrow Hill. They reached the top without incident, but came a-cropper on the downward journey. According to a local press report, "While the car was going down Grove Hill at a high speed the front wheel collapsed, and the occupants were violently thrown out." The driver, Edwin Root Sewell (31), died instantly. A passenger called Major Ritche died later from a fractured skull and a further four passengers received minor injuries.

This may well be the first double fatality in a car crash, but it was not the first to kill a driver. The following smash occurred on 12 February 1898, over a year before the Harrow accident:

(c) The British Library Board.

Henry Lindfield's son, who was also in the car, escaped without injury. The story is told in greater depth on this Lindfield family history page.

See also: our series on London's forgotten disasters, and our disaster map.

Last Updated 30 October 2017