London Installed The UK's First Parking Meters In 1958, And Minutes Later Traffic Wardens Were On The Scene

Last Updated 29 May 2024

London Installed The UK's First Parking Meters In 1958, And Minutes Later Traffic Wardens Were On The Scene

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Black and white image of a car next to a meter
A small car in a massive parking spot in 1958. Image: Future Publishing via British Newspaper Archive

Towards the end of the 1950s, there were some five million cars on Britain's roads, many of them clogging up central London.

The capital had long been tackling the ascension of the motorcar: the world's first multi-storey car park opened on Denman Street in 1901, and by the 1930s underground car parks were a thing at high-end hotels like the Adelphi. Towards the dawn of the sixties, though, new methods were being devised to deter motorists from cluttering the pavements (and to make some cash in the process) and one answer was an American invention from the mid 1930s.

A newspaper clipping showing the first meter being used
Image © Independent News and Media PLC. Via British Newspaper Archive

The parking meter was the brainchild of Gerald A. Hale and Professor H.G. Thuesen of Oklahoma State University, and though the UK was slow to catch on (23 years slow to be precise), when it finally did — it did so with gusto. On 10 July 1958, Britain's first parking meters made their appearance, fittingly enough, in front of the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. (Presumably staged) pictures showed a policeman mansplaining a meter to a young woman.

It was part of a trial scheme by Westminster City Council that saw a slew of meters installed in the north-west district of Mayfair, bounded by New Bond Street, Oxford Street and Park Lane. To park for an hour cost six old pence. For two, it cost a shilling. All very reasonable, although if you left your car over the allotted time, you were charged 10 shillings. "Within a few minutes of the meters scheme operating," wrote the Evening Telegraph, "attendants were attaching blue forms to the cars of erring motorists." And thus Londoners met their new nemesis: the traffic warden.

The response to the meters was mixed. The Chairman of the Car Parking Committee deemed the experiment a success, although admitted drivers had been confused by thinking they were no longer allowed to pull to the curb to pick up or drop off. Country Life magazine (and you're right, that is a strange title to be opining on parking in London), argued that that the allotted parking spaces were far too big for many cars, and that the scheme was "basically repressive". Another reporter from Belfast noted that drivers were simply avoiding the streets with meters on them, and instead, crowding onto nearby streets without them. Thieves breaking into the cash boxes were to become a blight for councils, too.

'Pay here' on top of a parking meter
The parking meter's days in London are numbered. Image: Ravi Kotecha via creative commons

Nevertheless, the idea took off in a big way. By the end of 1961, central London alone had 10,600 of the machines, while places further out like Woolwich and Croydon were investing in them too. "Parking meters have made a large contribution towards solving the traffic problems of central London," declared Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport, as the scheme was rolled out nationwide. And without the introduction of the parking meter, of course, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band wouldn't be the same album:

Parking in London these days costs slightly more than six pence an hour — indeed it's a regular cash cow for money-strapped councils. But the meter is on its way out. In 2007, Westminster City Council ripped out 2,000 cash-operated meters. Most of London's councils are now getting rid of the card payment parking machines too. With the emergence of digital parking apps from the likes of RingGo — not to mention the fact cars themselves are gradually being nudged out of central London by the likes of ULEZ and the congestion charge — there will come a day soon when a parking meter is cussed at for the very final time.

There's a great Getty photo of the parking meters in action here.