The Rule of the Road

Hubert Berry was the first man in Crediton to own a car and the first to crash one!

04 June1906 was a bright, moonlit night. 36-year old Hubert Berry was on his way home from Barnstable to Crediton where he ran a long-established family business. He advertised himself as a “Builder and General Contractor, Stone and Marble Monumental Mason, Undertaker and Dealer in Building Materials”.

The business was well known and his small three-wheeler car was a boon to getting out to customers and suppliers across mid-Devon.

At about 11pm, he drove past Lapford Cross. Minutes later, moonlight shadows darkened the road as it began its short incline through Bury Wood, below Bury Barton.

Hubert saw a light ahead. It appeared to be stationary in the road and he assumed it to be a bicycle. As he began to overtake, he realised the light was a burning lantern on the back of a trap …and the trap was angled across the road! The men on the vehicle shouted and waved but there was no time to avoid a collision. Hubert’s passenger, Mr J B Lee, was thrown into the gutter and car parts were spread across the road.

The horse was being driven by a labourer, George Tucker, who was on his way home to Morchard Bishop with stepson, Ernest. The car lights had frightened his horse into the ditch forcing his trap to swing towards the middle of the road. The labourer refused to give Hubert his name and offered little sympathy: “You have got into the mess and you had better get out of it”.

Incidents like this would become commonplace during the three transitional decades from horse-drawn to motorised transport. Roads were narrow and carters often unwilling to pull to the left. Horses, used to quiet lanes, were easily frightened by motor engines. Car headlights were incompatible with carters and their horses who relied on night vision, assisted only by dim oil lamps, and moonlight.

Deciding who was to blame for an accident was often problematic. Although a system of local arbitration existed, most vehicle accident disputes went to court. In these days before insurance, the verdict could be life-changing: damage to a cart could cost the carter his livelihood; paying the repair bill of an expensive car could reduce his family to poverty. Yet, verdicts were often reached solely on the verbal evidence of those involved.

Defence lawyers usually branded any prosecuting motorist as elite, rich, “road hogs” who thought they ruled the road. It swayed most court juror’s who tended to favour traditional practices and were biased against motor-vehicles.

Hubert Berry attempted to recover £10 damages from George Tucker. He claimed, simply, that the poorly lit trap was on the wrong side of the road. The defence’s view was that the car must have been doing more than the 8mph claimed. They argued that motor car drivers, in general, believed “they had exclusive control of the road”, and that “when a car was approaching, horses and carts must get out of the way going into the nearest field”.

Hubert lost the case. The judge even suggested that George should have taken Hubert to court! He viewed that the horse was being driven slowly on the correct side of road and was naturally frightened by the car.

The Berry business benefitted from various structural works to roads that were necessary to to accommodate motor-vehicles. Soon after the court case, Hubert won a contract to replace the mediaeval Thorverton bridge with a single span reinforced concrete one: the first such construction in the county.

Hubert Berry (1868-1947)

In 1923, Hubert took on a partner. The business subsequently traded as Berry & Vincent Ltd. Hubert was the last Berry to be involved with the family business which had started in 1770. Berry & Vincent ceased trading in 2008. Their Crediton works and yard are now listed.

The empty show room of Berry and Vincent Ltd, on the main road through Crediton, by the Parish Church. The builder’s yard and family house (1 Church Street) stood behind.

From the Historic England Heritage listing:
“The firm originated in 1770, with local builder John Prawl. Prawl junior apprenticed John Berry in around 1794, and in 1803 their families were united by Berry’s marriage to Prawl’s daughter. The couple’s three sons were each apprenticed to different building trades: carpentry, plumbing and masonry, and the firm passed through successive generations, attaining large contracts for the maintenance of the county’s bridges, building a number of railway stations and bridges, as well as schools, housing and ecclesiastical buildings.

Newspaper adverts from the first years of the C20 note that they had a steam joinery works, and that they were the county’s sole supplier of ‘Ruberoid’ – an early form of roofing felt. Subsequent adverts promote ‘Berry’s bungalows and cheap cottages – fire-proof, damp-proof, and vermin-proof. Cement concrete throughout, quickly erected’. This part of the business seems to have diminished after the First World War.”