Horse v Car

In 1904 there were 23,000 cars on Britain’s roads but more than a million horses pulling carts and carriages commercially. It was not until the 1930’s that motorised vehicles became more commonplace than horse-drawn vehicles.

The motor-car was initially despised by carters. It was regarded as a plaything of the rich. A court case in 1915 involving the owner of a Daimler car and a famer from Kelland Barton Farm, Lapford, highlights the disdain and distrust that existed. The motorist, a William Packer of Exeter, was suing for £15 damages to his car, whereas the farmer, James Vicary, was looking for £1 damages to his cart.

The cart was being driven between Copplestone and Lapford by James’ young farmhand, John Crooke, who stopped on the right-hand side of the road for a chat with a farmer over a hedge. The Daimler approached and attempted to overtake the stationary cart just as John finished his chat and was pulling back to the left-hand side. The two vehicles collided.

The driver claimed to have sounded his horn, but this was disputed by witnesses. The defence lawyer criticised the car for travelling at an excessive speed of 20mph. He described the attempt to overtake the cart as “a bit of fancy driving”.

Some of the witness evidence proved to be quiet amusing and highlights the extent to which cars were still an unexpected presence on rural roads:

Judge: Why didn’t you look up before starting your horse.
John: I only stopped for a minute and a half and there was nothing coming when I stopped (Court laughter)

The questioning of the defence witness, an elderly farmer, proved even more amusing:

Witness: The car passed as fast as a flying machine.
Judge: Have you ever seen a flying machine?
Witness: No (Court laughter)
Judge: ….  and did you actually see the car?
Witness: No (Loud court laughter)
…..I looked over the hedge a moment before the smash and there was no car so the car must have been going fast

Judge: And how long was this moment between seeing no car on the road and the smash.
Witness: 3 minutes (Loud court laughter)

There was little precedent for determining blame in road accidents. Matters that would be quickly settled through insurance companies today, were taken before public juries who inevitably had differing opinions on rights and wrongs of motorised vehicles. In the case of William Packer v the Kelland Barton carter, the jury were undecided and the case was dismissed.


In Europe a war was raging. Within a year petrol was rationed and prices doubled on the introduction of petrol tax. There was little call on the chauffering services of William Packer and his Daimler. The cart driver, John Crook, is named as a casualty on Lapford War Memorial. He was missing for 8 months, presumed dead.