Caught by a Pocket Watch

The old Exeter-Barnstaple turnpike road saw significant changes in the 1920’s. In 1923 it had been named the A377 and there had been investment the following year in widening and rebuilding large sections. The village had its first petrol pump outside the Yeo Vale, which had become a popular stopping venue for tourists en route to Devon’s north coast.

From 1928, Lapford Cross saw the passage of more heavy vehicles—charabancs, buses, vans and lorries—following the raising of the speed limit from 12mph to 20mph, making long-distance journeys more commercially viable. With pneumatic tyres and improved suspension now commonplace, many were tempted into breaking the speed.

In 1929, a report suggested that speeding on Devon’s roads was causing significant damage and the county council faced a large repair bill. Police were asked to be vigilant and to enforce the law.

On the case was Lapford’s police constable, PC White. On 19 July 1929, he waited patiently by the side of the A377. His intention: to intercept a bus that had travelled from London. The bus had been seen speeding through Newton St Cyres at 7.14pm by a quick thinking policeman who drove into Crediton to telephone information through to Lapford police house. PC White, armed only with a pocket watch, stopped the bus at precisely 7.40pm. With a little maths, the Lapford constable calculated the driver’s average speed from Newton St Cyres. The average speed was 26mph, 6mph above the maximum limit.

It was one of the first recorded cases of a vehicle being stopped as the result of a telephone call! The incident was certainly a sign-off the times—telephone lines had only been introduced to the village two years previously.

The evidence stood up in court and the driver, a Mr R Nicholls of Edmonton, was fined £2.

75 years later, speed enforcement by average speed has had a resurgence with the introduction of average speed cameras on Britain’s roads—just a high-tech version of PC White and his pocketwatch!

The first village petrol pump installed at the Yeo Vale Hotel in the early 1920s. It was made by Gilbert & Barker in the USA and assembled in the UK.  The three metal containers to the right are a triple oil dispenser, dispensing three different grades of oil. The one to the left shows the logo for Pratt’s oil.  Pratt’s was the English trade name of Standard Oil – Standard Oil being Esso in USA (S.O.!!) and being part of the American Oil Company, who mainly used Gilbert & Barker pumps.

100 years on, today’s village petrol station still dispenses Esso fuel using modern Gilbert & Barker pumps!

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Notice of the installation of telephone lines along Lapford roads. The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 13 January 1927
Headlines from local newspapers relating to the 1929 campaign to stop the speeding of heavy vehicles on Devon’s roads