Rex Needle: Final days when Bourne was free of the motor car

Bourne market place in 1904. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115427001
Bourne market place in 1904. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115427001
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Imagine the town without a single motor car, no confusing signs cluttering the pavements, no white and yellow lines splattered along the roadside and no problems with parking.

This was the scene in Bourne a century ago, one of peace and tranquillity, when horse-drawn carts and carriages were the only traffic.

Dr Gilpin and passenger in his car in Church Walk, Bourne. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115449001

Dr Gilpin and passenger in his car in Church Walk, Bourne. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115449001

We have an indication of what it was like from a photograph taken in 1904 showing the market place, or the town centre as we know it today, completely deserted, devoid of any traffic whatsoever.

The only sign of life is a lone figure standing in the middle of the road – a foolhardy thing to do today – most likely someone employed as the town’s street sweeper, because an unattended push-cart containing brushes can be seen next to the gas lamp on the left.

Today, the same spot is a busy intersection of two main trunk roads, often congested by cars, vans and lorries, and always dangerous unless using the pedestrian crossings.

Yet despite this peaceful scene from yesteryear, indications of what was to come were becoming evident because our leading citizens had already begun buying motor cars.

The only sign of life is a lone figure standing in the middle of the road.

The first appears to have been Dr John Gilpin (1864-1943), a family doctor with his home and surgery at Brook Lodge in South Street, a man who was passionate about the motor car.

He was often seen driving around at the wheel of his Peugeot, later a Gregoire, sometimes with his wife or another companion in the front passenger seat, and occasionally the family nanny, Jessie Moore, a local girl in her early twenties.

Dr Gilpin joined the Lincolnshire Automobile Club which had been formed in 1900, one of the oldest motoring organisations in the country and still in existence as the Lincolnshire Louth Motor Club after amalgamation in 1976.

The club had 91 members within two years and by 1914 the figure had risen to 322, one in every six of them being a doctor; professional men who could afford such a luxury.

Bourne market place in the present day. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115438001

Bourne market place in the present day. Photo: Rex Needle. EMN-150818-115438001

Regular driving competitions were held and Dr Gilpin’s major motoring feat was in 1905 when he won a silver medal awarded by the club for completing a 100-mile non-stop run in one of the first Peugeot cars.

In 1904, he read a paper to members outlining the economics of motoring, giving some facts concerning car ownership based on his own experience.

He estimated that if £25 a year were spent on tyres, 6,000 miles of motoring would be possible in that period.

Allowing for 15 shillings (75 pence) as a weekly wage for a man to look after the car and also to do the work in the garden, and various other odd jobs, then reckoning the further expense of petrol, clothes, accumulators, licences and repairs, Dr Gilpin estimated the cost of his motoring worked out at 3½ pence a mile [92p at today’s values].

This contrasted favourably with horse transport, for in earlier days, when the doctor had relied on that, it had cost him sixpence a mile.

He paid £200 for the vehicle itself and in his opinion, each year would see more uniformity in the types of cars while depreciation would be limited to the wear and tear of tyres.

He was right about the increase in the different car models, although motoring expenses overall appear to be much higher today.

Dr Gilpin’s friend was another early owner, Thomas Mays (1856-1934) who lived at Eastgate House.

He was a businessman, magistrate and chairman of Bourne Urban District Council, but better known as the father of international racing car driver and designer, Raymond Mays, who from the age of five or six, accompanied his father on business trips by car and later, on the hill climbs and speed trials in which his father competed.

The two were particularly successful in the club’s speed trials held at Grimsthorpe Park in March, 1910, when Mays won the Newsum Challenge Cup for the third time and therefore the trophy became his property.

He was driving a De Dion and Dr Gilpin took second place with his new Gregoire.

This vehicle became his prized possession and anyone who damaged it did so at their peril.

On one occasion, he sued a local farmer after one of his milk floats had run into it, winning his claim for £6 compensation in the county court at Bourne to pay for repairs.

Early motoring around Bourne is full of similar incidents that reflect the dangers of the motor car on streets made for the horse and cart, and a public unfamiliar with their speed and size.

They frequently frightened the animals, and although many of these accidents would be classed today as minor, they excited tremendous interest at the time and were a portent of things to come.

Thus began our love affair with the motor car and what was once a private passion has become a national obsession because there are now an estimated 35 million vehicles on Britain’s roads.

Unfortunately their development has not kept pace with the numbers, particularly in rural areas, and small market towns such as Bourne have suffered as a result through the absence of a bypass.

A busy trunk road runs through the centre, with the result that South Street and North Street take all the north-south through traffic on the main A15.

Successive local authorities must bear much of the blame for they are the decision makers over such vital issues as new roads and Bourne has not been well served.

An A15 bypass would have helped solve our problem and although it was first suggested more than 100 years ago when the motor car was beginning to make an appearance in the town, nothing was done then or has been since.

Twenty years ago there appeared to be a possibility that Bourne would get a bypass when the project was actually included in Lincolnshire County Council’s forthcoming programme for new highways with a completion date of October 1995.

But the optimism was short-lived because it was later axed when the Government drastically pruned its road building programme.

Since then the scheme has never even been considered, and it is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future – which makes the photograph above from 1904 all the more poignant.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.