AA founded as ‘speed trap’ foiler; spotters were cyclists


Today we tend to think of the Automobile Association as a roadside rescue organisation with a penchant for pro-car PR. However, for much of its early history it was a radical campaigning organisation, a thorn in the side of the Government. It was founded with the express aim of defeating police speed traps and used cyclists as the ‘scouts’.


A glimpse into the early history of the AA is shown in the wonderfully evocative video below from the AA’s archives. The video is fronted by Sir Stenson Cooke who was the AA’s Secretary from 1905 until his death in 1942. He was knighted in 1933 but by this time the AA was embedded into society – now a car-owning society – and the AA was nowhere near as radical as when it was founded.

Cycling shares some history with the AA. In effect, the organisation was helped into existence by cyclists. In March 1905 a motorist called Walter Gibbons wrote to Autocar magazine suggesting a Motorists’ Protection Association for the Prevention of Police Traps. Two other motorists replied saying arrangements had been made to patrol the Brighton road to warn motorists of said police traps. The first patrols went out in April 1905. Guess what they used as patrol vehicles? Yep, bicycles.


Within months, this informal arrangement of a “special staff of cyclists” was formalised into an organisation and it appointed a full-time secretary, Stenson Cooke. This organisation was called the Automobile Association.

The AA relied on cycle scouts for some years. According to the AA, the organisation’s famous badge was “introduced simply to help the scouts identify AA members.”

Early AA cycle scouts used their own bicycles, for which they were paid an allowance. Before the introduction of uniforms in 1909, the scouts had to provide their own clothing too.


By 1912 there were 950 AA cycle scouts across the UK. The motorcycle patrols, known as Road Service Outfits or ‘RSOs’, weren’t created until 1919. By 1923 there were 274 AA motorbike patrols but still 376 cyclists.

bike patrols

The video above shows how cyclists were paid to be speed-trap spotters. It also shows how, before motoring became mainstream, it was a loathed activity: rich motorists were guilty of raising dust and damaging roads. I’m currently researching the history of British road improvements, especially in the years 1910-1937. This was the span of the Road Fund, the pot of cash raised from motorists from when a ‘road tax’ existed. Only a small fraction of this fund helped pay for Britain’s roads, something I explore on my campaigning website iPayRoadTax.com.

It’s worth pointing out that Professor Edmund King, today’s president of the AA, is an active cyclist.

And the AA has a team of cycle-based breakdown patrols to tackle traffic chaos at big events such as Wimbledon or Glastonbury.


Ray LaHood, John the Scorcher, some bloomers and a bunch of brigands

When US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood promised “we are holding Toyota’s feet to the fire” over the recent accelerator-pedal car recall I’m pretty sure he didn’t know there was a back-story to this fiery phrase, and that – via the word chauffeur and some feet-toasting bad ‘uns – it relates to motoring, and can even be linked to cycling.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word chauffeur means stoker, from chauffer ‘to heat’, which in turn is from Old French, chaufer ‘to heat, rub with the hands to make warm’ whence we get a word familiar to cyclists: chafe. Its meaning “to make sore by rubbing” was current by the 1500s.

Both the Online Etymology Dictionary and Wikipedia link the word chauffeur to stoker:

“The earliest automobiles, like their railroad and sea vessel counterparts, were steam-powered and required the driver to pre-heat the engine to produce energy, thus, the French term for stoker was adapted.”

But, as with many words, there can be other derivations and there’s perhaps a good case for an earlier definition to be used. The online archive of Popular Science magazine is a fascinating time-sink. And this morning I found the following definition of the word chauffeur, from the June 1918 issue of PopSci:

“It seems that the word chauffeur means ‘scorcher’. Over a century ago, some particularly brigandish brigands lived on the borderland between France and Germany. To force ransoms from their captives, these desperadoes grilled the soles of their victims’ feet before a fierce fire. So the countryfolk referred to the band as scorchers or, in French, chauffeurs.

“Not so many years back, when these same imaginative French were in need of a descriptive name for motor-car drivers, they hit upon the word chauffeur. Just how much ‘scorching’ of a more modern kind these up-to-date brigands of the road indulge in is best divulged by police records of fines for speeding.”

So, an early word for ‘motorist’ – before it morphed into its current servile meaning – was chauffeur, and this was linked to a word for speeding.

As with many things motoring, bicycle riders got there first. Scorching might have been used of speeding motorists by 1918 but it was used earlier than this for bicycle boom riders of the 1880s-1890s. Scorchers were riders who wanted to go fast, and bicycles were advertised by manufacturers as ‘scorchers’.

In an American book on ‘how to bicycle’ from 1892, L. F. Korns wrote:

“As a means of pleasure, cycling stands in the foremost rank, but in common with all the great pleasures, it may easily stand in the foremost in abuse. The desire to ride at an unreasonably high speed may become morbid…The ever lasting scorcher, bent like a hoop, and with sunken cheeks, ought to be quite sufficient warning against this abuse.”

scorcher 5

Naturally, ‘scorching’ was not seen by cyclists as an abuse. It was a badge of pride, an athletic accomplishment.

19th-century author Louis Baudry de Saunier thought the speed-crazed bicyclist was a blend of man-and-machine: “The cyclist is a man half made of flesh and half of steel that only our century of science and iron could have spawned.”

But, as famously described by American women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony in 1896, cycling was also one of the key tools of female emancipation:

“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Anthony, like her friend and fellow feminist Amelia Bloomer, advocated universal suffrage but also called for ‘rational dress’, the fashion for less restricting women’s garments. Bloomer didn’t invent the leggings named for her, but she popularised them. ‘Athletic bloomers’ allowed women to cycle more easily.

It’s interesting that in this sheet-music cover for a popular tune of 1897, the publisher has started off with the ‘scorcher’ heroine in a dress…


…but she was later shown wearing bloomers, also known as ‘rationals’, relatively radical attire for the day:


But enough about bloomers, let’s get back to those Franco-German brigands. A quick tappity-tap into a popular search engine and out pops the name John the Scorcher; in German, Schinderhannes. He’s the German equivalent of Robin Hood, although, unlike Nottingham’s favourite son, he’s a genuine historical figure. The Robber of the Rhine was executed in 1803.

According to The Book of Days:

[The brigands] were often called Chauffeurs or Scorchers; because they were accustomed to hold the soles of their victims’ feet in front of a fierce fire, to extort a revelation of the place where their property was concealed…Each band had a camp or rendezvous, with lines of communication throughout a particular district. The posts on these lines were generally poor country taverns, the landlords of which were in league with the band. And not only was this the case, but from Holland to the Danube, the chauffeurs could always obtain friendly shelter at these houses, with means for exchanging intelligence with others of the fraternity.

Schinderhannes, or ‘John the Scorcher,’ was the most famous of all the leaders of these robbers. His real name was Johann Buckler; but his practice of chauffage, or scorching the feet of his victims, earned for him the appellation of Schinderhannes. Born in 1779, near the Rhine, he from early years loved the society of those who habitually braved all law and control.”

If PopSci is right, and Merriam Webster is incomplete, via the word chauffeur we can link together Ray LaHood, the Robber of the Rhine, speeding motorists, and ‘scorcher’ cyclists.

Speeding motorists and cyclists have never mixed. Evylyn Thomas of New York could attest to that. On May 30th 1896 she became the first cyclist to be run over and injured by a motorist (or at least first to be so reported). The New-York Daily Tribune of the time recounted the incident thus:

“The wagon [automobile] operated by Henry Wells, of Springfield, Mass., wobbled furiously, going in a zig-zag fashion, until it seemed that the driver had lost control of it. Evylyn Thomas, of No. 459 West Ninetieth-st., was approaching on her bicycle, when suddenly the wheel and horseless carriage met, and there was a crash. A crowd gathered, and the woman was picked up unconscious, her leg fractured. An ambulance took her to the Manhattan Hospital, where last night it was reported that she would recover soon. Wells was taken to the West One-hundred-and-twenty-fifth-st. station, and held pending the result of the injuries to Miss Thomas. The wagon went on in charge of another operator.”

The newspaper didn’t state whether it was Miss Thomas or Mr Wells who was guilty of “scorching”.

Phew, all of this history and etymology came from research I’ve been doing for an 82-page iPhone/iPad/Android version of the Bike to Work Book. I posted this online yesterday. It’s the 95 percent finished proof only for the moment, a revised version will be placed on Issuu.com next week. For now, it’s clicky-flicky right here (hit full-screen to let the extra flavour flood out):

Cycling to Thong via Wetwang and Twatt

butthole lane Google Streetview

Today sees the roll-out of Google Streetview to rural locations in the UK. Previously it was just an urban thing (here’s me on a bike from March last year). Now countryfolk can get all hot and bothered about being given the Streetview treatment. [NOTE: this posting originally contained lots of StreetView embeds. They have now been removed to speed up loading of the site].

Naturally, being able to use Streetview for pre-trip cycle-tour route-planning is going to be a huge boon, but for first day titillation how about taking a virtual tour of Titlington? This is a village near Alnwick in Northumberland. Titlington Training, sadly, is a horse-riding school.

The UK is stuffed with rude town names. And, with 238,000 miles of public road now available in Streetview, it’s easier than ever before to see if there really is a place called Upper Dicker. There is, and here’s a cyclist riding into town from, er, Lower Dicker.

There’s another cyclist coming down Butthole Lane, in Shepshed, near Loughborough.

The Butt in question has more to do with a borehole than a bottom but still local residents wanted to change the name to Buttonhole Road. Arseholes.

If you have a thing about undies, you’ll love this town in Gravesham, Kent: Thong.

Given the likelihood of signpost double-takes from non-locals, it’s good to know that Wetwang, near Driffield in Yorkshire, welcomes careful drivers.

Penistone is only rude if your mind works that way. Spell it out. Pen. P. E. N. Pause. Iz. I. S. Pause. Stone. S. T. O. N. E.

The Dog and Duck pub in Plucks Gutter, near Margate is not rhyming slang. And check out this Y-shaped cyclepath in Pratts Bottom, near Orpington in Kent (hat-tip to Jeremy Jacobs).

Heading to the Highlands and Islands this summer? Take a sneak peek at Twatt, a hamlet near Stromness in Orkney. Apparently, it’s a twitcher’s delight: the RSPB reserve of Loons is just 3/4 of a mile down the road.

Twatt Google Streetview

If you’re planning a bike tour of Devon, you might not want to have a cream tea in Crapstone.

Sticking to the scatalogical theme, Shitterton is a lovely little thatched-cottage village near Bere Regis in Dorset. Unlike other ‘shit’ names in the UK, this place really is named after ordure. According to a crap website which specialises in this topic, Shitterton is named for the river Shiter, a “…brook used as a privy.”

Not on Google Streetview, but plain to see on the 25,000 OS map of the town is a sweetly-named bridleway half a mile from Shitterton: Butt Lane Hollow.

Lumbutts in Lancs, is just half a mile from Mankinholes. “If you’re in Mankinholes, you’ve gone too far,” chuckles town-name contributor Shaun Murray.

In Attleborough, Norfolk, there’s a Sluts Hole Lane so named for the Dutch word for sluice, not a nefarious Medieval resident. But, if it’s lady-of-the-night references you’re after, many Grape Lanes in the UK were once something far, far cruder. You have been warned…)

OK, it’s not rude but it’s funny. I came across this village sign on a ride the other day. Snods Edge no doubt has a perfectly acceptable Norse origin.

Snods edge, Northumberland

There are loads of other funny and rude placenames out there. Get digging and send ’em in via the comments, below.

Town planners: forget the Netherlands, visit Cambridge

Last month I trained two Janus-style helmet-cams and a handheld camera at bike advocates, MPs and Lords on a study tour of Cambridge. This was for the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group.

The resulting video had its first showing yesterday; in Parliament.

At a meeting afterwards, one of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign advocates said that while Cambridge is by no means bike-perfect, it’s English. UK town planners (and MPs – I shot a video of the APPCG study in the Netherlands last year) are often taken on excellent study tours to the Netherlands but, it was suggested, they ought to visit Cambridge instead.

The Netherlands has exemplary cycling infrastructure but it’s so good, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into the trap that it’s peculiar to the Netherlands, and therefore not transferable.

It’s a step down, but Cambridge shows that a UK town can be made an awful lot more cycle friendly, given the political will. It’s a cycling town for many more reasons than it’s flat and has lots of students.

Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim for the stars but trying to recreate the Netherlands bike infrastructure in one fell swoop just ain’t going to happen. Rome might have been built in a day, but Amsterdam wasn’t.

In the Netherlands, there’s too much interlocking infrastructure, built over many years. UK towns and cities need to take baby steps.

If Cambridge can do it, we can do it. That’s the thinking. Attainability, not pipe-dreams.

Via Twitter, Marc van Woudenberg over on Amsterdamize.com said the excellent bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands was build through trial and error and that the UK’s “baby steps now could be bigger/wiser than [ours].”


If UK town planners want to get their teeth into some home-grown bike info, Cambridgeshire County Council and the Cambridge Cycle Campaign have some wonderful appetisers, such as the Cambridgeshire Design Guide and the superlative Cycle Parking Standards. Of course, Cambridge is also home to CycleStreets.net, the national cycle journey planner.

Cyclists may want to pop along to a whole bunch of normalising cycling events being organised by Cambridge Cycling Campaign, including Ride for Joy, a Cambridge Cycle Chic, non-Lycra fashion ride for women.