This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 at 11:12 am and is filed under Bad motoring, Bicycle advocacy, Bicycle history. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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.
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.