Exhibit of the Week: Percy had some brushes with the law

Percy and Katharine Stewart in 1914. Photograph courtesy of the National Media Museum
Percy and Katharine Stewart in 1914. Photograph courtesy of the National Media Museum

I thought that I would end my current series of articles on the Stewart Museum on a humorous note.

Most of Major Percy Stewart’s adventures that are recounted in his three books, relate to incidents and activities that took place on his many travels in foreign lands between 1906 and 1926.

However, when researching some of these stories, I came across some rather amusing tales from closer to home, involving some brushes with the forces of law and order.

Percy was a very keen motorist and something of a pioneer of what was then a fairly new mode of transport. The Stewart Museum archives have a number of photographs of Major Stewart with his cars, and he clearly enjoyed either being behind the wheel himself or being driven by his chauffeur.

In his book “Tales of Travel and Sport” published in 1938, he expresses amazement that he has avoided being caught speeding:

“What surprises me even more than our immunity from serious accidents over a period of 28 years’ motoring, during many of which automobiles were by no means safe vehicles, is the fact that I never received a summons for exceeding the speed limit,” he writes.

“This is the more surprising, since I drove for two years when the legal limit was only 12 miles per hour, at speeds varying from 20 to 25, and for 26 years, during which it was but 20, at speeds varying from 20 to 50. This in spite of speed traps, which for ten years at least infested the roads.”

He put this down to careful planning, paying strict attention to warnings from the Automobile Association scouts and others, and what he described as “cautious driving” through towns and villages. Principally though, he admitted it was “down to luck.”

He tells some amusing stories of the lengths to which the police went to catch speeding motorists in the early part of the 20th century. He wrote:

“Once I left the driving seat to oil some moving part which was squeaking ominously, and a policeman descended from a tree, saying artlessly, ‘Did you know I was here?’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘but I shall not forget in the future, for I often pass this way.’ ‘Well’, he said, ‘I don’t stop them at this corner unless they are doing 25.’ ‘You’ll never catch me then,’ I replied.”

He describes another incident when he was admiring the local scenery on a drive and happened to see a policeman lying flat on his face behind a hedge. Percy stopped the car and walked back to him asking him if he was looking for something.

“He rose stiffly from his ignominious position and said ‘You know I’m trapping motor-cars...’”

The poor chap then admitted to him that he didn’t like doing it, but had his orders!

Once, Percy and Katharine were out on a drive and had stopped by the roadside to eat some lunch. A number of cars passed by, slowing down for caution or to check if they needed help.

“At the end of half an hour”, writes Percy, “a policeman came out of hiding and requested us to move on.”

He declined to do so, pointing out to the officer concerned that, being off the road, he was not obstructing the traffic and that the law allowed for drivers to stop for rest or refreshment and that he was in need of both.

In his run-ins with authority, he freely admitted that his good driving reputation, his clean driving licence and membership of the Royal Automobile Club were all factors that helped him avoid prosecution for speeding over the years.

These tales provide interesting and amusing anecdotes of his experiences of the rather unorthodox and unusual methods adopted by the police at that time to catch speeding motorists, and his own admission as to how lucky he was not to have been caught exceeding the speed limit!

• Photographs and exhibits courtesy of the Stewart Museum.