The Militant Motorist

  • 2017 marks the 140th anniversary of Charles Jarrott’s birth. Jarrott was an active member of our Club, which also celebrates its 120th anniversary this year.
    Born the son of a blacksmith’s labourer on 26 March 1877, Charles Jarrott was articled to a solicitor and seemed destined to pursue a law career until the lure of the automobile proved too great.

  • Jarrott began motoring in 1896 aged 19 and by 1900 he was participating in races throughout Europe, such as the Gordon Bennett Cup Races and the Circuit des Ardennes race, which he won in 1902 in a Panhard. This was fortunate because Jarrott had entered a partnership in 1900 with Harvey Du Cros as UK agent for Panhard-Levassor.

    Through his racing career Jarrott became close friends with fellow racing driver Selwyn Francis Edge and he is recorded as staying with Edge and his wife in the census of 1901. Both men were prominent figures in the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (A.C.G.B.I), taking part in races, hill climbs and reliability trials.

  • They were also Managing Directors of automobile companies. Edge had formed the Motor Traction Company in 1901 and by 1904 Jarrott was putting his legal training to good use at his own company, Charles Jarrott & Letts Ltd. The company acquired the sole English concessionary for de Dietrich cars and they were the British agents for the Oldsmobile. As businessmen, S.F.Edge and Charles Jarrott understood the importance of racing and motoring trials as a means of advertising vehicles and glamourizing them. Despite having a presence on the A.C.G.B.I Committee it was the business interests of these two friends that was to create one of the most important conflicts in automotive history.

  • By 1904 the A.C.G.B.I had 2,500 members, all of whom had their own ideas about how the Club should run. Some members frowned upon trade connections because they wished to retain an elite membership. They viewed the Club as a social institution where they could fraternise with people who shared the same interests and came from the higher echelons of society. Other fractions of the Club believed that trade expertise was required for the Club to thrive and keep abreast of technical developments in motoring.

  • Animosity towards motorists showed no signs of abating. The cost of vehicles made them available to a small sector of society and the reckless behaviour of a few early motorists was perceived by the general public as a class war with gentry showing little regard for the masses. Mindful of public opinion, the Police frequently devised speed traps for motorists, often using equipment that was inaccurate. Motorists complained they were being persecuted and fines were a money-making venture.

    The A.C.G.B.I was committed to improving the name of motorists. As early as 1899 the Club Committee had formed a legal advice service, the Motor Vehicle User’s Defence Association, which later became the Motor Union. In 1904 the Club instigated further measures. They established a disciplinary committee and printed guides to road etiquette in the newly published RAC Handbook. The Club was also using its elite membership to influence parliamentary road acts and royal commissions in favour of motorists.

    Charles Jarrott and S.F.Edge believed the measures introduced by the Club were not enough to champion fair treatment for the motoring fraternity. On 19 June 1905, Jarrott, Edge and Mark Mayhew formed the Automobile Association (AA) at the Lyons Trocadero Restaurant, London. Jarrott believed that the only way to secure justice for motorists was to fight for it, but Mayhew understood that the Club’s elite membership prevented the Club from any militant activities that could be viewed as anti-establishment. The AA and A.C.G.B.I co-existed peacefully, one championing the motorist at parliamentary level and the other through direct action.

  • The AA employed cyclists to patrol roads where speed offences were prevalent. The cyclists wore monochrome disks which were turned to warn motorists if the road was clear or an impending speed trap lay ahead.

    The goodwill between the organisations was shattered in 1907. The Secretary of the Motor Union, Rees Jeffreys, plagiarised the AA’s entire road programme and placed its own cycle agents on the road, complete with uniforms and signals. This action infuriated the AA and the Club. Now titled the Royal Automobile Club, following the Royal Charter awarded to the A.C.G.B.I in 1907, the embarrassment resulted in the Club disassociating itself from the Motor Union it had originally formed. The Motor Union was forced to withdraw the cycle patrols and by 1910 its declining fortune and membership saw the organisation subsumed into the AA.

  • Ironically on 1 February 1912, the RAC General Committee decided to formalise a scheme for directly securing uniformed cycle agents as tour guides capable of also providing roadside assistance. The scheme was instigated in response to the increase in motoring tours. Members frequently asked for the services of local guides with knowledge of local beauty spots. The scheme also gave the RAC regional presence throughout the country, showing value for money to those members not based in the south east of England.

    On duty from 9.30am to dusk, the guides saluted private cars and ensured that no motorist was left stranded. The now famous RAC patrol services were born.
    In 1922 Charles Jarrott served as Chairman of the AA. By the time of his death in 1945 the AA had over 725,000 members and two million cars on the road. In the interim, tireless championing by the RAC at parliamentary level saw many of its recommendations enshrined in law. The methods employed by the two organisations differed but their commitment to improving the plight of motorists united them, creating safer roads for all.