Early Motor Vehicle Registration in Wiltshire 1903 - 1920

on Monday, 21 November 2016. Posted in Archives

In October 1902, Wiltshire County Council received a letter from the clerk of Norfolk County Council asking that a petition be presented to the Local Government Board requesting them to ensure by legislation or likewise that a registration number was affixed on the back of every motor car to ensure the identification in the event of an accident on the public highway, in the interest and for the protection of the public.


The Motor Car Bill passed through The House of Commons and The House of Lords in the summer of 1903. The circular for the Motor Car Act was issued by the Local Government Board on the 20th November 1903. It set up a system of registration for motor cars and motor cycles, with a view to identifying motor cars/cycles and their owners. It brought in driving licences (legislation for compulsory testing was introduced for all new drivers with the Road Traffic Act 1934 for owners of motor vehicles and anyone wishing to use a motor vehicle). Penalties were introduced for people driving who did not hold a licence, and licences could be suspended for offences against the Act. A new speed limit was introduced of 20mph - raised from 14mph and aimed to prevent reckless driving by adding endorsements to the person’s driving licence.

The registration and licencing system was to be administered by County and Borough Councils throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Each County or Borough was issued a letter, or a group of two letters (styled the index mark), issued by the Local Government. Registers were kept for motor cars and motor cycles. These registers could be kept in two parts, one relating to motor cars and one relating to motor cycles. Wiltshire County Council kept separate registers for motor cars and motor cycles. 

The Act did not define the term motor cycles, nor could the Local Government Board, but it was generally treated as a motor car with not more than three wheels and weighing not more than three hundredweight (152kg).

Applications for registrations were made through the council and for a fee of £1 for a motor car and 5 shillings for a motor cycle, an identification mark was issued to the vehicle and it was entered into the register. A copy of the entry was issued to the owner.

Any changes in ownership of the vehicle were given either by the new or the old owner to the council who issued the index mark. The alterations were made to the registers and the new owner was issued a copy of the new entry. If any changes were made relating to the vehicle the owner needed to inform the council, and the register was amended accordingly. If the vehicle was destroyed, scrapped, exported or re-registered with another county or borough, then the index mark assigned to that vehicle was cancelled in the register and that number could then be assigned to another vehicle.

The Roads Act of 1920 came into effect on 1st January 1921. The registers were named vehicle allocation books. With the Wiltshire allocation books, only the vehicle owner’s details and the make of the vehicle were entered, with no indication of colour, style or engine capacity. All subsequent changes made to the vehicle and to ownership were entered into a file which was kept for each index mark and when the number was cancelled due to the vehicle being scrapped or exported this was duly recorded. These files where supplemented with a record card for each index mark. One allocation book was now kept for motor cars, heavy motor cars and motor cycles, so that the same number could not be issued twice, for instance to a motor car and a motor cycle.    

The Motor Car Act of 1903 required that all drivers of motor vehicles were to apply for a driving licence from their local county council. Licences were to be issued on an annual basis for a fee of 5 shillings. A register was kept for the issuing of licences and a certificate was given to the driver and was to be carried at all times. Failure to produce licences when demanded by the police constable rendered the driver liable for a fine not exceeding £5. Any person over the age of seventeen was eligible to apply for a driving licence, except for a licence for driving a motor cycle only, which could be obtained for people over the age of fourteen. Unfortunately Wiltshire’s driving licence registers are missing.

The index mark or identification mark was to be carried on motor cars on two plates, one on the front and one on the back. Each plate was to be rectangular in shape and to show the index mark of the Council where the vehicle is registered, and then the separate number issued to that vehicle. Two alternative rectangular plates could be used, with two styles, either with the index mark in line with the identification number or above. The letters were to be white and the background black. There was an option of painting the identification mark on the vehicle, but the same dimensions as the plates still applied.

At night time the back plate on motor cars had to be kept illuminated so that the number was easily distinguishable. In the case of motor cycles either the front or the back plate could be lit up.

The Local Government Board thought that for easy identification, no more than three figures should be issued after the index mark, after which a new index mark was to be applied for. Wiltshire County Council decided not to follow this rule and issued identification numbers up to four figures!

A letter was sent to the County Council on 30th November 1903 from the Automobile Club – later to become the Royal Automobile Club. This pointed out that under the provisions of the Act automobilists were at liberty to register their cars in any county they pleased. They implied that club members would favour with their registration fee those counties sympathetic to motor vehicles and went on to ask questions about Wiltshire’s intentions with regard to road improvements, signage, speed limits and enforcements. The County Council’s response was that their course of action would not be influenced by any inducements mentioned in the foregoing letter.  

If automobilists lived outside the county they may have chosen to use Wiltshire in order to obtain the AM index mark, and there are several entries where this was clearly the motivation. Mr. Andrew Mabon of North Finchley, London (AM-2822), is one example. He had presumably constructed his own machine, which he described as a Mabon with a Jap engine (before the days of MOT). There are three entries where the vehicles were personalised, two of them early Aston Martins (AM-270, AM-273). The third was a Hotchkiss model called the AM-80, so in October 1930 the company applied for the index mark AM-80. This was explained in the register as a marginal note, even though the registers had stopped being used after 1920. Albert Murray Ltd. in Doncaster registered four cars in Wiltshire, (AM-2347, AM-2957, AM-3362, AM-3381).

The first register (F3/500/1), unlike its successors, contains motor cars and motor cycles and general identification marks – what we know today as trade plates. After June 1908, when the motor car and motor cycle sections had to be filled, separate registers were kept for motor cars and motor cycles. The section containing general identification marks was kept going until 1920 and even then was only about half used.

The two-letter index marks issued to Wiltshire between 1903 and 1936 (when the county began to issue three-letter registration marks) were as follows: AM 1903-1919, HR 1919-1924, MR 1924-1927, MW 1927-1931 and WV 1931-1936.

The motor car registers before 1921 are made up of eight columns. The first column has the registration index mark (AM), which was issued to Wiltshire, followed by the individual vehicle number on the registration plates. A dash was used after the index mark from 12th December 1903, but was phased out during February 1904. The second column contains the full name and address of owner and postal address of their usual residence. Column three has a description or type of the car, e.g. make, model, horse power, number of cylinders and (with the early entries) whether it was petrol, steam or electric. The fourth column contained type and colour of the car’s body, for example the style of coachwork fitted to the chassis and number of seats. The fifth column contained the weight unladen, which was written in hundredweights (cwt). The sixth column denoted whether the vehicle was intended for (a) private use, (b) trade purposes, (c) public conveyance, three separate columns with yes written into the appropriate column. Column seven was the date of registration, and the final column was used if cancelled, with the date of the cancellation.

The motor cycle registers are very much to the same layout, except that there is no column for type and colour of the body, only for description, or type of cycle. The extra space is taken up by full name and postal address of usual residence.

Was a red flag carried in front of a motor car?

The Locomotives Act passed into law in 1865, whereby a crew of three was required to conduct a locomotive, with one of them walking 60yards (55 metres) ahead carrying a red flag – this was at a time when large traction engines were used for ploughing fields and had to travel between farms. The maximum permitted speed was 4mph, and was reduced to 2mph in city, town or village. In 1878 this act was amended and re-named the Highways and Locomotives (Amended) Act. The three people where still required to conduct a locomotive but the distance ahead for the person on foot reduced to 20 yards (18 metres), with no mention of the red flag.

The Locomotives on Highway Act came into force on 14th November 1896 - when motor vehicles started appearing on British roads. This was the first Act of Parliament to apply to motor vehicles under three tons. Light locomotives including motor vehicles were required to carry lights one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. They were also required to carry a bell or other instrument capable of giving audible and sufficient warning of the approach or position of the carriage. The speed limit was raised to 14mph, but gave the Local Government Board the power to reduce this, which it did by 2mph to 12mph. 

So, do you think that a person ever had to walk in front of a motor vehicle carrying a red flag?

Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor


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