The first traffic lights


I WAS recently reminded about the policeman’s hook on Great Newport Street in Covent Garden and was amazed to discover it was still there (above, right). It’s just beside the Verve Bar in case you’re looking for it. It’s been my most fun discovery since ‘Wellington’s nose’ on Admiralty Arch.

I have no idea what the hook was for but seem to remember being told it was for policemen to hang their capes on when directing traffic. It does seem too low for a raincoat, so that might make sense, though I have no idea if the Met Police ever wore capes – something one associates more with their colleagues in France.

Anyway, trying to find information about it led me to some info about the first traffic signals in the world, which were outside the House of Commons at the corner of Bridge Street and New Palace Yard, as the poster above shows. They were designed to allow Members of Parliament to stop traffic while entering the Palace of Westminster.

As the poster also shows, they were semaphore signs like the railway signals of the day, on a 7m-high pillar, but  also used a red and green gas lamp at night.

Built by Saxby & Farmer, they were designed by Nottingham-born railway engineer John Peake Knight (1828-1886). Peake is also noted as one of the first engineers to introduce emergency brake cords in trains.

Opened on December 9, 1868, a few months later, on January 2, 1869, they exploded, injuring the policeman who operated them by throwing grit into his eye and were withdrawn from service in 1872. The sign was never popular with the public – and especially with cab-drivers.

More familiar three-colour lights, although also manually operated, were first used in London at Piccadilly, in 1926.

Motoring firsts: Croydon was the setting of the world’s first fatal car accident when Bridget Driscoll was run over on August 17, 1896 at the Crystal Palace. A Rogers-Benz driven by Arthur Edsell was giving joy-rides to visitors when she froze in the road after suddenly seeing the car coming at a terrifying 4mph. At her inquest, the coroner said he hoped ‘such a thing would never happen again’.

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