Thursday, 2 April 2015

Sepia Saturday 273: The Automobile Association Road Patrol Service

Sepia Saturday by Marilyn Brindley and Alan Burnett

I've been absent from both Sepia Saturday and this blog for almost a year, pursuing various other interests, but what better time than Easter Weekend (spring or autumn, depending on your location) to return to the fray.

Image © & courtesy of Simon Debell
Unidentified Automobile Association cycle scout, c. early to mid-1920s
Postcard format portrait by Morgan's Studio, Cavendish St, Chesterfield
Image © & courtesy of Simon Debell

This postcard portrait was kindly sent to me last year for use on my Derbyshire Photographers web site. It features an unidentified young man dressed in the uniform of an Automobile Association Cycle Scout with his bicycle. The donor wondered whether the uniform was a prop, but I doubt it. Morgan's Studio (Proprietor, Henry John Morgan) operated from premises at 7 Cavendish Street, Chesterfield (Derbyshire) from at least 1926 to 1932.


The Automobile Association came into existence in 1905, and my "Member's Copy" of The Road Book of England & Wales published c. 1936 (courtesy of Nigel Aspdin) has the following relating to the history of the organisation in its introductory pages:

The Road Patrol Service
... some motorists organized ... a few cyclists on the London-Brighton road whose task it was to warn all passing motorists of "police-traps" ... The week-end cyclists on the Brighton road were the first A.A. patrols. To-day more than 20,000 miles of road in the British Isles are regularly patrolled by an army in distinctive khaki uniform ... The majority of the men are mounted on motor-cycles with yellow side-cars which contain full equipment to enable the riders to deal with the minor troubles which may still beset the motorist.

Image © Automobile Association & courtesy of Carlton Reid
Automobile Association Cycle Scout, undated
Image © Automobile Association & courtesy of Carlton Reid

The Online Bicycle Museum states that "motorcycle patrols, known as Road Service Outfits or RSOs" were introduced in 1919, and that "by 1923 there were 274 AA motorbike patrols but still 376 cyclists."


After a legal test case in 1910 involving an AA patrolman and a potentially speeding motorist, patrolmen were instructed by their superiors to salute the drivers of cars displaying the AA emblem, except when there was a speed trap nearby. The 1926 handbook stated:

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that when a patrol fails to salute, the member should stop and ask the reason why, as it is certain that the patrol has something of importance to communicate.
Image © & courtesy of Margarey Thackray
Arthur Wood in bus conductor's uniform, c. early to mid-1920s
Postcard format portrait by Morgan's Studio, Cavendish St, Chesterfield
Image © & courtesy of Margarey Thackray

A similar portrait by Morgan's Studio of a young man in a bus conductor's uniform, using the identical painted backdrop, has been dated to the early 1920s, and I believe the cyclist portrait to be from a similar time period.

Image © & courtesy of Gill Taylor
Unidentified group in Salvation Army uniform, c. late 1920s to early 1930s
Postcard format portrait by Morgan's Studio, Cavendish St, Chesterfield
Image © & courtesy of Gill Taylor

A third "uniform" portrait from this studio shows a group from the Salvation Army, although judging from the slightly different text this photograph was probably taken a few years later. It seems unlikely that Morgan's Studio specialised in portraits of people wearing uniforms, and it's probably just chance that half of the six examples that I have from this studio are in this vein.

Now I suggest that you dust off your own cycling uniform, get your bike out of the shed, and join the rest of this week's Sepia Saturday participants for what promises to be a very pleasant excursion.

27 comments:

  1. Just fancy. An AA patrol on bikes. A wonderful idea. But somehow I don't the police would take kindly these days to people being warned of a police trap. - boundforoz

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    1. The yesteryear equivalent of a scanner on the dashboard, I suppose. I discovered when researching the article that the speed limit was actually abolished for a few years. Just imagine ... I think I'd keep off the road.

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  2. welcome back Brett! Cyclists warning motorists of police traps - I wonder what the police thought of that? and what would those uniformed mesengers think of today's lycra-clad riders?

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    1. Thank you Jo. I hesitate to even venture into the dangerous ground of the raging cyclists vs. motorists debate. Possibly even more perilous than crossing the road.

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  3. Well, well, well - welcome back! It's about time!. :) Interesting take on the prompt as well as in keeping with your photographic interests. Nice going. It appears, though, the Americans were just a tad ahead of the English with the Automobile Association thing. The American Automobile Association - now known simply as Triple-A, of which we're members, was formed from 9 separate auto clubs, with 1500 members altogether, in March of 1901, & in 1905 they published their first road maps - though it doesn't appear they began with bicycles, nor did they seem to have warned folks about speed traps. That's not to say they might have done so unofficially, however? :) According to Wikipedia their main aim was to simply help stranded motorists - which is what their English cousins evolved to as well. Still, I love the idea of the AA's secret non-salute as a way of warning the motoring public that the cops were near by!

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    1. I guess your nagging did its job, Gail, and I hope my contributions are up to your expectations. ;-) Yes, I think the NZers were ahead of the game too, forming an AA in 1903.

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    2. And next week's prompt is right up your alley with its emphasis on coal. Which to burn? Anthracite, bituminous, or lignite - blue, black, or brown? Can you tell I've been visiting Wikipedia? :)

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    3. I may not go with the obvious ... depends on what photos I have available and want to blog about. It all has to fit into the overall scheme of things.

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    4. And here I thought I was being so smart. Oh well. :[] Be interesting to see what you come up with.

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  4. Welcome back, Brett, with your great collection of postcards and insightful background information.

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  5. Do you suppose people actually stopped to ask why they weren't saluted? We have bicycle patrols in the tourist area of Virginia Beach.
    PS -- I salute you on this stellar return to SS.

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    1. Bicycle patrols in this modern day suggests a common courtesy amongst road users that isn't common. Sounds like a safe place to drive.

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  6. A super story to restart your blog, Brett. I wonder if there were any dime novels like "Albert of the Cycle Scouts" who pedaled along the A-roads saving stranded motorists and foiling corrupt constables!

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    1. Well I suppose a bit like Biggles. I haven't come across any, but that was a bit before my time, and perhaps they sank without trace.

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  7. Welcome back Brett, though I’m not too sure about Sepia Saturday being thought of as a battleground! On second thoughts we have had a couple of tricky moments. I prefer to think of it as a party :) Like Wendy I was amazed that someone could demand to know why he had not been saluted.

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    1. Returning to the fray was just a euphemism, Marilyn, you know that.

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    2. But quite a wild party, sometimes.

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  8. A whole year!? Time is just speeding past. Although I rode a bike off and on for decades, I never wore a uniform.

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    1. Well I can honestly say that I never wore a uniform while riding a bike.

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  9. This is such interesting history, Brett. I had never given thought to bicyclers aiding drivers of cars before.

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    1. Yes, it all seems a little bizarre, doesn't it, Nancy

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  10. It is a great read and a great view of the past. Lots of good stuff here.

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  11. This was truly fascinating. I had no idea there was a service like this on motorcycles. I think of the auto club, which I recently had to call for my dad, showing up in very large bright yellow trucks.

    And I love the salute idea. Pretty funny. Don't remember getting any salutes during my drive through the UK as I tried to pull out of the way into the hedgerows to allow buses to pass. But I do remember a lot of waving fellow travelers.

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