From time to time we receive copies of old photographs to add to our archive collection, often with stories of people and events associated with them. The picture below was sent to me by Alec Stevenson,   whose family used to live in Sevenoaks.  It is one of several Alec has inherited from his great uncle Norman Spencer, who in 1911 lived in Linden Cottage in Mount Harry Road.


On the right is Norman’s brother Leslie on a De Dion tricycle.  In the centre Alec’s grandparents, Clifton and Ethel Hilder, sit in a Benz motor car. On the other De Dion is Walter Pedder Morgan, a family friend and son of Walter Robert Morgan, owner of the Nepicar Brewery and the Bull Hotel, Wrotham.  Alec’s grandparents were one of the first families in Sevenoaks to buy a car - and also one of the first to revert back to using horses! Married in 1899, they built a house called Ashbrook in Vine Court Road.

Count Jules-Albert De Dion and Georges Bouton started manufacturing petro-driven tricycles in 1897. The two in the photograph are c1897 1.25HP and c1898 1.7HP. (Jules-Albert was one of the founders of the Tour de France in 1903. With Édouard Michelin, he had launched the newspaper L’Auto, following disagreements with a rival paper over the Dreyfus Affair, in which De Dion was implicated – he was jailed for striking the President of France’s head with a walking stick. The race was conceived as means of arresting the paper’s declining sales).

The car has been identified as an 1899 Benz Velo –the world’s first production car. Presented to the public by Karl Benz at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago as the Velocipede,  over 1200 were  built until manufacturing stopped in 1902.   The price of a car with removable half-top was 2,200 gold marks (about £100 then or £13,000 in today’s money). The top speed of the earliest version was 12mph.

Vita Sackville-West  Count Jules-Albert De Dion and Georges Bouton started manufacturing petro-driven tricycles in 1897 

Alec also provided the above picture of a young Vita Sackville-West out for a drive at Knole with her mother, Victoria, in another Benz Velo, a 1900 model. His research uncovered a third car once owned by a member of the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Club complete with its original 1900 receipt from the agent, Arnolds, who almost certainly supplied all three vehicles  through FW Bywater’s shop at no. 5 London Road.   On the right Norman poses proudly with brother Leslie.

Velo 4On 28 January 1896 Walter Arnold of East Peckham became the first person in the world to be convicted of speeding. His crime was to drive a motorised vehicle (a Benz) at 8 mph through Paddock Wood, thereby exceeding the speed limit for towns of 2 mph. He was caught by a policeman who had given chase for five miles on a bicycle, and fined 1 shilling plus costs.  His company, Arnold Motor Carriage Co., was one of the first car dealerships in the region, and the UK agents for Benz from 1894.


Velo 5Later in 1896 the speed limit was raised to 14 mph and the need for a red flag-bearer abolished. To celebrate, the first “Emancipation Run” was held, in which cars “raced” from London to Brighton. Arnold, in his Benz, earned a gold medal as one of only 13 to complete the run. (His time and speed are not recorded).

Velo 6Thanks to Norman, we are able to get a glimpse of the early days of motorised travel in Sevenoaks: here he is with his Belgian FN motor cycle, first registered in London in July 1905, the photo probably taken at the junction of Vine Court Road and Avenue Road. 


Our thanks are also due to Alec for the images and the fascinating wealth of detail provided about family life in town over 100 years ago.   If anyone has more information about these and other early vehicles and their Sevenoaks owners, please let me know.

Keith Wade

SevSoc/Articles/Benz Velo Apr19 d2 full