Derby Day Traffic Control in the 1920s and 30s


Crowds at the Derby c.1905
Crowds at the Derby c.1905
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection

It's hard to understand just how big an event the Epsom Derby was in the early part of the last century. It was a world class event with tens of thousands of people, from every walk of life, descending on the town intent on having a great day out not to mention the chance of placing a bet on the winning horse. Hundreds of extra trains were put on for race goers. The traffic to and from the Downs was horrific with roads quite literally jammed with almost every type of vehicle imaginable.

Experimental traffic flow measures were tried out with buses, coaches, and other large vehicles directed to use one route, horse drawn vehicles another and motor cars a third. The theory was that by separating the types of traffic, slow moving (e.g. horse drawn) vehicles would not hinder the much faster moving cars and each vehicle type had its own parking area.

Returning from the Derby c.1905
Returning from the Derby c.1905
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection.

The Metropolitan Police who had responsibility for policing the event took their role seriously with months of planning and negotiating with the local councils and other interested parties. Even with all the planning, on occasions, the Met deployed 2200 officers. Added to which the Surrey Constabulary will have used many scores of men directing traffic on the southern approaches to the racecourse.

In the time before mobile phones and two way radios, communication was a big problem. On race days, in addition to the police on the race course, up to 1800 policemen were on point duty directing traffic at the junctions on the main routes to and from London. They were given their orders at the start of the day and would only receive changes to their orders by word of mouth from a motorbike dispatch rider or even a colleague on a bicycle. Of course telephones were used where available but these were few and far between in the early 1920's and the Met only started introducing Police Boxes (of Dr Who's fame) in 1928. The police worked closely with the Automobile Association and made use of the AA network of telephone boxes.

Two Crossley Tenders on Epsom Downs 1923
Two Crossley Tenders on Epsom Downs 1923.
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott.

Telephones were not the only thing in short supply, Even in the early 1920's the Met had very few motor cars and those they did have were mainly used by senior officers. Contemporary radio equipment was very bulky, heavy and needed large aerial arrays to get a good signal so the use of wireless equipped vehicles was very limited. In 1923 the Met started using 'Crossley Tenders' at the Derby. Although often referred to as wireless cars, they were substantial lorries, some had metal bodies but others had a canvas covering on a tilting body. These were fitted with Marconi wireless telegraphy [W/T] equipment with cumbersome folding aerial arrays on the roof. When erected, this aerials considerably increased the height of the vehicles, reducing overall mobility.

Unsubstantiated reports claim the Metropolitan Police first used aerial observation at the 1920 Derby Day meeting. An RAF plane was supposed to have been used but it was not equipped with wireless so it had to land near the course to pass on reports of traffic.

Airship R.33 tethered to a mooring mast 1921
Airship R.33 tethered to a mooring mast 1921.

In 1921 the UK Government sanctioned the use of war surplus airships for police traffic duties at major public events. The R.33 that was used at Epsom, was huge, 643ft long, 79ft in diameter and the volume of the gas envelope was 1,950,000 cubic foot which was filled with highly explosive hydrogen gas. It was fitted with 5 engines and although it had a top speed of 62mph it was very difficult to manoeuvre at low altitudes.

On board the R.33 the AA's special observer Major Fox passed messages to the police via a Morse code set. The ship transmitted signals at a wavelength of 800 meters to a Marconi wireless 'car' parked near the Grand Stand while the wireless equipment in the car transmitted to the ship at 900 meters.

On 31 May 1921 the air observation plans worked reasonably well with the R.33 on station as planned but the following day, the day of the Derby, strong headwinds meant the airship arrived very late from it's base the government airship station at Cardington, Bedfordshire. In addition to the airship, police had obtained the services of the RAF to provide air-to-ground photographs of the traffic conditions for later analysis.

An aerial photo of some of the Derby traffic passing the Spring in Ewell taken in 1921
An aerial photo of some of the Derby traffic passing the Spring in Ewell taken in 1921.
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott

No air observation was carried out during the 1922 Derby but in 1923 the Met. arranged for the use of a radio equipped Vickers (Type 61) Vulcan fixed wing passenger aircraft to cover the Derby traffic. This bi-plane was large, unwieldy and under powered. The police officers inside the cabin would have had a restricted view due to small windows and the struts and wires linking the bi-plane wings. Its single 360hp Rolls Royce Eagle engine only gave it a maximum speed of about 105mph, it was sluggish and had restricted banking capabilities so it was unsuitable for observation duties especially over the confines of the Epsom Racecourse. It is not surprising that it was nicknamed the "Flying Pig".

The blue and silver Vulcan the police used, G-EBBL, was operated by Instone Airline Ltd. And it carried the name "City of Antwerp". The head of the Mets Traffic Department, 58 years old Superintendent Bassom, was taken aloft along with two police wireless operators and their equipment by Donald Robins the Instone pilot. The police team were in constant touch with Percy Laurie who was in charge of the control room at Epsom from where despatch riders took instructions to traffic officers at the affected road junctions.

The Vickers  Vulcan  which was used for traffic observation in 1923.
The Vickers (Type 61) Vulcan which was used for traffic observation in 1923.
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott.

On 19 March 1924 The Times reported that Scotland Yard had designed and built a special car from which could communicate with Headquarters when travelling up to 40 mph. The paper later reported on 28 May 1924, that a new improved wireless van was to be used to assist in controlling the Derby traffic in conjunction with a (tethered) observation kite balloon. The van could transmit and receive (Morse code) while moving at up to 50mph using a 200watt transmitter and a coupled tuner with a seven valve amplifier. The article went on to say that the van had an outside aerial that could be raised and lowered as well as two interior aerials.

The Kite Ballon used in 1924
The Kite Ballon used in 1924.
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott.

The Times on 6 June 1924 raised questions on the effectiveness of the traffic control system for that year's Derby. The report claimed that the system was good in theory but not in practice, partly due to the weight of traffic the despatch riders had to go through to reach the officers on point duty. The powers that be must have agreed as there was an 8 year gap before air traffic control was next used at Epsom.

In 1932 the Met renewed flying over the traffic jammed roads approaching the Derby. On this occasion they experimented using a Cierva C.19 Mark IV Autogiro, G-ABUD, probably the first use of any rotary wing type on police duties in the world.

An autogyro looks a bit like a helicopter but the rotor is not powered. A conventional engine and propeller provides the horizontal thrust to pull (or push) the craft through the air while the free-spinning rotor provides the lift acting like the wings of an airplane. Consequently autogyros of that period needed a short take off and couldn't hover or take off like a helicopter. The very manoeuvrable two-seater Cierva Autogiro had a top speed of about 100mph, a range of 300 miles and with its 34ft diameter rotor could still operate at around 25mph so a much better prospect for police observation duties than the 1921 Vulcan. The observers forward view was obstructed by the pilots head, the rotor mounting struts and a pair of very short auxiliary wings but the side view was unobstructed.

Sidney Chamberlain and Herbert Allen posing for the camera on the autogyro used in 1932
Sidney Chamberlain and Herbert Allen posing for the camera on the Cierva C.19 Mark IV Autogiro used in 1932.
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott.

The radio equipment in the autogyro was loaned by Marconi and comprised a Marconi AD22 and a SP3 portable set which were in two substantial valve filled boxes weighing over 65 lbs. The expected use and the extra weight of the radio equipment meant a special Certificate of Airworthiness for low flying and over-loading was needed. Marconi also loaned their own radio car which was parked beside the Mets own Crossley Tender. The policemen on board could pass and receive speech transmissions which it did after a few teething problems.

The observer was a civilian in the Traffic Division Sidney Chamberlain, he was an ex-RNAS and RAF Great War bomber pilot, who had rightly suggested that the Cierva company would loan the Met the autogyro for the event. It was piloted by a former RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Ralph Eric Herbert Allen, AMIAE, MIAeE, RAFO, who was a police assistant engineer.

Allen could not approach close to the racecourse either before or during the races, so the nearest pass being about one mile south of the Grandstand. Sightings by were recorded in coloured ink on a number of maps. To assist the subsequent debriefing, these maps were changed every fifteen minutes. A variety of messages were sent off reporting traffic conditions in the mist shrouded approaches. Chamberlain became airsick and at a refuelling stop the remaining 20 minutes observation of the morning session was undertaken by Mr. Whistlecroft, the resident engineer from the Marconi station at Croydon. Chamberlain was recovered by the afternoon session which covered the home going crowds.

The Cierva C30P, G-ACIN, autogyro used in 1934
The Cierva C30P, G-ACIN, autogyro used in 1934
Image courtesy of Bryn Elliott.

The Metropolitan Police used another Cierva C.19 mark IV for the 1933 Derby, G-ABUF was used this time and undertook the observation duties with the same crew of Allen and Chamberlain. In 1934 the Met used a Cierva C30P, G-ACIN, autogyro for Derby Day traffic duties, this model did away with the auxiliary wings so giving the observer a better view. The Met clearly saw the potential of air observation and continued using them till the start of the Second World War.

British Pathe have some relevant movie clips:
1923 www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=19982
1924 www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=20524
1932 www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=50062 or www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=3047

This article was written by Peter Reed and is based on the book Police Aviation - A History written by Bryn Elliott who kindly let us use some of his text and provided many of the images.

If you have enjoyed this piece and want to discover more about the history police aviation we recommend you read Bryn's book which is both very readable and informative.


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