In 1912, a well-brought-up young man on a new motor cycle knocked a young boy over on an Auckland city street. And so the lives of two families from different social worlds intersected as police and civil court cases plodded on and were reported on at length in the Auckland papers.
The moment Norman saw the boy run out from behind the telegraph pole, he braked and swerved right. Had he swerved left instead or kept going straight ahead he would have avoided the child. But as it was, the rear side of the motor cycle struck the youngster, knocking him down, while the motor cycle continued on 60 yards down the hill before coming to a stop.
Norman was was not quite 20 years old, riding the route between his parent’s home, Braeside, Victoria Avenue in Remuera ( first lamp-post left side) to the city warehouse were he worked. He was an upright young man. His mother’s family were highly regarded and well off, though by now they viewed her husband, Norman’s father Henry Webster, as a liability.
Norman, second from the left, the eldest son of Clara and Henry Webster. Pictured standing (L-R) are (?)Muriel, Norman, Geoff, and Cecil. Seated are Clara, Dorothy, Henry, Ruth and (?)Marjorie.
Norman was getting started at his uncle’s flourishing soft-goods import business, learning from the ground up. The last thing he expected was to find himself on the wrong side of the law. But two weeks after the collision, he appeared in the police court before two Justices of the Peace, to answer a charge that on 1 December 1912 he rode a motor cycle furiously and negligently on Khyber Pass Road.
Khyber Pass Rd around 1907. By 1912, there would have been more motor vehicles on the road though horses still predominated and their numbers had grown to 400,000 nationwide by 1911. Photo: Hutchinsons
His father was there in court with him, ready to come to his son’s defence. Norman had admitted that he was going 15 or 16 miles an hour (24-25 kph). Mr Webster senior told the court that he’d tested the speed of tramcars traversing that stretch of of road in a car fitted with a speedometer. They moved along at 16 to 20 miles per hour, so his son’s speed had been reasonable. His language echoed the legislation passed in 1902 against travelling at ‘a greater rate of speed than is reasonable’. There was no mention in court of a council-imposed fixed speed limit on Auckland’s city streets.
Looking down Khyber Pass from Symonds Street, Auckland, ca 1905. Ref: 1/2-084857-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23213607
However, witnesses reported that Norman was riding at a very fast pace. And the justices at the bench concluded that Norman had been riding his motor cycle furiously, but not negligently, and fined him 40 shillings (two pounds), and 41 shillings in costs. That was roughly one and a half week’s wages, or about $750 in 2018 buying power.
A 1912 Moto Reve motor cycle, made in Geneva, a make which was being advertised in the New Zealand Times in 1911. In the first decade of the 1900s, hundreds of motorcycles were imported to New Zealand each year. By 1915 yearly imports totalled over 2,000.
Meanwhile, seven-year-old Alan Evans, was still suffering from a sore left ankle which had laid him up and kept him at home for weeks. He’d been crossing the street at the intersection of Claremont Road where he lived and Khyber Pass Road, to join a friend, when he was struck and injured. Medical attention was costly: no free medical care was available in those days. So Alan’s mother, wrote to Norman, the young man who was responsible for their troubles. After some discussion within the family and advice from his lawyer, Mr Webster senior paid a visit to Mrs Evans. He insisted that the accident was the boy’s fault, but offered to pay the medical expenses even so. Mr Webster then went to see Dr Clarke at Auckland Hospital, telling him to give the boy every attention.
Auckland Hospital, 1910. Source: National Library of New Zealand
There, at last, a broken ankle was diagnosed and treated under Dr Clarke’s care. It healed well, so that six months after the accident, doctors agreed, it was as good as ever.
Mr Webster senior paid the hospital bill, but still Alan parents made a claim for damages (100 pounds) and additional expenses (17 pounds, 15 shillings). When the civil case came up in court, Alan, now eight years old, told the magistrate that his ankle was still sometimes painful. He said he’d been called by a boy from the other side of the road and had looked first before crossing the road, but was knocked over just after he’d crossed the third tramway line. A new witness said he saw the bike rush over the brow of the hill at 25 to 30 miles an hour and that it was on the wrong side of the road when it hit the boy.
Three doctors told the court there was now no trace of injury, and X-rays showed no permanent damage. There was nothing to indicate there would be any further trouble, though Dr Clarke did mention the remote possibility that the growth of the foot might be retarded.
The magistrate listened to it all as the day went by – the plaintiff in the morning and the defence in the afternoon – but reserved his decision; he needed time to go through the evidence and decide whether to award damages or dismiss the case as a non-suit.
Three weeks later, the magistrate gave his judgement. He concluded that Norman had been riding at a dangerously high speed along a steep stretch of road. With due solemnity, he summed up his view of the matter. Had Norman been travelling at a slower speed and keeping a proper lookout, he would have been able to avoid colliding with the boy. Though young Alan hadn’t made sure the road was safe before starting to cross, he had undergone pain, inconvenience, and his schooling had suffered, so he was entitled to damages. The Evans family was awarded 30 pounds in general damages and 17 pounds 15 shillings in special damages.
The wrong swerve, Auckand Star, 10 December 1912
Sequel to accident, New Zealand Herald, 30 July 1913
Motor-cyclist sued, New Zealand Herald, 31 July 2013
Boy awarded damages, New Zealand Herald, 21 August 1913
Speed limits, Progress, 1 February 1912
Petone speed limit 15MPH, 1925
March of the motor, 1903
Motor madness: On the intoxification of speed 1906
Motors and Motoring: Car trips and purchases are news, New Zealand Herald, January 1905
Parnell intends a speed limit of 10MPH, May 1906
No speed limit in existence, New Zealand Herald, 1906
How the road was won, New Zealand Geographic, May-June 2003
Bikes and the law, Te Ara
“Legislation was passed in 1902 against travelling at ‘a greater rate of speed than is reasonable’. The Motor Vehicle Act 1905 required owners to register and license motor vehicles, including motorcycles.
Most early offences were minor. Riders were fined for riding on the footpath to avoid the muddy wheel ruts of roads. Speeding also attracted a fine. In some towns early speed signs were erected – 10 miles (16 kilometres) per hour round corners and 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) per hour across intersections.”
New Zealand Reserve Bank CPI inflation calculator: A basket of goods that would have cost one pound in 1912 would cost $165 in 2018, but with an average annual salary of around $150 pounds, earning each pound took longer.