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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Disastrous Debut of the World’s First Traffic Lights: London 1868

More of a Victorian ‘factoid’ than a genuine post, I came across this snippet of information and thought I would share it.

In the 1860’s, the traffic of British roads – particularly cities, and even more particularly London – had massively increased. More people required ways to move about the city (a situation which led to the opening of the underground in the same decade) and businesses multiplied, requiring ways in which to transport goods from shops or warehouses by road to the closest train station. Markets increased in size and vendors had to carry more produce to sell, often they carried by hand, but usually a donkey and cart would be employed.

By the middle of the decade, trains were beginning to surpass the waterways as a means to transport goods about the country, and as local shipping trades diminished in London, the trains took over, and traders needed to get their produce to the trains. This invariably happened by road.

On top of this, personal vehicle ownership was increasing as the upper classes purchased, or sometimes hired, carriages, and the increase in population AND tourism (British people could now use the trains to visit their capital city rather than spend days travelling by horse) gave rise in the number of cabs and public carriages – especially outside train stations, ready to ferry newly arrived tourists around.

With all these vehicles fighting for space on the roads, London’s streets were chaos as the pictures below show, taken from Gustave Dore’s 1872 book: ‘London: A Pilgrimage’
London Bridge

Ludgate Hill
To combat this congestion, an ingenious device had been made to secure the safe passage of traffic through the metropolis, and on 9th December 1868, Londoners driving through the junction of Great George Street and Bridge Street (where you turn right off Westminster Bridge to go down Whitehall and left to drive past the houses of parliament) would have been greeted with the sight of the country’s first traffic lights.

The lights were designed by superintendent of the South-Eastern Railway, John Peake Knight. Knight had given evidence at a House of Commons committee in which he had put forward the safety benefits of the traffic light system, and the committee found in favour of introducing the new signals.

Knight was given the task of creating the traffic lights, and the initial design was a pillar with semaphore arms. When the arms were positioned 90 degrees to the pillar, the traffic was to stop, and when the arms were at 45 degrees to the post, traffic was to ‘be cautious’. The signals were simple, and designed to replace the movements of a traffic policeman’s arms.

To allow drivers to see the signals at night, red and green lights were added to the device, which had been manufactured by railway signal makers, Saxby and Farmer, who produced a fine looking iron pillar, 24 feet high and weighing five tonnes, painted green and ‘relieved with gilding’.
Initially, the new traffic signal was a success, but three weeks after the lights were erected, on 2nd January 1869 there was a disaster when a leaking gas valve caused the signal to explode. The police officer who was operating the signal suffered terrible burns to the face. The traffic lights were declared a safety hazard and removed immediately.

The traffic of London went about its business traffic-light-free until 1929, when, sixty years after John Peake Knight’s first set was erected.

As for Knight himself, he continued with his railway career, working as manager of the Brighton Railway Company until his death, at the age of 58 on 23rd July 1886. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery.

A blue plaque commemorating Knight as the inventor of the worlds first traffic lights can be seen in London at 12 Bridge Street.


  1. Apparently the first one way system was introduced in Victorian times - outside the Royal Society, London (sorry I cant remember the road) The scientific lectures were so popular that traffic ground to a halt outside and a one-way system was instigated.
    Grace x

  2. And now councils seem to throw them up whenever they have a spare hour! I never knew that, but what a sign of the times - when the most popular viewing spectacle was a scientific lecture. Have we dumbed down as a people?

    I wonder if Simon Cowell wants to take note...

  3. Great Post Thanks For sharing information about Traffic lights, also known as traffic signals, traffic lamps and traffic control accessories, are signalling devices positioned at road intersections, pedestrian crossings, and other locations to control flows of traffic.

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