During the reign of the dithering King of France, Louis XV, great-grandson of his predecessor, the flamboyant “Sun King,” Louis XIV, the world’s first automobile huffed, puffed, rattled and heaved its way through the cobbled streets of Paris at the breakneck speed of 2 1/2 mph [4 kph]. It was a strange steam-propelled three-wheeled contraption, designed specifically for military use. This was in 1769, about 20 years before the Bastille was stormed that ushered in the French Revolution and the same year that Napoleon was born in Corsica. The following year, its inventor, Nicolas Cugnot, produced a steam-powered tricycle to carry four passengers and so began the age of the automobile.
Between 1860 and 1880, American factories produced steam-driven coaches for the mass movement of people and freight by road. Francis Jones Barnard may well be credited for introducing mechanically propelled vehicles to British Columbia offering “steam to Cariboo” through his General Transportation Company that owned four Thomson “Road Steamers.” It was a failure. Then on February 22, 1890, the electric streetcar system launched in Victoria - the third in Canada. This was a highly successful mode of transit for over 50 years.
Alongside steam, the electric car had gradually evolved from the 1830s. Invented by Robert Anderson of Scotland, it used rechargeable batteries and by the early 1900s, electric vehicles outsold all others. However, two German engineers, Daimler and Benz independently developed a gasoline-powered vehicle, which led to the creation of the modern automobile. Both engineers used the research of Dutch engineer Christian Hygews who, in 1680, produced the first internal combustion device, using gunpowder! Daimler and Benz substituted gas for gunpowder.
The early 20th century was awash with more than 100,000 patents of every conceivable kind, all related to the automobile. For many years, no one thought of licensing vehicles. First, there were not enough of them to worry about and, next, any suggestion that a licence would be necessary to use a public road was an outrage.
Again, it was France who led the way and the police demanded “number plates” be used to identify mechanical vehicles on the streets of Paris in 1893. Some history books say that in North America, New York was the first jurisdiction to require that licence plates be affixed to vehicles on April 25, 1901. Others claim West Virginia and Massachusetts should be given that honour, since their legislation was State-wide and required the use of officially produced plates in 1903.
British Columbia also started registering vehicles in 1903, but it was up to the owner to make up markers to display the assigned registration number. Leather, metal numbers and wood were often the materials used. The letters "BC" appear on the majority of these owner-provided plates. It was not until 1913 that the province began to issue official licence plates, made of porcelain. This followed legislation introduced in 1912 that required all motor vehicles to be registered annually.
What is generally not known, however, is that Victoria is the true pioneer of the North American licence plate. Long before the advent of the mechanically powered vehicle, Victoria had already begun a system of licensing for commercial road users. Local enthusiast John Roberts has been a licence plate collector for over 30 years and is an expert in the field of what he terms, “plateology.”
About three years ago, John purchased a 5 x 8-inch [12.7 cm x 20.2 cm] porcelain on steel licence plate, the type of which has mystified collectors for years. These plates were issued by the City of Victoria to be affixed to Hackney carriages, and express wagons as early as January 1, 1884.
It turns out that city council had received many complaints from tourists to Victoria (yes, there were tourists back then) being overcharged by Hack drivers of horse drawn carriages, the forerunners of today's taxicabs. Councillor Baker, in October 1882, suggested to council that Hackney carriage drivers in the city be issued with badges to identify them, and that fares be regulated.
In July 1883, the city council enacted bylaw 100, known as the “Hack Regulation Bylaw.” Clause 2 of the bylaw states that two badges will be issued on which shall be inscribed the number of the licence, and the smaller of the badges to be displayed in a prominent place inside the vehicle.
All hack and express wagon drivers were to ensure their vehicles were displaying the two plates (each costing $1 annually) effective January 1, 1884. By March 1886, there were 42 hacks plying the streets of which 28 had not paid for a licence, so there was general reluctance to accept responsibility for the fees imposed by city hall.
In 1902, the first motorized vehicle arrived in Victoria, startling many of the horses. It was a $900 Oldsmobile driven by Dr. E.C. Hart, a local physician. It took a while for the new “horseless carriage” to catch on, but by 1905, there were about 20 cars and 10 motorcycles, so an automobile club was formed.
The same year, the Hutchinson Brothers began an “automobile livery service” – Victoria’s first automobile taxi company. Among Victoria’s early car-owners was Robert Butchart who, on May 14, 1904, paid two dollars for licence plate Number 11. The speed limit was 10 mph [16 kph] within residential areas and 15 mph [24 kph] outside.
There are only six of the original Victoria 'Licensed Vehicle' plates known to exist, numbered 1 to 200 and John Roberts owns plate Number 6, the lowest number of the set. This may well be the oldest licence plate in the world.
Bragging rights to Victoria as the birthplace of the licence plate has now been forwarded to *Guinness Book of World Records*, and John is awaiting a reply.
If readers have photographs or plates that feature these early Victoria issues, contact John at JohnMRoberts@shaw.ca
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