A group of motoring enthusiasts met at the Trocadero restaurant in London's West End on 29 June 1905 to form the Automobile Association (the AA) – a body initially intended to champion the cause of the motorist and particularly to help motorists avoid police speed traps. As motoring became more popular, so did we – the AA's 100 members in 1905 grew to 83,000 by 1914. As AA membership expanded, so did our activities.
Early cycle patrol
The first AA patrols had no uniforms and only basic pedal cycles. They worked at weekends only, patrolling the Brighton and Portsmouth roads where their official duties were laid down as 'indicating dangers on the road and helping motorists who had broken down'. Uniforms were issued from 1909, by which time there were patrols all over the country, including Scotland.
By 1912 there were 950 cyclist patrols.
In 1907 the first AA insurance policy was launched – arranged with Lloyds and with no profit going to the AA. In 1906 a legal defence fund had been set up to ensure legal representation and payment of lawyers' fees. The AA took no more active part in motor insurance until 1967.
Garage agent sign
To cater for the increased popularity of touring by car, the AA appointed agents and repairers throughout the UK. 1,500 agents were listed in the AA Members' Special Handbook, which first appeared in 1908. The first hotels were listed in the handbook from 1909.
We introduced the first AA routes around 1912 with handwritten details, and by 1929 we were issuing 239,000 routes a year.
Early hotel sign
From 1912 we started inspecting and classifying hotels. Those receiving our famous AA star classification were included in subsequent editions of the Members' Handbook.
From the start hotel inspectors paid for themselves and accepted no favours. The star system was derived from the system used to classify brandy – The AA Secretary, Stenson Cooke, had once been a wine and spirit salesman - with a three star hotel being defined as "a really decent, average middle class hotel".
The use of motor cars was initially met with hostility, suspicion and resentment - they were noisy and dirty, and alarmed horses.
Motor cars were initially classed as ‘locomotives’ (under the Locomotives on Highways Acts 1865) and their speed was limited to four miles an hour. They had to be preceded by a footman carrying a red flag.
By 1878 each 'locomotive' had to be preceded at least twenty yards by a person required to assist horses in passing the locomotive, but he no longer had to carry a red flag.
This law was repealed in 1897, with the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, and the speed limit increased to fourteen miles an hour.
The Motor Car Act of 1903 stipulated a speed limit of twenty miles an hour.
The Police forces of the day enforced the new speed limit with such vigour and enthusiasm that it was tantamount to persecution.
A trio of officers would choose a rural stretch of straight road and hide in the bushes waiting for the unwary driver.
Penalties imposed by unsympathetic Count Magistrates were harsh. The usual fine was £5 - equal to a month’s wages - with the alternative of four weeks in jail.
Called ‘hedge-hogs’ by the early day drivers, this zealous Police persecution was killing the new era of motoring.
In response to this police oppression, a London motor dealer, Charles Jarrott (of Charles Jarrott & letts Ltd) started to organise a special staff of cyclists skilled at judging speeds. Bearing red flags they patrolled the Brighton Road to caution those they considered were travelling at a speed which was illegal or dangerous.
Subsequently, in June 1905, a group of enthusiasts, Walter Gibbons, Charles Jarrott, Ludwig Schlentheim and Alfred Harris, banded together under the title ‘The Motorists’ Mutual Association’. Amongst its objectives was to "continue patrolling the Brighton Road, as done by Charles Jarott & Letts Ltd, and to patrol other main roads as subscriptions are obtained."
First standard issue AA uniform
Meeting at the Trocadero in Leicester Square, London, they formulated their strategy and agreed a plan of campaign.
Scouts were to ‘sniff out’ traps along the main roads and wave down unsuspecting drivers approaching the ‘measured furlong’ at more than 20 mph.
A motorcyclist and three pedal cyclists were engaged to operate the section of Brighton Road to Crawley, while four more cyclists operated the Crawley to Purley stretch, all operating at weekends only.
A month after their inaugural meeting the MMA changed its name to The Automobile Association.
Many first scouts were Fleet Street newsboys. Being energetic and physically fit and using their own bicycles, this weekend activity was seen as a bit of sport and a marked a contrast to delivering newspapers.
John Drew is credited with serving longer than any other of those early scouts and rose through the ranks to become a Superintendant. He was buried at Watford Cemetery on the12th February 1936.
Some scouts were called on to give defending evidence in courts.
One scout, William Jones, swore an oath that he followed a motorist and AA member Herbert Johnson - accused of exceeding the 20 mph limit - along the Fairmile stretch of the Portsmouth Road, on his bicycle at a speed of no more than 15 or 16 miles an hour.
Johnson was convicted and Jones subsequently arrested and charged with perjury.
The AA staked every penny of its funds to bring about his acquittal. Not only did it face bankruptcy but more importantly, its reputation was put on the line as this was only three months after the AA had been founded. Thankfully the case was won by the AA.
Stenson Cooke took office at the age of 31 on 24 August 1905 for an annual salary of £156.
Located at 18 Fleet Street - a borrowed office belonging to a group of solicitors - the AA had 90 subscribing members and a similar figure in the bank.
Stenson Cooke received a knighthood in 1933 for services to motoring. He died in 1942, still in service and at the age of 68.
AA cycle scout
In 1906 seven roads were being patrolled by the first scouts who were expected to turn out neatly dressed in a cycling costume – knee breeches, stockings, boots, jacket, cap collar and tie.
As late as 1909 patrols were expected to provide their own breeches and boots with only the cap, jacket and ancillary equipment being supplied by the AA.
Scouts were supplied with a yellow armband with the Letters AA on it to be worn on the left arm above the elbow.
They were also supplied with a reversible red and white circular metal disc badge with a leather strap which was buttoned to the front of the scout’s coat near the neck.
The badge carried the AA sign together with the scout's own number, and would be shown to all passing drivers, not just AA members.
AA members would be recognised by their membership badges on their motor cars, and thus the scout would be able to provide them with information and assistance if required.
Early AA patrol saluting
This overt interference with the Police’s execution of their duties came to an end on 1911 when use of the coloured badge stopped.
From 1911 it became the absence of the salute that would be used to warn of a Police speed trap - members were asked to ‘stop and ask the reason’ whenever a patrol scout failed to salute them.
The Road Traffic Act 1929 was introduced into the House of Lords in November 1929 and the Road Traffic Bill of 1 August 1930 eventually removed the 20 mph speed limit.
Following criticism that to give or acknowledge a salute endangered the patrol and the member, both of whom had to lift a hand from the controls, in 1961 patrols were instructed that it was their duty to salute AA badges but not if there was a risk to themselves.
In 1962 (coincidentally the same year that Mini vans started to replace motorcycles) patrols were relieved altogether of the responsibility of saluting when patrolling.
The Hog's Back, Surrey (1953)
In 1906 we began erecting village signs as local councils didn't consider this their responsibility.
AA village sign
The first AA sign was erected at Hatfield and showed the place name as well as mileages to nearby towns.
We had put up more than 30,000 village signs by 1939, when they became a local authority responsibility.
In fact we were responsible for most signing before 1939 having started to erect direction signs and a variety of warning signs – schools, dangerous bends etc. from 1909.
Signs officer (1920s)
Preparing signs for racing at Aintree
After the war the AA's focus was on temporary signs for events and AA Signs' distinctive yellow and black colouring for special events remains a familiar sight at the roadside.
As early as 1906 the AA held negotiations with the French authorities about touring facilities and had discussions with shipping companies about transporting members' cars across the channel.
Charles Jarrott's car
Reciprocal membership arrangements were made with touring clubs in France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland and from 1908 the handbook included brief information about conditions in different countries.
The foreign touring service really took off in 1908 when one of the AA's founders, Charles Jarrott had his car transported from Folkestone to Boulogne.
By 1914 the AA had an office in France courtesy of the Automobile Club of Nice.
Cars being shipped from Dover (1929)
AA box 81, Denham (1912)
The first AA telephone boxes were put up in 1912 too, initially as shelters for patrols. By 1920 there were 61 boxes and members had a special key to open them – members could make local calls free of charge.
In 1925 a series of 'super' telephone boxes were installed with signposts on the roof which were illuminated at night.
By the early 1960s no more traditional boxes were being built. In their heyday there were almost 1,000 – now only 19 remain, eight of which are Grade II listed buildings.
The AA's archivist has compiled a definitive list of all known AA roadside telephone box locations prior to 1962. Download the list as a pdf below.
AA roadside telephone box locations
You can find more recent photographs of AA boxes, including many from the list above and some that are in museums on www.redphonebox.info
1912 First AA roadside ‘sentry’ boxes installed to give shelter to patrols, who literally patrolled sections of road. Box no.1 was at Newingreen, near Hythe, Kent, on the A20/A261. They were soon equipped with a telephone to allow contact with patrols and members were entitled to make free local calls.
1920 AA members issued with a key to open boxes, now numbering 61, in the absence of a patrol. Mostly the ‘stable door’ type with the upper part of the door giving access to the telephone, fire extinguisher and local information; and the lower part to a small fuel supply, first aid equipment and cleaning materials. Most of the boxes were illuminated at night either by gas or electricity operated by a timer switch.
1923 AA road signs introduced showing the direction and distance to the nearest AA telephone box.
1925 ‘Super’ telephone boxes were constructed at major crossroads, equipped with direction signs on a twenty-foot high central pole and illuminated by lamps on the roof.
1927 New more solid design introduced with greater attention paid to the colour scheme and location to make them fit in with the scenery. Patrols were encouraged to improve the appearance of their ‘patch’ by planting flowers and bushes, and some even built special features such as flower gardens, mock wells and dovecots.
1938 638 telephone boxes in operation throughout the UK.
1947 AA and RAC phone box keys made interchangeable. New slim-line ‘walk in’ telephone boxes introduced with older ones being adapted to offer complete protection to members.
1956 Another change of style with boxes in areas where the AA’s radio-controlled road service operated fitted with illuminated door panels. Patrols were now equipped with radio systems fitted to their motorcycle and sidecar so they were contactable while mobile.
1960 With rising car ownership and the building of the first motorways, supplementary roadside phone posts installed.
1968 Wooden sentry boxes phased out – with the exception of those that were listed or in areas of scenic beauty – in favour of more modern, pedestal phones. Keys no longer issued and number of boxes peaked at 787.
1992 Introduction of slim-line pedestal phones.
2002 AA phones decommissioned as mobile phones made them redundant.
AA phone box 1913
The AA’s relationship with the military can be traced back to its formation in 1905. Founding secretary, Stenson Cooke, had been a Lieutenant of the 1st London Rifle Volunteer Brigade and, for many years, most of the AA's patrols were ex-regular or national service soldiers.
During the First World War, AA members were called upon to donate their vehicles to carry the wounded.
Many vehicles were re-fitted with ambulance bodies before being shipped to France to be used on the Western Front.
AA Patrols of military age were also encouraged to enlist into the army. Many Patrols were former soldiers, and so returned to their respective regiments.
Recognising the special training that the AA Patrols had received, Stenson Cooke sought to have them transferred to the Army as one group. The War Office gave authority to raise two companies for the 8th (Cyclist) Battalion of the Essex Regiment (Headquartered in Colchester). Stenson Cooke was given the commission as Captain of one of the Companies.
In all 110 men joined the Battalion, with a further 340 AA employees joining other regiments. Most of the men saw service on the Western Front, with at least 20 being killed in action.
A Roll of Honour was produced by the AA in 1915 in recognition of the bravery of all the Patrols that had volunteered and (re-)enlisted into the army.
A Roll of Honour was produced by the AA in 1915
The original Roll of Honour was donated to the AA by Mrs Violet Eleanor Race, the daughter of Chief Inspector (James) Henry Shepherd, who enlisted with the 8th (Cyclist) Battalion of the Essex Regiment.
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