Did They Have Vans In 1888

There were some interesting comments on my recent YouTube video about Elizabeth Gibbs video from viewers who questioned two of the statements I made in the video.


One viewer took issue with the fact I stated that Alfred Winwood, the delivery carman who ran Mrs. Gibbs down, was driving on the wrong side of the road. The viewer was adamant that there was no wrong side of the road in 1887, but that vehicles drove on whichever side they wished.

Aside from the obvious chaos, not to mention danger, that this would have caused, it was, in fact, legally mandated that vehicles must drive on the left side of the road, and it had been the law since the passing of the Highway Act of 1835, albeit the custom itself dates back to the 18th century, when traffic congestion in London increased dramatically, especially on London Bridge, and it became customary for vehicles crossing the Bridge to keep to the left.


This was made compulsory in the rest of the country with the passing of the Highway Act In 1835, section 78 of which stated:-

“… if the driver of any waggon, cart, or other carriage whatsoever, or of any horses, mules, or other beast of draught or burthen meeting any other waggon, cart, or other carriage, or horses, mules, or other beasts of burthen, shall not keep his waggon, cart or carriage, or horses, mules, or other beasts of burthen, on the left or near side of the road; Then every person so offending, and being convicted of any such offence, either by his own confession, the view of a justice, or by the oath of one or more credible witnesses, before any two justices of the peace, shall in addition to any civil action to which he may make himself liable, for every such offence forfeit any sum not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale.”

In a nutshell what this section of the act was saying was – Drive on the left or else!


A glance at photographs from the era shows that there was quite clearly a drive on the left policy at the time.

This image shows Fleet Street in the late 19th century.

A photograph of traffic on Fleet Street.
Fleet Street In The Late 19th Century.


As you can see the traffic is keeping to the left side.

So, in 1887 people didn’t choose what side of the road they wanted to drive on, the majority of them obeyed the law and drove on the left.


Another viewer wasn’t impressed by the fact that I referred to the vehicle that ran Elizabeth Gibbs down as “a van”, and observed – “A “Van” ? It was horse and cart back in 1888, vans didn’t exist.”

The short answer to that is that vans most certainly did exist in 1887, and they had existed since at least the 1820s, if not before.

Now I’m not saying that the type of vehicle that the viewer was probably thinking of existed back in 1887, as it obviously didn’t.

But there were most certainly vans on the roads of Victorian Britain.


The word van is, in fact, a contraction of the word caravan, and throughout the 19th century it simply referred to a covered wagon or high sided, enclosed cart used for transporting goods, such as the Pickford’s van that can be seen in this photograph of Aldgate High Street.

Traffic on Aldgate High Street in the 1890s.
Aldgate High Street, 1890s.


By the 1850s adverts for “vans” were frequently appearing in newspapers.

On Wednesday December 14th, for example, Dakin, Shinton and Company advertised in The Wolverhampton Chronicle that theyrespectfully announced” that they were about to “institute a system of van delivery in the town and neighbourhood,” and that a van would leave for deliveries every Saturday at 3 and 4 p.m.

John Kenyon, furniture remover, placed the following advert in The Bolton Evening News on Friday the 17th of February 1871 – and even headed his advert, “Vans, Vans, Vans.”

John Kenyon's advert for his vans.
Copyright, The British Library Board.


The advert goes on to advise readers that J.K. is prepared to remove furniture, pictures, valuable objects of art, wines etc. to or from any part of the kingdom in First Class covered vans.


On Saturday the 24th of May 1884, The Chelsea News and General Advertiser carried an advert for J. Nielsen who advertised his services, consisting of, “horse, good furniture van and man,” for one shilling an hour.

So the concept of the man with a van was even familiar to the residents of Victorian Britain.


Just like today, vans could also be something of a nuisance to other road users.

In a scenario that will be only too familiar to those of us who have travelled around the streets of large cites, the very Dickensian sounding Ebenezer Purdie found himself in court in June 1878, charged with obstructing an Edinburgh thoroughfare.

According to a subsequent article, that appeared in The Edinburgh Evening News on Saturday the 8th of June:-

“At the City Police Court, Ebenezer Purdie was charged with having wilfully caused an obstruction to the thoroughfare, by means of a horse and van, in Pleasance on Wednesday.

He pleaded not guilty.

A policeman said the prisoner’s van stood on the street for hour and quarter without any one in charge of it.

He was found guilty, and sentenced to pay a fine of 10s, with the alternative of five days in jail.”

And Ebenezer Purdie wasn’t the only van man to obstruct a Victorian thoroughfare.

In fact, there were constant reports in the newspapers of van drivers being prosecuted for obstructing highways across the land with their vehicles.


There were also frequent reports of tragedies involving vans.

An article in The Islington Gazette on Friday 29th December 1876 reported that:-

“An inquiry was held on Wednesday, at the Coroner’s Court, touching the death of Walter Williams, aged four years, who was run over by a Pickford’s van.”

The accident is intriguing from a Jack the Ripper perspective because the driver of the van was none other than Charles Cross, the man who, twelve years later, would discover the body of Jack the Ripper’s first victim, Mary Nichols.


The article went on to report the evidence given by Charles Cross at the inquest:-

“Charles Cross, carman to Pickford and Co., said that he was crossing with his van from Copenhagen-street to Elizabeth-street, when two children seemed come from behind a trap that was standing on the off-side, all in instant, running against his horses.

He tried to pull up, but found it was impossible.”


The article refers throughout to the vehicle that Charles Cross was driving as a “van”.

So if, as many people now believe, Charles Cross, whose actual name was officially Charles Lechmere, was responsible for the Whitechapel murders, then Jack the Ripper also drove a van.


In another case, on Thursday the 4th of March 1886, The Manchester Evening News, in an article about an accident that was very similar to the one that caused the death of Elizbath Gibbs, reported a, “Shocking Accident” to a Baker’s Van Man, and went on to give details of the inquest into the death of the victim, Nicholas Winder , who had been fatally injured when his horse had dashed off rapidly, causing one of the wheels of his “van” to pass over his body.


And finally, there are the newspaper reports of the inquest into Mrs Elizabeth Gibbs’s death, and the coverage of Alfred Winwood’s police court appearances and Old Bailey trial, in all of which the vehicle that the was driving is referred to as “a van.”

So, there were vans in 1887, and there had been vans on the streets of London for many decades when Alfred Winwood ran over Mrs Elizabeth Gibbs whilst driving his van on the wrong side of the road.