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The Human Hen

“If a fast motor-car sees a man, woman, or child, a nursemaid with a perambulator, a dog, or a hen in its path, it makes a loud, rude, and alarming noise to tell the man, woman, child, nursemaid, dog, or hen to get out of the way. The old woman, child, nursemaid, dog, or hen are then expected to proceed to a place of safety as quickly as possible. Many motorists expect them to break into a run; and in practice most of them do break into a run.”

So said Albert Haddock in 1932. Mr. Haddock was the invention of comic writer, trained barrister and one-time MP for Oxford University, A. P. Herbert, who wrote a regular column in Punch. This column was a parody of the common law. In his cases – some of which were later reported as real ones, such as a cow being used as a cheque – Sir Alan Patrick Herbert poked fun at judges, lawyers, barristers, and the police. Haddock got into a great many scrapes, and was frequently – and hilariously – prosecuted.

Herbert was very much opposed to the lack of a speed limit in the UK. From 1930 to 1934 motorists were allowed to choose whatever speed they wanted wherever they wanted. And it’s against this background that the following fictitious case should be read. It highlights the sense of entitlement to the public highway that many motorists of the time displayed, and which I discuss at length in my book.  



MR. ALBERT HADDOCK surrendered to his bail at Marlborough Street Police Court to-day.

Mr. Slit (for the prosecution): The police, sir, are anxious that the accused in this case shall be severely dealt with; but they are not certain what for. It is not the first time that Mr. Haddock has hampered the police by behaving in a manner obviously undesirable but difficult to classify. On the fourteenth of this month he was detained by Constable Boot in Piccadilly and taken to Vine Street Station, and he is now charged with:

(a) Assault
(b) Committing or being a public nuisance
(c) Conduct calculated to cause a breach of the King’s peace
(d) Causing an obstruction
(e) Attempt to do bodily harm
(f) Offensive and insulting behaviour
(g) Threatening words and gestures
(h) Causing a public mischief

and if none of these charges should succeed the Bench will be asked to make an order under the Lunacy Act.

The accused is a very fast runner; and on the afternoon of the fourteenth, at a time when both the street and the pavement were crowded, he was seen running at a great pace along the pavement –

The Metropolitan Magistrate: Was there any collision with other foot-passengers?

Mr. Slit: No, sir – no actual collision or injury.

The Magistrate: Then there is no battery?

Mr. Slit: No, sir; but as you are aware, there may be an assault without battery, indeed, without actual touching. I should tell the Court that the accused was very oddly equipped. He wore running-shorts and rubber shoes, and attached to a belt round his middle was a large motor-horn having an exceptionally raucous and intimidating note. As he bounded along the pavement, darting nimbly between one pedestrian and another, he constantly sounded this horn and shouted, “Look out, I’m coming!” and even, on one occasion, “If you don’t look out you will be hurt!” Warned or alarmed by these sounds, a great many persons did jump out of the way or change their course to let the accused go by; and one or two elderly persons, persuaded by the sound of a motor-horn behind them that a motor car had strayed on to the pavement, ran in alarm to one side with a precipitancy by no means beneficial to tired hearts and aged nervous systems. On these facts, your worship, we •ask the Bench for a conviction. Call Constable Boot.

Constable Boot (giving evidence of arrest): Accused, when taken into custody, made a statement. He said, “What the –– h–– has it got to do with you?”

Magistrate: Come, come, officer, don’t beat about the bush. What did the accused say?

Witness: He said, “What the blank h––“

The Magistrate: No, no, we must have the exact words. This Court is not a kindergarten.

Witness (then repeated the alleged expressions of accused, and continued): I replied, “I want no obscene or obstreperous language from you––see?”

Accused responded, “I am training pedestrians.”

A crowd having collected and which adopted a menacing attitude, I then took accused into custody for his own safety.

The Magistrate: For his own safety? You did not see him endanger the lives or limbs of others?

Witness: No, sir, he dodged in and out like.

Haddock (in the box, asked leave to make a statement. He said): Speed is the goods, your honour. Speed is nuts. Speed wins the knighthoods. Speed excites the sub-editors. Speed is a front-page story. Speed––

The Magistrate: What is all this about?

Witness: I was saying, your worship, that rapid movement from place to place was one of the blessings, triumphs, and essentials of modern civilization. There is no old-fashioned speed-limit on the roads or pavements. We may drive our motor-cars as fast as we think fit, provided that we hit nothing and nobody. I was merely behaving like a motor-car.

The Magistrate: Send for the medical officer.

Witness (continuing): All the motor cars are going faster. But some go faster than others. And when a faster one overtakes a slow one it makes a rude and unpleasant noise to tell the other to get out of the way––

The Magistrate: To give warning of its approach.

Witness: As you will. And if a fast motor-car sees a man, woman, or child, a nursemaid with a perambulator, a dog, or a hen in its path, it makes a loud, rude, and alarming noise to tell the man, woman, child, nursemaid, dog, or hen to get out of the way. The old woman, child, nursemaid, dog, or hen are then expected to proceed to a place of safety as quickly as possible. Many motorists expect them to break into a run; and in practice most of them do break into a run. Nobody thinks that this is bad manners or in any way remarkable. I was merely behaving like a motor-car––.

The Magistrate: But––

Witness: The result is that men, women, and children are becoming more and more expert in getting out of the way, though the hen still does it best; and the policy of the Government is not to reduce the speed of motor-cars (for that would be fantastic and fatal), but to increase the speed of pedestrians. It is hoped to educate the pedestrian to such a degree of alertness and alacrity that he will at last approximate to the hen. The hen, your worship–– Your worship, I wish to call a small, middle-aged hen to give evidence––

The Magistrate (kindly): Very well, Mr. Haddock. The doctor will be here soon and he will bring you a hen.

Witness: The hen, your worship, has a very mobile and flexible neck, and an eye on each side of the head, so that she can look right and look left at the same time. By continual slight movements of the neck she becomes aware of motor-cars approaching noiselessly behind her; she has exceptional agility and a power of instant acceleration in emergency. In short, the perfect pedestrian. Owing to the difference in natural advantages, it may be some time before we produce the human hen, but we are advancing.

The trouble is, your honour, that the training is not continuous. The pavements have not kept pace with the roads. On the roads the race is to the swiftest; but on the pavements there is neither swift nor slow. The man who can run fast has to plod along at the same dull pace as a crowd of people who run more slowly or cannot run at all. There is here, therefore, a vast waste of energy and potential speed; and speed, as I have said, being the goods, this must be a bad thing. Besides, the dreamy pedestrian who has just had a good shake-up crossing the road is able, when he reaches the pavement, to fall back into his former condition of reverie or stupor and amble along quietly at his own sweet will. Every step he takes on the pavement is a hold-up in his education, a step away from the human hen.

Accordingly, your worship, I was behaving like a motor-car. Though I do not possess a motor-car I have an itch for speed. I love to bound and leap along, delighting in my strength and swiftness, and anxious to show other men that I can run faster than they can. Besides, I have a great many appointments; and my appointments are more important than other men’s. Why should I be held up on a crowded pavement by a lot of slow-moving old trouts who are not in a hurry and couldn’t hurry if they were?

I found, your honour, that when I leaped and bounded through a crowd without giving audible warning I jostled the old trouts, and sometimes knocked them down; and the old trouts naturally resented it. But now that I sound my little horn they scuttle out of the way and are perfectly safe. Also, they are kept in good training for the roads, or would be if all the fast-moving men behaved as I do. So what all the fuss is about is frankly baffling, dear old worship, or honour, as the case may be.

Magistrate: I shall remand the accused for examination as to his mental condition; but unless the medical report recommends his detention I do not think that there is any case here for the Court to determine.

The accused has not committed an assault; or, if he has, then every motorist who sounds his horn commits an assault. Nor has he attempted to do bodily harm; indeed he has taken special measures to avoid it. He has not caused an obstruction, except in the sense that his arrest attracted a crowd; but the constable is to blame for that, not he. So far from causing an obstruction he made the centre of the pavement clearer for the faster-moving walkers. A fast car which causes a slow one to draw in to the side of the road does not cause an obstruction; nor, in the absence of offensive words or gestures, would its driver be charged with conduct conducive to a breach of the peace.

The sounding of the horn is not a threat but a warning, benevolent and not offensive in intention and sanctioned by the law. Indeed, a man who saw that he might injure another and deliberately refrained from warning him would be a monster and doubly answerable at law if he did cause injury. And, though the sound be unmusical and harsh, the use of a single horn in Piccadilly at a busy hour can hardly be accounted a Common Law nuisance when three or four hundred similar horns are in full blast a few yards away.

The conduct of the accused was admittedly unusual; but novelty of behaviour is not necessarily a crime, though it may be evidence of imbecility. The progress of the first motor-car down Piccadilly was, without doubt, as startling and alarming to many as the proceedings of the accused now appear on the Piccadilly pavement.

It seemed, not very long ago, a monstrous thing that a man should bring a swiftly moving machine upon the highway––a machine that roared like a dragon at those who stood in its path, a machine that claimed a superior status to the walking citizen by virtue simply of its speed and strength. For this looked like the discredited doctrine that Might is Right. Yet this once
monstrous thing is now an accepted and normal part of our lives. And if we allow extraordinary behaviour to become normal on the roads, we must expect it in the end to leap over the narrow frontier of the gutter and become normal on the pavements. As the accused has said, there is no speed-limit on the pavements, and, provided he does no damage or wrong, presumably a man may move as fast as he likes.

I have no doubt that as the delicious benefits of speed and noise become more and more appreciated we shall sweep away the old-fashioned and haphazard habits of the pedestrian population. Every walker will be required to carry lights and a horn and proceed as fast as he can upon the particular foot-track which is allotted to him, according to his capacity and speed. This cannot fail to improve the character of the nation and assist the officers of justice; for slow walking leads to sauntering, and sauntering to loitering, and from loitering the step is short to loitering with intent to commit a felony.

It is true, however, that we have not yet arrived at that degree of civilization; and meanwhile it may be that Mr. Haddock, like other pioneers, will have to be put away in a home. Remanded.

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