Early driving licence issued by the North Riding of Yorkshire County Council

Local man William Swinney's driver's licence
Local man William Swinney's driver's licence

You may recall an exhibit of the week from a few weeks ago - some documents and a special constable’s armband dating from World War Two, and belonging to local man William Swinney.

William’s relatives had passed on a package of documents and small objects relating to him to the Scarborough Collection - all everyday things which give a fascinating insight into the period.

I promised some more items from this collection, and today’s exhibit is William’s driving licence from the late 20s and early 30s - in those days, it reissued annually, not by DVLC, but by the then North Riding of Yorkshire County Council.

Driver’s licences were first introduced in this country in 1903 under the Motor Car Act 1903, and were initially meant simply as a means of identifying vehicles and their drivers - driving tests weren’t introduced until 1935, and even then were initially voluntary: the first person to pass was a Mr Beere, who paid seven shillings and sixpence (35p) to take it. Driving tests were suspended during World War Two, and again from 1956 to 1957 during the Suez Crisis, to allow examiners to help administer petrol rationing.

Holders of the first, yellow, licences were entitled to ‘drive a Motor Car or Motor Cycle’. In 1930, presumably shortly after Mr Swinney took out the licence pictured here, the wording changed and holders were allowed to ‘drive or steer a motor car or to drive a motor cycle’ - why a motor cycle wouldn’t need steering is unclear!

Soon afterwards, the wording changed again: holders were, for 12 months, entitled to drive a vehicle of ‘any class or description’. Subsequent changes saw the document list precisely those vehicle types for which holders were licensed.

In 1921 there were only one million drivers in Britain; by 1939, that figure had tripled. But it was during the 1960s, when cars became more affordable, that motoring really took off.

By the early 1970s, there were reckoned to be around 20 million drivers in this country, and a centralised, computer-based, licensing system was brought in to cope with the huge increase in demand for licences. The RAC estimates that there are around 30 million licensed drivers in the UK today.

Mr Swinney’s licence is now part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or (01723) 384510.