Did Urban Police Engage in High-Speed Carriage Chases?

If a bank robber was seen by the police coming out of a London bank, and the coppers were to yell “Prithee stop, in the name of the law, god save the king” just as the perp was hopping in his getaway carriage, would a thrilling high-speed chase through the streets of London ensue?

Ever? Even once? Probably.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine the 1860’s New York Police (or wherever) having the resources to field teams of fast horses and skilled drivers on staff. These were fairly poor organizations.

I do seem to recall US President Grant got a ticket for speeding while driving a team of horses in Washington.

Wouldn’t a single horse go faster than a carriage? I bet both robber and police would be on horses, not in carts.

I’m unaware of there ever being a “patrol carriage”, the only carriage police forces had would have been a paddy wagon/Black Maria and getting one of these mobile prison cells going at a high speed would require quite the team of horses.

As walrus mentioned, an afluent town might have had a few horseback constables of the peace.

The easiest way to visualize this is to take a standard stagecoach robbery scene from an old western and change the clothes. Stagecoaches, being the pre-industrial equivelant of an armored car, were frequent targets of robbery, even occasionally in cities. The success rate of the crime increases when the number of witnesses that can track where you went decreases. Prior to radio/television, you certainly noticed when one of these went by fast.

New York City traffic in the 19th century was so slow that it would have been faster to go on foot. Carriages were for show, were probably OK uptown, but downtown, where the banks and stores would be, you could barely go faster than a walking pace due to carts stopped in the streets (and intersections with no form of traffic control), or trucks (large carts) abandoned on the side of the road.

It wasn’t until elevated railways were added in 1868 that things improved – though not by much. If a horse dropped dead in the middle of the street – not all that unusual, since the animals were worked extremely hard – everything came to a halt until the carcass could be dragged away.

It was similar in all large cities of the time. A robber was better off staying on foot until he got to a hiding place (and there were plenty of them) then to try to use a carriage.

I don’t know how well Michael Chrichton researched his “The Great Train Robbery” novel, but he claims that back then in London, if somebody yelled “Thief!”, everybody would rush to detain the culprit, not shy away as happens today. Though he was talking about chases on foot, not on horse/ cart.

You want a high speed Victorian police chase? Try the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. It ends with a high-speed boat chase down the Thames. This was pretty faithfully realized in the John Hawkesworth/Jeremy Brett/Granada TV/WGBH production. (Also in the La Rosa stage adaptation of it)
It makes sense – it’s hard to imagine a good, fast chase through the crowded London streets, but the river was wide open and naturally available. The notable high-speed land chases in Sherlock Holmes stories I can recall are mainly recent imitations, like Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-cent Solution and its movie adaptation, or in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

I heard differently from a British tabloid. In a rare moment extolling the virtues of the present over the past, a historian recalled how in some parts of London the bobbies were more likely to be overcome by a mob passers by hindering them in their pursuit.

I don’t recall any high speed or long urban chases in the original Holmes canon.

Chapter 10 of “Sign of Four” is what he was referring to:


in the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of 1909 the anarchist/robbers commandeered a tram [trans: streetcar] at one point and forced the driver to set off in it. The police commandeered a horse and cart and set off after it, only to have their horse shot.

Snark usually isn’t called for, but I gave you the precise reference, which **yabob[/.B] felt compelled to directly quote, for some reason. So:

How fast would that river chase be? Those steam-driven boats were capabale of what? About 15mph? I somehow doubt they were Evinrude speedboat speeds, based on the weight to power I’m trying to imagine.

Would someone on horsback be able to keep up? Of course they didn’t have the nice riverside promenades for following the chase in those days, either. It probably would have meant an interruption every few blocks to gallop down an alley to the river to see if the chase was still on…

It ain’t James Bond in Live and Let Die, but you use what you’ve got. I’m sure a horse on an unobstructed parallel track could go faster, but the point was that you didn’t have a parallel, open, unobstructed track, so the police followed after the Aurora in their own launch. The point is that both parties were using basically the same equipment on the equivalent of a modern high-speed vehicular chase.

And if a high-speed horse chase did happen, all four shoes would fall off the horse, only to miraculously regenerate in the next scene. And I ain’t shaftin’ you on that.