Walter Charles Bersey (15 October 1874 – 21 April 1950) was a British electrical engineer who developed electric-driven vehicles in the late 19th-century. He developed a new form of dry battery that enabled him to build, in 1888, an electric bus that he ran successfully for at least 3,000 miles (4,800 km). In March 1894 he built an electric parcel van that was used in central London and later developed electric private cars. Bersey also developed an electric cab design, 75 of which were built and used by the London Electrical Cab Company to run a service between 1897 and 1899. They were not financially successful owing to noise and vibration leading to excessive damage to tyres and batteries. In his later career Bersey developed designs for internal combustion engine cars and during the First World War served with the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force.

Early life and inventing careerEdit

Bersey was born on 15 October 1874.[1] Early in life he developed a new type of dry battery that allowed him to construct a working electric bus in 1888.[2] By mid-August 1894 he had run the bus successfully over a distance of 3,000–4,000 miles (4,800–6,400 km).[3] In March of that year Bersey had developed an electric parcel van for use in the City of London. This had an effective range of 25–50 miles (40–80 km) and running costs said to be half that of a horse-drawn van. The prototype covered 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in the following 11 months and was well received in the press; though it was derided as dangerous by crossing sweepers, bus and cab drivers.[3]

Bersey constructed his first electric car in 1895; this was a two-motor chain-driven design with a 2-speed clutch gearbox.[2] Bersey exhibited a vehicle at the International Horseless Carriage Exhibition at the Imperial Institute on 15 May 1896, it was described as "smooth but slow".[4] Bersey designed a number of such electric vehicles for the private motorist, though none survived to the modern day.[5] Bersey noted at the time that "there is no apparent limit to the hopes and expectations of the electric artisans… short [it] is the natural power which shall be the most intimate and effective of all man's assets".[5]

Bersey fell foul of the restrictive Locomotive Acts of the time which limited self-propelled road-going vehicles to 2 mph in towns and 4 mph in the countryside. They also required all such vehicles to be preceded by a man waving a red flag.[6] Bersey was summonsed to court at least twice for breaking the law, by exceeding the speed limit and not having a flag man.[7] In May 1896 he was fined £2 plus costs for driving on Parliament Street, London, in excess of the speed limit.[8] The Locomotive Acts were superseded, after much lobbying and campaigning, by the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 on 14 November 1896 which removed the requirement for a flag man and raised the speed limit to 12 mph.[6] At around this time Bersey predicted that "whilst petroleum may become the motive power in country districts, and steam will probably be used for very heavy vehicles, there is no doubt that electricity will be the most advantageous where the traffic can be located within a radius".[9]

Bersey electric cabEdit

In 1896 Bersey developed an electric taxi cab, intended for use in central London. The cab was exhibited at a South Kensington motor show and the 14 November 1896 London to Brighton emancipation race.[5] A batch of 12 cabs entered service for the London Electrical Cab Company on 19 August 1897.[5][10] The cabs, which charged the same rate as the horse-drawn alternative, proved popular and the fleet expanded to 75 vehicles.[5][10] However the heavy weight of the vehicle's batteries caused excessive tyre wear, vibration and increased noise.[5][10] The vibration damaged the delicate glass plate batteries and the cost of replacements for these and the solid rubber tyres caused the company to report a loss of £6,200 in its first year.[10][11] The cabs were withdrawn from service and the company closed in August 1899.[11]

Later careerEdit

In his later career Bersey switched to designing and selling internal combustion engine cars.[12][13] His firm of W C Bersey & Co of Hythe Road, Willesden, Middlesex, went into liquidation on 4 January 1900.[14] He then entered into a partnership with Augustus Sebastian Pereno as a motor dealer in Long Acre, London, which lasted until 24 February 1903.[15] A subsequent partnership with Percy Lloyd Hanmer Dodson, again as motor dealers, at Copthall Avenue, London, was dissolved on 5 October 1903.[16] Some of his patents were later acquired by Harry John Lawson's The Great Horseless Carriage Company.[17]

During the First World War Bersey was appointed a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps on 29 October 1917.[18][19] He was confirmed in rank as a 2nd class equipment officer on 29 November 1917 and on 15 March 1918 was appointed to the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel whilst on special employment.[20][21] Bersey transferred to the Royal Air Force upon its foundation on 1 April 1918 and was appointed a 1st class staff officer.[22] He relinquished his rank on 30 September 1918 and was appointed a temporary major in the administrative branch; he ceased to be employed on 25 April 1919 after the war had ended.[23][24]

Bersey died on 21 April 1950, by which point he was living at Sandbanks, Bournemouth, and left an estate valued at around £9,800.[25]


  1. ^ "2/Lieutenant Walter Charles BERSEY General List". National Archives.
  2. ^ a b Munro, Bill. "Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited and Electric Taxis". London Taxis : A Full History. Visit Gloucestershire. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  3. ^ a b Nicholson, T. R. (1982). The Birth of the British Motor Car 1769–1897: Volume 3 The Last Battle 1894–97. Springer. p. 336. ISBN 9781349053384.
  4. ^ Nicholson, T. R. (1982). The Birth of the British Motor Car 1769–1897: Volume 3 The Last Battle 1894–97. Springer. p. 412. ISBN 9781349053384.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Hurley, Selina. "The Surprisingly Old Story Of London's First Ever Electric Taxi". Science Museum Blog. Retrieved 31 October 2019.
  6. ^ a b O'Connell, Sean (1998). The Car and British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring, 1896–1939. Manchester University Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780719055065.
  7. ^ "R.A.C. Diamond Jubilee Exhibition". Motor Sport Magazine: 46. May 1957.
  8. ^ Nicholson, T. R. (1982). The Birth of the British Motor Car 1769–1897: Volume 3 The Last Battle 1894–97. Springer. p. 447. ISBN 9781349053384.
  9. ^ Clark, Liat (28 June 2012). "Science Museum exhibits London's 1897 electric taxi". Wired UK. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d Wade, Abdrew (10 August 2018). "August 1897 – The London Electrical Cab hits the streets". The Engineer. The Engineer.
  11. ^ a b "Bersey electric taxi cab". Science Museum Collection. Retrieved 31 October 2019.
  12. ^ Anderson, Curtis Darrel; Anderson, Judy (2005). Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History. McFarland. p. 27. ISBN 9780786418725.
  13. ^ Kearns, Emily (2015). Underground, Overground: A London Transport Miscellany. Summersdale Publishers Limited. p. 7. ISBN 9781783726233.
  14. ^ "No. 27214". The London Gazette. 27 July 1900. p. 4666.
  15. ^ "No. 27535". The London Gazette. 17 March 1903. p. 1799.
  16. ^ "No. 27604". The London Gazette. 9 October 1903. p. 6170.
  17. ^ Nicholson, T. R. (1982). The Birth of the British Motor Car 1769–1897: Volume 3 The Last Battle 1894–97. Springer. p. 415. ISBN 9781349053384.
  18. ^ "No. 30395". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 November 1917. p. 12123.
  19. ^ "2/Lieutenant Walter Charles BERSEY General List". The National Archives. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  20. ^ "No. 30443". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 December 1917. p. 13428.
  21. ^ "No. 30574". The London Gazette (Supplement). 12 March 1918. p. 3258.
  22. ^ "No. 30607". The London Gazette. 2 April 1918. p. 4029.
  23. ^ "No. 30958". The London Gazette. 18 October 1918. p. 12256.
  24. ^ "No. 31327". The London Gazette. 6 May 1919. p. 5654.
  25. ^ "Probate Calendar 1950 (page 540)". UK Government Probate Search. Retrieved 5 November 2019.