British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R R Yearley
Massa gets Transport
The Lighthouse, Accra
In the evening of my first day on the Gold Coast in January 1948 a colleague and his wife invited me to dinner, along with two other married couples from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Much of the conversation was about the UK, but it was mainly advice for the newcomer. The question was: "What car are you thinking of?" "I've no idea", I replied, "I can't drive".

"Don't worry about that. Buy the car and you'll soon get the hang of it".

They told me that I should be staying in the Rest House for a few weeks until a bungalow was allocated to me. It was only a mile or two from GPO Headquarters so I could walk or get a lift to work. There was a local bus service but it was not reliable and overcrowded - and in any event by long custom, Europeans did not use public transport. I should take every opportunity of 'getting behind a wheel' and this is what I did.

People were very willing to let me 'have a go'. My first experience was in a huge kitcar - it seemed as big as a London bus - which an admin man staying in the Rest House had just bought. He explained the rudiments and with great trepidation I let in my first clutch, with the usual succession of kangaroo hops. The Public Works Department had the week before laid tons of gravel and I made a terrible mess of their beautifully rolled parking area, much to the annoyance of the other residents. After a few improving starts and stops John said "Right! Let's go to Achimota, there's a cricket match there and I've arranged to meet a girlfriend". "But I don't have a driving licence". "Not to worry. No one will bother".

Massa gets Transport
General Post Office, Accra
So I drove the ten miles, mainly in low gear and with my heart in my mouth. It was a Saturday with little traffic but the occasional mammy-wagon seemed to come perilously close. I drove back too and began to feel quite confident.

In the next two months I drove all kinds of cars and no one refused me to 'have a go'. The only mishap was in Bill's Ford Prefect. I was travelling at a steady 30 mph on a straight road. About half a mile ahead a cow was standing across the road. "Don't worry", said Bill, "she'll move when we get near". But she didn't and frantic emergency braking ended in our gently probing her in the ribs. It frightened me horribly but it did give me confidence that I could cope in an emergency.

Meanwhile I had begun negotiations to buy a car. A loan was available from Government sources. The largest amount which I could afford to repay would cover the smallest car on sale, a Standard. Although only eight horse-power it carried four people and would reach 60 mph if coaxed - I would never go at that speed, I thought - and I arranged to purchase AR 721.

When I went to the dealers to take delivery I explained that I had not obtained a driving licence but they said it was all right and they would let me have a mechanic to sit with me to get the car home. The poor chap selected must have 'feared too much'! It was early evening and the rush hour in Accra was at its height. But we covered the five miles to the bungalow where I was then housed without any major alarms and only a few stallings of the engine - I forgot to push the choke in!

I thought the car was beautiful. It was dove grey and had an enamelled Union Jack on the nose. I spent hours reading the handbook, looking at the engine and polishing the chrome. Colleagues were very kind and volunteered to be passengers-cum-instructors while I practised emergency stops and reversing.

There was the great day when I found myself alone on the Nsawam road, travelling at 40 mph! I felt I really was ready for the Monte Carlo rally! I applied to the Government Transport Office to take the driving test.

Accra in 1950s
I went to the GTO in the middle of the afternoon and picked up the examiner. He asked me how long I had been driving and then told me the route to follow around the town. The test seemed to go without incident. At one point the examiner said "Let's see you stop", and when we got back to base he added "Always keep well to the left. Don't stop if you hit an animal or bird - too much palaver. You'll be all right. Here's your licence". I was glad he didn't ask me to do a three-point turn!

I soon became a reasonably competent driver and an adequate mechanic, spending Sunday mornings carrying out routine servicing and even driving up to the Airport, where there were inspection pits, to change the oil.

The roads in Accra were full of pot-holes and there was the hazard of the open drainage ditches which lined the main roads. Outside the town the roads were sometimes tarmacadam but in a poor state in spite of the devoted maintenance by the Public Works Department. Villagers thought nothing of digging a channel across a road if it helped to disperse flood water; drivers had to be on the alert for broken culverts. Even main trunk roads were simply compressed laterite which was corrugated by the motion of wheels and sent up clouds of red dust. There was a theory that you should keep up a regular speed whatever the surface conditions and that this would balance the corrugations; but most drivers found that the suspension and shock absorbers wore out even more quickly.

Mammy-wagons, the local all-purpose transport, were notorious for travelling in the middle of the road, especially coming over the brow of a hill; this was another hazard for the newly qualified driver to get used to as well as the universal parking without lights in the most unexpected places. Another confusing practice was the 'Pavlova' or 'Dying Swan' signal. Drivers intending to turn left put their right arm out of the window palm down on the roof and raised and lowered the hand. I found myself adopting it as a clearer intention than the official vague circular movement of the hand pointing to the ground.

Massa gets Transport
Rex Cinema, Accra
It is not surprising that before long I had my first accident. I had taken a nurse friend to the cinema. When I drove out on to the main road and had covered a hundred yards or so through crowds of people, a mammy-wagon hurtled along at break-neck speed, scattering the walkers and ripping the off-side of AR 721. I chased after it, jumped on the running-board and shouted at the driver to stop. He was in a state of panic and took no notice. I was in peril of my life so I pulled out the ignition key. When the wagon came to a halt the driver 'went for bush'. By this time the police had arrived. I gave them the key and told them what had happened. Then I ran back - I had travelled more than a quarter of a mile - and found poor Marjorie still sitting in the car, very self-possessed considering that she was surrounded by a great crowd of very noisy and excited but friendly Africans. Luckily the car was still driveable. In the court case which followed months later I gave evidence but the driver got off with a caution. My Errol Flynn-like exertions went for nothing except that Marjorie was impressed. What it was to be young!

Another accident was when I was driving in the Usher Fort area of town at night. With no street lights or illuminated road signs, the flares of market stalls and the throng of people it was difficult to drive safely. I failed to stop at a crossroads and collided with another car. No great damage was caused and no one was hurt. I found myself surrounded by hundreds of Africans, instant supporters of the taxi driver whose car I had hit. Then a friendly voice said "Why, its Mr Yearley of the Post Office. Good evening sah". The crowd changed allegiance and started to abuse the taxi driver for driving too fast. The police arrived and in the subsequent hearing at the Magistrates Court I got off with a warning, mainly because the charge papers had wrongly given the time of the accident as 'am'.

Then there was the time I was sharing a bungalow with Charles. He also was a newcomer and he had just bought an Austin A40. He had parked it outside the front door behind my car. When I came out in the evening my mind must have gone blank because although I saw his car I very carefully and gently backed into it, smashing the headlights. Charles was not pleased.

Another day when I was closely parked at the beach, the owner of the car alongside mine kindly guided me out. But when he said "left hand down" I responded too promptly and scarred his nearside wing! Another learning opportunity.

On my first UK leave I hoped to hire a car. I took my International Driver's Licence to a firm in Kensington. The agent seemed doubtful when I told him how long I'd been driving and where. After being taken through the London traffic for ten minutes with me at the wheel he looked very pale and said he didn't think I was quite ready to be entrusted with any of his cars.....

In later tours of duty on the Coast I became more competent. I progressed through a Hillman Minx, a Ford Consul (home delivered on my third leave), a Standard Vanguard and, after my marriage, a Morris Minor Traveller.

During my second tour I drove my Standard Eight the 150 miles on corrugated roads to Kumasi in Ashanti to join a colleague to go on trek in his kit-car around the Northern Territories.

I sold AR 721 to a colleague who was retiring on health grounds. When I visited him in Herefordshire I found the little grey car happily charging over the hills of the Welsh Borders.

Colonial Map
1954 Map of Gold Coast
Colony Profile
Gold Coast
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002


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