A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 4

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[ 15 ]



Rivers constituted, in the Middle Ages, the most important means of inland transport. Most of our oldest towns or cities that were not on the route of one of the Roman roads were set up alongside or within easy reach of some tidal or navigable stream in order, among other reasons, that full advantage could be taken of the transport facilities the waterways offered. So were monasteries, castles, and baronial halls, while the locating of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames and the Cam respectively rendered them accessible by sea and river to Scottish and other students from the north who could hardly have made their way thither by land.[1]

It was, however, only a limited number of inland places that could be reached by water, and other towns or settlements were wanted. The trading opportunities of the latter were at first restricted to the packhorse, few of the roads being then adapted for even the most primitive of agricultural waggons. Long lines of packhorses, with bales or panniers slung across their backs, made their way along roads or bridle paths often inadequate to allow of two strings of loaded horses to pass one another, so that many a quarrel arose, when two teams met, as to which should go into the mud to allow the other to pass along the path proper.

Traders sending wool or other commodities by the same route were in the habit of making up companies in order to secure mutual protection against robbers, and they armed themselves and their servants as if going to battle. Like precautions were taken by merchants from the north when they started on their annual business journeys to [ 16 ]London—journeys so full of peril that they were not begun until the merchant had made his will and earnestly commended himself to the protection both of St. Botolph and of his own patron saint. The "commercial travellers" of that day carried their samples or their wares in a bag lying across their horse's back, thus qualifying for the designation of "bagmen" by which they were to become known.

In the Middle Ages everyone rode except the very poor, and they had to be content to trudge along on foot. Kings and nobles, princes and princesses, gentlemen and ladies, merchants and bagmen all travelled on horseback. Women either rode astride until the introduction of side-saddles, in the fourteenth century, or else rode in pillion fashion.

The main exception to riding on horseback, in the case of ladies or of the sick or infirm, was the use of litters attached to shafts to which two horses, one in front and one behind the litter, were harnessed. Sometimes, also, "passengers" were carried in the panniers of the packhorses, instead of goods.

Certain main routes, and especially those favoured by pilgrims—such as that between London and Canterbury—must have been full of animation in those days; but, speaking generally, no one then travelled except on business or under the pressure of some strong obligation.

Down to the end of the fourteenth century England was purely an agricultural country, and her agricultural products were exclusively for home, if not for local or even domestic consumption, with the one exception of wool, which was exported in considerable quantities to Flanders and other lands then dependent mainly on England for the raw materials of their cloth manufactures. In our own country manufactures had made but little advance, and they mainly supplied the requirements, in each instance, of a very limited area.

England was, indeed, in those days, little more than a collection of isolated communities in which the various householders, more especially in villages at a distance from any main road or navigable river, had to provide for their own requirements to a great extent. Of retail shops, such as are now found in the most remote villages, there were none at all at a period when the replenishing of stocks would have been impossible by reason of difficulties in transport; so that while the country as a whole was mainly agricultural, [ 17 ]there were more craftsmen in the villages, and there was greater skill possessed by individuals in the production of domestic requirements than would to-day be found among agricultural populations accustomed to depend on the urban manufacturer or the village stores for the commodities their forefathers had to make, to raise or to supply for themselves.

Each family baked its own bread, with flour ground at the village mill from the wheat or the rye grown on the family's own land or allotment; each brewed its own ale—then the common beverage at all meals, since tea and coffee had still to come into vogue; and each grew its own wool or flax, made its own cloth and clothing, and tanned its own leather. What the household could not do for itself might still be done by the village blacksmith or the village carpenter. Alike for ribbons, for foreign spices, for luxuries in general, and for news of the outer world the household was mainly dependent on the pedlar, with his stock on his back, or the chapman, bringing his collection of wares with him on horseback; though even these welcome visitors might find it impossible to travel along roads and footpaths reduced by autumn rains or winter snows to the condition of quagmires.

In these conditions many a village or hamlet became isolated until the roads were again available for traffic, and rural households prepared for the winter as they would have taken precautions against an impending siege. Most of the meat likely to be required would be killed off in the late autumn and salted down—salt being one of the few absolute necessities for which the mediæval household was dependent on the outside world; while families which could not afford to kill for themselves would purchase an animal in common and share the meat. Stores of wheat, barley and malt were laid in; honey was put on the shelves to take the place of the sugar then almost unknown outside the large towns; logs were collected for fuel and rushes for the floors; and wool and flax were brought in to provide occupation for the women of the household. In the way of necessaries the provision made by each self-dependent family, or, at least, by each self-contained community, was thus practically complete—save in the one important item of fresh vegetables, the lack of which, coupled with the consumption of so much salt meat, was a frequent source of scurvy. Millstones for [ 18 ]the village mill might, like the salt, have to be brought in from elsewhere; but otherwise the villagers had small concern with what went on in the great world.

Such trading relations as the average village had with English markets or with foreign traders were almost exclusively in the hands of the lord of the manor, one of whose rights—and one not without significance, from our present point of view—it was to call upon those who held land under him, whether as free men or as serfs, to do all his carting for him. This was a condition on which both villeins and cottars had their holdings; and though, in course of time, the lord of the manor might relieve his people of most of the obligations devolving upon them, this particular responsibility still generally remained. "Instances of the commutation of the whole of the services," says W. J. Ashley, in the account of the manorial system which he gives in his "Introduction to English Economic History and Theory," "occur occasionally as early as 1240 in manors where the demesne was wholly left to tenants. The service with which the lord could least easily dispense seems to have been that of carting; and so in one case we find the entry as to the villeins, 'Whether they pay rent or no they shall cart.'"

To the lord of the manor, at least, the difficulties of road transport, whether in getting his surplus commodities to market or otherwise, must have appeared much less serious when he was thus able to call on his tenants to do his cartage.

In the towns the isolation may not have been so great as in the villages; but the urban trading and industrial conditions nevertheless assumed a character which could only have been possible when, owing to defective communications, there was comparatively little movement and competition in regard either to manufactures (such as they were) or to workers.

The period of internal peace and order which followed the Norman Conquest led, as Ashley has shown, to the rise in town after town of the merchant guild—an institution the purpose of which was to unite into a society all those who carried on a certain trade, in order, not only to assure for them the maintenance of their rights and privileges, but also to obtain for them an actual monopoly of the particular business in which they were interested. Such monopoly they claimed against other traders in the same town who had not entered [ 19 ]into the combination, and still more so against traders in other towns. The latter they regarded as "foreigners" equally with the traders from Flanders and elsewhere.

The merchant guilds were found in all considerable towns in the eleventh century, and they were followed, a century later, by craft guilds which aimed, in turn, at securing a monopoly of employment for their own particular members.

Coupled with the guilds there was much local regulation of the prices and qualities of commodities through the setting-up of such institutions as the "assize" of ale, of bread and of cloth; while the justices had, in addition, considerable powers in regard to fixing the rates of wages and the general conditions of labour.

All this system of highly-organised Protection, not so much for the country as a whole as for each and every individual town in the country, might serve in comparatively isolated communities; but it could not prevail against increased intercourse, the growing competition of developing industries, a broader area of distribution for commodities made in greater volume, and a wider demand for foreign supplies. It was thus doomed to extinction as these new conditions developed; but it nevertheless exercised an important influence on our national advancement, since it was the impulse of corporate unity, fostered by the merchant guilds, and strengthened by the system of manorial courts for the enforcement of the local laws and customs in vogue in each separate manor before the common law of the land was established, that led to so many English towns securing, from King or overlord—and notably in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the influence of the merchant guilds was especially great—those charters which so powerfully stimulated the growth of the great towns, of English citizenship, of individual freedom, and of national prosperity. Ashley well says, in this connection:—

"Wide as were the differences between a civic republic of Italy, or an imperial city of Germany with its subject territory, and a little English market town, there was an underlying similarity of ideas and purposes. Each was a body of burghers who identified the right to carry on an independent trading or industrial occupation with the right of burgess-ship; who imposed restrictions on the acquisition of citizenship, with the object of protecting the interests of those already enjoying [ 20 ]it; who acted together by market regulation and intermunicipal negotiation to secure every advantage they could over rival boroughs; who deemed it meet that every occupation should have its own organisation and its own representation in the governing authority, and who allowed and expected their magistrates to carry out a searching system of industrial supervision. Municipal magistracy was not yet an affair of routine, bound hand and foot by the laws of the State."

The general trade of the country in the Middle Ages was conducted mainly through markets and fairs.

Every town had its market and fixed market day, and such market served the purpose of bringing in the surplus produce of the surrounding agricultural district, the area of supply depending, no doubt, on the distance for which the state of the roads and the facilities for transport on them would allow of commodities being brought.

Held, as a rule, annually or half-yearly, fairs assumed much more important proportions than the (generally) weekly local markets. It was to the fairs that traders both from distant counties and from foreign countries brought wares and products not otherwise obtainable; and it was at the fairs that the foreign merchants, more especially, bought up the large quantities of wool which were to form their return cargoes. Whereas the business done at the local markets was mainly retail, that done at the fairs was, to a great extent, wholesale, and the latter represented the bulk of such transactions as would now be done on the public exchanges or in the private warehouses of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and other leading commercial centres.

Fairs were essentially the outcome of defective means of communication. Going back in their origin to the days of ancient Greece, they have been found in most countries in the earlier stages of society, or under conditions which have not allowed of (1) a ready distribution of commodities, (2) sufficiently advanced manufactures, or (3) the subdivision of trade over an adequately wide area. Fairs in England began to decay in exact proportion as communications and manufactures improved and retail trade expanded; so that to-day the survivals are either exclusively cattle fairs, sheep fairs, horse fairs, cheese fairs, and so on, or else are little more than [ 21 ]pleasure fairs, with gingerbread stalls, shows and roundabouts for their chief attractions—mere reminiscences of old institutions which, in bygone days, were of supreme commercial importance.

They were, also, greatly influenced by religious festivals, whether in ancient Greece or in Europe. In Britain itself the commemoration of saints' days by the monasteries, the dedication festivals of churches or cathedrals, and the visitation of shrines by pilgrims brought together crowds of people whose assembling offered good opportunities for the opening up with them of a trade in commodities which they, in turn, might otherwise have some difficulty in procuring. It was, indeed, to the advantage of the Church to offer or to encourage the offering of such facilities, not only because there would thus be a greater inducement to people to come to the festivals or to visit the shrines, but also because when the fair was held on land belonging to the Church or connected with religious buildings there might be a substantial revenue gained from the tolls and charges paid by the traders. At one time the fairs were even held in churchyards; but this practice was prohibited in the 13th year of Edward I., and thenceforward they were held on open spaces, where stalls and tents could be erected for the accommodation of the goods on sale and of the persons who had brought them, various amusements being added, or encouraged, by way of affording further attractions. The land occupied might be that of the lord of the manor, but the fairs still continued to be held chiefly on Saints' days or on the occasion of Church festivals, the actual dates being generally so fixed as to allow of the foreign or other traders attending them to arrange a circuit. The time of year preferred for the holding of fairs was either the autumn, when people whose wants were not wholly met by pedlar or chapman would be providing against the stoppage of all traffic along the roads during the winter; or the spring, when they would want to replenish their depleted stocks. The localities mostly favoured were towns either on navigable rivers, giving access to a good stretch of country, or at the entrance to valleys whose inhabitants would be especially isolated during the winter months by their impassable roads and mountain tracks.

In course of time the fairs became, as shown by Giles Jacob, in his "Law Dictionary" (4th edition, 1809), "a matter of [ 22 ]universal concern to the commonwealth," as well as a valuable monetary consideration to those who had the right to collect the tolls; and they were, in consequence, subjected to close regulation. No person could hold a fair "unless by grant from the King, or by prescription which supposes such grant"; the time during which it could be kept open was announced by proclamation, and rigidly adhered to; "just weight and measure" was enforced, and a "clerk of the fair" was appointed to mark the weights.

On the other hand every encouragement was offered to traders to attend the fairs. "Any citizen of London," says Jacob, "may carry his goods or merchandise to any fair or market at his pleasure." Mounted guards were, in some instances, provided on the main routes leading to the fair, in order to protect the traders from attack by robbers. Tolls were to be paid to the lord of the manor or other owner of the land on which a fair was held under a special grant; but if the tolls charged were "outrageous and excessive" (to quote again from Jacob), the grant of the right to levy toll became void, and the fair was thenceforth a "free" one. It was further laid down that persons going to a fair should be "privileged from being molested or arrested in it for any other debt or contract than what was contracted in the same, or at least, was promised to be paid there."

An especially curious feature of these old fairs was the so-called "Court of Pie Powder"—this being the accepted English rendering, in those days, of "pied poudré"—or "The Court of Dusty Feet." The court was one of summary jurisdiction, at which questions affecting pedlars or other (presumably) dusty-footed traders and their patrons, or matters relating to "the redress of disorders," could be decided by a properly constituted authority during the period of the holding of the fair in which such questions or matters arose.

Jacob says of this old institution:—

"It is a court of record incident to every Fair; and to be held only during the time that the Fair is kept. As to the jurisdiction, the cause of action for contract, slander, &c., must arise in the fair or market, and not before at any former fair, nor after the fair; it is to be for some matter concerning the same fair or market; and must be done, complained of, heard and determined the same day. Also the plaintiff must [ 23 ]make oath that the contract, &c., was within the jurisdiction and time of the fair.... The steward before whom the court is held, is the judge, and the trial is by merchants and traders in the fair."

Such courts were as ancient as the fairs themselves, and they ensured a speedy administration of justice in accordance with what was recognised as merchants' law long before any common law was established. Supposed to have been introduced by the Romans, the "court of pie powder" was, according to Jacob, known by them under the name of "curia pedis pulverisati," while the Saxons called it the "ceapunggemot," or "the court of merchandise or handling matters of buying and selling." It was, of course, the Normans who introduced the later term of "pied poudré," which the English converted into "pie powder."

One of the most ancient, and certainly the most important, of all the English fairs was the Sturbridge fair, at Cambridge, so called from a little river known as the Stere, or the Sture, which flowed into the Cam.[2]

Early records of this particular fair, according to Cornelius Walford, in "Fairs Past and Present," are to be found in a grant by King John in or about the year 1211. The fair is believed to have been originally founded by the Romans; but it may have acquired greater importance at the date of this particular charter by reason of what Cunningham, in his "Growth of English Industry and Commerce in the Early and Middle Ages," describes as the "extraordinary increase" of commerce in every part of the Mediterranean in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, coupled with the "improvements in navigation and in mercantile practice" which "went hand in hand with this development. Englishmen," he further tells us, "had but little direct part in all this maritime activity. Their time was not come; but the Italian merchants who bought English wool, or visited English fairs, brought them within range of the rapid progress that was taking place in South Europe."

From the middle of the twelfth to the middle of the [ 24 ]thirteenth century the export of wool, leather, lead, tin and other English commodities was in the hands almost exclusively of foreign merchants, who came here both to purchase these raw materials and to dispose of the products of their own or other countries; and Sturbridge Fair, as it happened, formed a convenient trading centre alike for foreign and for English traders, the question of inland communication being, in fact, once more the dominating factor in the situation.

Foreign goods destined for the fair were mostly brought, first, to the port of Lynn, and there transferred to barges in which they were taken along the Ouse to the Cam, and so on to the fair ground which, on one side, was bordered by the latter stream. Heavy goods sent by water from London and the southern counties, or coming by sea from the northern ports, reached the fair by the same route. Great quantities of hops brought to the fair from the south-eastern or midland counties by land or water were, in turn, despatched via the Cam, the Ouse and the port of Lynn to Hull, Newcastle, and elsewhere for consignment to places to be reached by the Humber, the Tyne, etc. Where water transport was not available the services of packhorses were brought into requisition until the time came when the roads had been sufficiently improved to allow of the use of waggons.

In his "Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain" Defoe gives a graphic account of Sturbridge Fair as he saw it in 1723. By that date it had become, in his opinion, "not only the greatest in the whole Nation, but in the World." It covered an area of about half a square mile, had shops placed in rows like streets, with an open square known as the Duddery, and comprised "all Trades that can be named in London, with Coffee-houses, Taverns, and Eating-houses innumerable, and all in Tents and Booths." He speaks of £100,000 worth of woollen manufactures being sold in less than a week, and of—

"The prodigious trade carry'd on here by Wholesale-men from London, and all parts of England, who transact their Business wholly in their Pocket-Books, and meeting their Chapmen from all Parts, make up their Accounts, receive Money chiefly in Bills, and take Orders: These, they say, exceed by far the sales of Goods actually brought to the Fair, and deliver'd in kind; it being frequent for the London [ 25 ]Wholesale Men to carry back orders from their Dealers for ten Thousand Pounds-worth of Goods a man, and some much more. This especially respects those People, who deal in heavy Goods, as Wholesale Grocers, Salters, Brasiers, Iron-Merchants, Wine-Merchants and the like; but does not exclude the Dealers in Woollen Manufactures, and especially in Mercery Goods of all sorts, the Dealers in which generally manage their Business in this Manner:

"Here are Clothiers from Halifax, Leeds, Wakefield and Huddersfield in Yorkshire, and from Rochdale, Bury, &c. in Lancashire, with vast Quantities of Yorkshire Cloths, Kerseys, Pennistons, Cottons, &c., with all sorts of Manchester Ware, Fustians and Things made of Cotton Wooll; of which the Quantity is so great, that they told me there were near a Thousand Horse-packs of such Goods from that Side of the Country....

"In the Duddery I saw one Ware-house or Booth, with six Apartments in it, all belonging to a Dealer in Norwich Stuffs alone, and who, they said, had there above Twenty Thousand Pounds value in those Goods alone.

"Western Goods had their Share here, also, and several Booths were fill'd as full with Serges, Du-Roys, Druggets, Shalloons, Cataloons, Devonshire Kersies, &c., from Exeter, Taunton, Bristol, and other Parts West, and some from London also.

"But all this is still outdone, at least in Show, by two Articles, which are the Peculiars of this Fair, and do not begin till the other Part of the Fair, that is to say, for the Woollen Manufacture, begins to draw to a Close: These are the Wooll and the Hops: As for the Hops there is scarce any price fix'd for Hops in England till they know how they fell at Sturbridge Fair: the Quantity that appears in the Fair is indeed prodigious.... They are brought directly from Chelmsford in Essex, from Canterbury and Maidstone in Kent and from Farnham in Surrey; besides what are brought from London, the Growth of those and other places."

In the North of England, Defoe continues, few hops had formerly been used, the favourite beverage there being a "pale smooth ale" which required no hops. But for some years hops had been used more than before in the brewing of the great quantity of beer then being produced in the [ 26 ]North, and traders from beyond the Trent came south to buy their hops at Cambridge, taking them back to Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and even to Scotland. Of wool, according to the same authority, the quantity disposed of at a single fair would be of the value of £50,000 or £60,000.

In writing on this same Sturbridge fair, Thorold Rogers says, in his "History of Agriculture and Prices":—

"The concourse must have been a singular medley. Besides the people who poured forth from the great towns ... there were, beyond doubt, the representatives of many nations collected together to this great mart of medieval commerce. The Jew, expelled from England, had given place to the Lombard exchanger. The Venetian and Genoese merchant came with his precious stock of Eastern produce, his Italian silks and velvets, his store of delicate glass. The Flemish weaver was present with his linens of Liége and Ghent. The Spaniard came with his stock of iron, the Norwegian with his tar and pitch. The Gascon vine-grower was ready to trade in the produce of his vine-yard; and, more rarely, the richer growths of Spain, and, still more rarely, the vintages of Greece were also supplied. The Hanse towns sent furs and amber, and probably were the channels by which the precious stones of the East were supplied through the markets of Moscow and Novgorod. And perhaps by some of those unknown courses, the history of which is lost, save by the relics which have occasionally been discovered, the porcelain of the farthest East might have been seen in many of the booths. Blakeney, and Colchester, and Lynn, and perhaps Norwich, were filled with foreign vessels, and busy with the transit of various produce; and Eastern England grew rich under the influence of trade. How keen must have been the interest with which the franklin and bailiff, the one trading on his own account, the other entrusted with his master's produce, witnessed the scene, talked of the wonderful world about them, and discussed the politics of Europe!

"To this great fair came, on the other hand, the woolpacks which then formed the riches of England and were the envy of outer nations. The Cornish tin-mine sent its produce.... Thither came also salt from the springs of Worcestershire ... lead from the mines of Derbyshire and iron, either raw or [ 27 ]manufactured, from the Sussex forges. And besides these, there were great stores of those kinds of agricultural produce which, even under the imperfect cultivation of the time, were gathered in greater security, and therefore in greater plenty, than in any other part of the world, except Flanders."

Other leading fairs, besides that of Sturbridge, included Bartholomew Fair, in London, and those of Boston, Chester and Winchester; while Holinshed says of the conditions in the second half of the sixteenth century, "There is almost no town in England but hath one or two such marts holden yearlie in the same." In the case of Bartholomew Fair, its decay was directly due to the fact that there came a time when English manufacturers could produce cloth equal in quality to that from Bruges, Ghent and Ypres which had been the chief commodity sold at this particular fair, thenceforward no longer needed. But the eventual decline alike of Sturbridge and of most of the other fairs carrying on a general trade was mainly due to the revolutionary changes in commerce, industry and transport to which improved facilities for distribution inevitably led.

  1. The subject of rivers and river transport will be fully dealt with in later chapters.
  2. The fair has, also, been widely described as the "Stourbridge" fair, a name which seems to associate it, quite wrongly, with the town of Stourbridge, in Worcestershire. I have preferred to follow here the spelling favoured by Defoe and other contemporary writers.