A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 6

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[ 35 ]



The carts that succeeded the early British and Roman war chariots, and enabled the villeins and cottars to do the obligatory "cartage" for the lord of the manor, were heavy, lumbering vehicles, with wheels hewn out of solid pieces of wood, and were used for private transport rather than transport for hire. The latter came in with the "wains" or "long waggons" of England's pioneer road carriers. These long waggons, according to Stow, were brought into use about the year 1564, up to which time—save for the horse litters and the agricultural carts—the saddle-horse and the packhorse had been the only means of travelling and conveying goods. The long waggon developed into a roomy covered vehicle, capable of accommodating about 20 passengers in addition to merchandise; it had broad wheels adapted to the roads; and it was drawn, at a walking pace, by six, eight, or more horses which (except on such long journeys as that from London to Wigan) accompanied it for the entire journey. As the forerunner of the stage-coach it was, at first, generally used not only for the heavier classes of goods (lighter qualities, and especially so when greater speed was required, still going by packhorse), but, also, by such travellers as either could not, or preferred not to, travel on horseback.

The waggons made regular journeys between London, Canterbury, Norwich, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other towns. It was in the long waggon that many a traveller in the seventeenth century made the journey between London and Dover, either going to or returning from the Continent[1]; and, though, because of this Continental traffic, the Dover road was probably kept in as good a condition as any in the country, the long [ 36 ]waggon went at so slow a pace that in 1640 the journey to Dover often took either three or four days.

To Bristol, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, long waggons were despatched three times a week, as follows:—

Left London. Arrived at Bristol.
Wednesday     Tuesday
Saturday Friday
Friday Thursday

It should, however, be remembered that both the long waggon and the stage-coach which succeeded it travelled only by day, remaining for the night at some wayside inn where, in coaching language, it "slept."

When Charles Leigh wrote "The Natural History of Lancashire, Cheshire and the Peak of Derbyshire," published in 1700, the London waggons went as far north as Wigan and Standish, where they took in cargoes of coals for sale on the return journey. North of Wigan nearly all the trade was carried on by strings of packhorses or by carts. Kendal was the principal packhorse station on this line of road, sending large trains of packhorses as far south as Wigan, and over the hills, northward, to Carlisle and the borders of Scotland.

In 1753, according to "Williamson's Liverpool Memorandum Book" for that year, the Lancashire and Cheshire stage waggons left London every Monday and Thursday, and were ten days on the journey in summer and eleven in the winter. At that time no waggon or coach from the south could get nearer to Liverpool than Warrington, owing to the state of the roads. The general mode of travelling was on horseback. Four owners of post-horses in London advertised in 1753 that they started from the "Swan-with-Two-Necks," Lad Lane, every Friday morning with a "gang of horses" for passengers and light goods, and arrived in Liverpool on the following Monday evening, this being considered very good time.

The conditions of transport between London and Edinburgh in 1776, when Adam Smith published his "Wealth of Nations," may be judged from the following references thereto which he makes in a comparison between the cost of land transport and the cost of sea transport:—

"A broad-wheeled waggon, attended by two men, and [ 37 ]drawn by eight horses, in about six weeks' time carries and brings back between London and Edinburgh near four ton weight of goods. In about the same time a ship navigated by six or eight men, and sailing between the ports of London and Leith, frequently carries and brings back two hundred ton weight of goods. Six or eight men, therefore, by the help of water carriage, can carry and bring back in the same time the same quantity of goods between London and Edinburgh as fifty broad-wheeled waggons, attended by a hundred men, and drawn by four hundred horses."

The long waggon, supplementing alike the packhorse and the coach, which carried the lighter and more urgent commodities, continued, right down to the railway age, the means by which the great bulk of the general merchandise of the country was transported where carriage by water was not available. It remained, also, in favour with the poorer classes of travellers until late in the eighteenth century, when the stage coaches reduced their fares to such proportions that there was no longer any saving in going by the slower conveyance.

Private carriages, as an alternative alike to the horse litter and to riding on horseback, seem to have been introduced into this country, from the Continent, about the middle of the sixteenth century. In his "History of the Origin and Progress of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames" Henry Humpherus says that at her coronation, in 1553, Queen Mary rode in a chariot drawn by six horses, followed by another in which were "Lady Elizabeth, her sister, and Lady Ann of Cleves." He further states that in 1565 a Dutchman, Guylliam Boonen, presented to Queen Elizabeth a "coach" which was considered a great improvement on the "chariot or waggon" used at the coronation of Queen Mary. But the pioneer carriages of this date were little better than gorgeously decorated springless carts, to be ridden in along the worst of roads, and so uncomfortable that in an audience she had with the French Ambassador in 1568, Queen Elizabeth told him of "the aching pains" she was suffering in consequence of having been "knocked about" a few days before in a coach which had been driven too fast along the streets. All the same, these private "coaches" must have come into more general use by the end of the [ 38 ]sixteenth century, since we find Stow saying in his "Survey of London" (1598):—

"Of old times coaches were not known in this island.... But now of late years the use of coaches, brought out of Germany, is taken up and made so common that there is neither distinction of time nor difference of people observed; for the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot."

Fynes Moryson, Gent., in the "Itinerary" he published (1617) in the reign of James I., recording various journeys he had made, also alludes to this greater use of private "coaches," and he gives some interesting details as to the general conditions of travel at that period. He says:—

"Sixtie or seventy yeeres agoe, Coaches were very rare in England, but at this day pride is so far increased, as there be few Gentlemen of any account (I mean elder Brothers) who have not their Coaches, so as the streetes of London are almost stopped up with them.... For the most part Englishmen, especially in long journies, used to ride upon their owne horses. But if any will hire a horse, at London they used to pay two shillings the first day, and twelve, or perhaps eighteene pence a day, for as many dayes as they keepe him, till the horse be brought back home to the owner, and the passenger must either bring him backe, or pay for the sending of him, and find him meate both going and comming. In other parts of England a man may hire a horse for twelve pence the day.... Likewise Carriers let horses from Citie to Citie.... Lastly, these Carryers have long covered Waggons, in which they carry passengers from City to City: but this kind of journeying is so tedious, by reason they must take waggon very earely, and come very late to their Innes, as none but women and people of inferiour condition, or strangers (as Flemmings with their wives and servants) use to travell in this sort."

These long covered waggons began to be supplemented, in 1640 or thereabouts, by stage coaches, the advent of which is thus recorded by a contemporary writer, Dr Chamberlayne:—

"There is of late such an admirable commodiousness, both for men and women, to travel from London to the principal towns of the country that the like hath not been known in the world, and that is by stage coaches, wherein any one may be transported to any place sheltered from foul weather and foul [ 39 ]ways, free from endamaging one's health and one's body by hard jogging or over-violent motion on horse back, and this not only at the low price of about a shilling for every five miles but with such velocity and speed in one hour as the foreign post can but make in one day."

The "admirable commodiousness" which thus beat the world's record of that date was a vehicle without either springs or windows, which carried four, six or eight passengers inside. Over the axle there was a great basket for luggage and a few outside passengers, who made themselves as comfortable as they could among the bags and boxes, a few handfuls of straw being, in their case, the only concession to luxury. The earliest coaches carried neither passengers nor luggage on the roof, this arrangement coming into vogue later. In order that people should not be deterred from travelling in these conveyances by fear of highwaymen, it was announced, in the case of some of them, that the guards were armed and that the coaches themselves were "bullet proof."

As against the eulogy of Dr Chamberlayne it might be mentioned that the introduction of stage-coaches was regarded with great disfavour by another writer, John Cressett, who published, in 1672, a pamphlet entitled "The Grand Concern of England Explained in Several Proposals to Parliament" (reprinted in Harleian Miscellany, vol. viii.). Cressett evidently belonged to those adherents to "good old times" conditions who are opposed to all innovations; but his pamphlet affords much information as to the general conditions of travel at the time he wrote.

Cressett asked, among other things, "that a stop be put to further buildings in and about London"; "that brandy, coffee, mum, tea and chocolate may be prohibited"; and "that the multitude of Stage-coaches and caravans may be suppressed." It is with the last-mentioned demand, only, that we have here any "grand concern." In amplifying it he recommends "That the Multitude of Stage-coaches and Caravans now travelling upon the Roads may all, or most of them, be suppressed, especially those within forty, fifty, or sixty Miles of London, where they are no Way necessary."

The indictment he prefers against the coaches is in the following terms:—

"These Coaches and Caravans are one of the greatest [ 40 ]Mischiefs that hath happened of late Years to the Kingdom, mischievous to the Publick, destructive to Trade, and prejudicial to Lands:

"First, By destroying the Breed of good Horses, the Strength of the Nation, and making Men careless of attaining a good Horsemanship, a Thing so useful and commendable in a Gentleman.

"Secondly, By hindering the Breed of Watermen, who are the Nursery for Seamen, and they the Bulwark of the Kingdom.

"Thirdly, By lessening his Majesty's Revenues."

Alluding to the effect of coach-riding on the individual, he says:—

"Stage-coaches ... effeminate his Majesty's Subjects who, having used themselves to travel in them, have neither attained Skill themselves nor bred up their Children to good Horsemanship, whereby they are rendered incapable of serving their Country on Horseback, if Occasion should require and call for the same; for hereby they become weary and listless when they ride a few Miles, and unwilling to get on Horseback; not able to endure Frost, Snow, or Rain, or to lodge in the Fields."

These last-mentioned words, "or to lodge in the fields," are especially suggestive of what might happen in those days to travellers on horseback. The writer goes on to say:—

"There is such a lazy Habit of Body upon Men, that they, to indulge themselves, save their fine clothes, and keep themselves clean and dry, will ride lolling in one of them, and endure all the Inconveniences of that Manner of Travelling rather than ride on Horseback."

He grieves over the fact that there were not "near so many coach-horses either bred or kept in England" as there were saddle-horses formerly, and he mentions the interesting fact that the York, Chester and Exeter stage-coaches, with 40 horses a-piece, carried eighteen passengers a week to each of those three places from London, and brought the same number back—a total of 1872 for the year. His plea that, but for the coaches, this number of travellers would have required, with their servants, "at least 500 horses," instead of the 120 which sufficed for the coaches, no longer concerns us; but his figures as to the extent of the travel in 1673 between London and cities of such importance—even in those [ 41 ]days—as York, Chester and Exeter, are certainly interesting. One learns from the pamphlet that there were, in addition, stage coaches then going to "almost every town within 20 or 25 miles of London."

The writer also sought to discredit coaches on the ground that they were—bad for trade! "These Coaches and Caravans," he said, "are destructive to the Trade and Manufactures of the Kingdom, and have impoverished many Thousands of Families, whose subsistence depended upon the manufacturing of Wool and Leather, two of the Staple Commodities of the Kingdom." It was not only that saddlers and others were being cast on the parish, but tailors and drapers were also suffering because in two or three journeys on horseback travellers spoiled their clothes and hats—"Which done, they were forced to have new very often, and that increased the consumption of the manufactures, and the employment of the Manufacturers, which travelling in Coaches doth no way do."

All this must have seemed grave enough to the good alarmist; but there was still worse to come, for he goes on to say that—

"Passage to London being so easy, Gentlemen come to London oftener than they need, and their Ladies either with them, or, having the Conveniences of these Coaches, quickly follow them. And when they are there, they must be in the Mode, buy all their Cloaths there, and go to Plays, Balls, and Treats, where they get such a Habit of Jollity and a Love to Gayety and Pleasure, that nothing afterwards in the Country will serve them, if ever they should fix their minds to live there again; but they must have all from London, whatever it costs."

Fearing, perhaps, that these various arguments might not suffice to discredit the coaches, the pamphleteer has much to say about the discomforts of those conveyances:—

"Travelling in these Coaches can neither prove advantageous to Men's Health or Business; For what Advantage is it to Men's Health to be called out of their beds into these Coaches, an Hour before Day in the Morning, to be hurried in them from Place to Place till one Hour, two or three within Night; insomuch that, after sitting all Day in the Summertime stifled with Heat and choaked with Dust; or in the [ 42 ]Winter-time starving and freezing with cold, or choaked with filthy Fogs, they are often brought into their Inns by Torchlight, when it is too late to sit up to get a Supper; and next Morning they are forced into the Coach so early, that they can get no Breakfast....

"Is it for a Man's Health to travel with tired Jades, and to be laid fast in the foul ways and forced to wade up to the knees in Mire; afterwards sit in the Cold, till Teams of Horses can be sent to pull the Coach out? Is it for their Health to travel in rotten Coaches, and to have their Tackle, or Pearch or Axle-tree broken, and then to wait three or four hours, sometimes half a day, to have them mended, and then to travel all Night to make good their Stage?"

And so on, and so on, until we come to the moral of the story, which is that people should refuse to patronise such innovations as stage-coaches, keep to the ways of their forefathers, and do their travelling on horseback. If they could not do that, and needs must ride in a vehicle, let them be content with the long coaches (i.e. long waggons) which were "More convenient than running coaches ... for they travel not such long journeys, go not out so early in the Morning, neither come they in so late at night; but stay by the Way, and travel easily, without jolting Men's Bodies or hurrying them along, as the running Coaches do."

But the denunciations, arguments and vigorous pleadings of this "Lover of his Country," as the author of "The Grand Concern" called himself, were all of no avail. The march of progress had taken another step forward, and England found it had now entered definitely on the Coaching Era.

  1. The earlier Continental route was by river to Gravesend and thence by road to Dover.