A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 7

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Before dealing more fully with the development of coaches and coaching and of vehicular traffic in general, it will be desirable to revert to the new perplexities which such development brought to those who were concerned with the care of the roads, and see in what way it was endeavoured to meet them.

In Macpherson's "Annals of Commerce" the following is given under date 1629:—

"The great increase of the commerce of England of late years very much increased the inland carriage of goods, whereby the roads were more broken than heretofore. King Charles issued his proclamation, confirming one of his father's in the 20th year of his reign, for the preservation of the public roads of England, commanding that no carrier or other person whatsoever shall travel with any waine, cart or carriage with more than two wheels nor with above the weight of twenty hundred; nor shall draw any waine, cart or other carriage with above five horses at once."

The King Charles here spoken of was, of course, Charles I., and the 20th year of the reign of his father, James I., takes us back to 1623. That year, therefore, gives us the date for the starting of a policy, not of adapting the roads to the steadily increasing traffic, but of adapting the traffic to the roads; and this policy, as far as successive rulers and governments were concerned (efforts in the way of actual road betterment being left almost exclusively to individual initiative or private enterprise), was persevered in more or less consistently for a period of close on two centuries.

The State policy here in question was applied mainly in two directions: (1) the restriction to a certain weight of the loads carried; and (2) the enforcing of regulations as to the breadth of wheels. The former alone is mentioned in the references [ 44 ]just made to the proclamations of Charles I. and James I.; and it may be explained that the stipulation as to not more than five horses being attached to any cart or waggon was itself a precaution against the drawing of what were regarded as excessive loads. Such precautions were renewed after the Restoration, when, as we have seen, there began to be a considerable expansion of trade. By 13 & 14 Chas. II., c. 6, it was laid down that no waggon, wain, cart or carriage carrying goods "for hire" should be drawn by more than seven horses or eight oxen, or carry more than 20 cwt. between October 1 and May 1, or more than 30 cwt. between May 1 and October 1, thus modifying the earlier regulations, while it further enacted that no wheels should have rims exceeding four inches in breadth; but by 22 Chas. II., c. 12, the maximum number of horses allowed to any vehicles was again reduced to five; and by 30 Chas. II., c. 5, the words "for hire" were deleted, the restrictions being applied to all vehicles carrying goods.

From the time of the accession of William and Mary, every few years saw fresh Acts of Parliament becoming law, changing, deleting or adding to regulations previously laid down as to weight of loads, number of horses, the order in which they should be harnessed, the breadth of the tires, the position of the wheels, the kind of nails to be used for fastening the tires, and so on, until it becomes practically impossible to follow the complicated changes from time to time, if not actually from year to year. These changes more especially applied to the number of horses or oxen by which carts and waggons could be drawn, and efforts were made to enforce the ever-varying regulations by exceptionally severe penalties. The Act 5 Geo. I., c. 11, for example, authorises any person to seize and keep possession of such number of horses as might be attached to a carter's waggon in excess of six, or to a cart, for hire, in excess of three; though 16 Geo. II, c. 29, states that, as the restriction of three horses to a cart, under the Act of Geo. I., had been found inconvenient for farmers, and highly detrimental to the markets of the Kingdom, the number could be increased to four.

In reference to these legislative restrictions on the number of horses a farmer might attach to a single cart, it is said in "A General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire," by Joseph Plymley, Archdeacon of Salop (1803): "Were farmers [ 45 ]permitted to draw any number of horses, it would be of great public utility in lowering the price of these animals, which is now enormously high. The law, as it now stands, acts as a prohibition to farmers breeding horses; for a breeding mare, or a colt under five years old, is not fit to draw one of four in a waggon, with no more than 60 bushels of barley or wheat, which is the common load of the Shropshire or Staffordshire farmers, neither being more than two tons.... Another evil occasioned by the law is that such farmers are obliged to keep horses of the largest size, which consume the produce of much land by eating a large quantity of corn." Whereas good waggon-horses could formerly be bought at from £10 to £15 each, they were then, "by their scarcity," costing from £25 to £35 each. Coach-horses cost "from £40 to £60."

The various provisions in respect to number of horses or oxen per cart or waggon failed to keep down the loads to a weight suited to the deficiencies of the roads—which deficiencies had continued, notwithstanding the turnpikes—and a further step was taken under 14 Geo. II., c. 42, which authorised turnpike trustees not only to erect weighing machines but to impose an additional toll of twenty shillings per cwt. on any waggon which, together with its contents, had a total weight exceeding 60 cwt. By Geo. II., c. 43, the trustees were authorised to levy the same additional toll on any vehicle drawn by six horses.

In addition to adopting these various restrictions on the weights carried, Parliament had devoted much attention to the construction of the vehicles employed. One of the provisions of an Act passed in 1719 was a regulation in respect to the breadth of the wheel-rims, or "fellies," and the use thereon of rose-headed nails, these being regarded as injurious to the roads; though in the following year came another Act which recited that as the extending of these regulations to waggons that did not travel for hire had been found detrimental to farmers and others, and, also, to the markets of the Kingdom, they were repealed—only, however, to be revived, by 18 Geo. II., c. 33, in 1745.

Parliament was now to devote much more attention to the subject of broad wheels; and how this came about is explained by Daniel Bourn in a pamphlet entitled, "A Treatise upon Wheel Carriages" (1763), the main purpose of which was [ 46 ]to expound to the world the excellences of what the writer described as "that noble and valuable machine, the broad-wheeled waggon." He gives the following account of the origin of the said machine:—

"The first set of broad wheels made use of on roads in this Kingdom were erected by Mr James Morris, of Brock-Forge, near Wiggan in Lancashire; who having a deep bad road to pass with his team advised with me upon the subject; I mentioned the making of the fellies of his wheels of an uncommon width: He accordingly made his first set thirteen inches, and the next year another of nine inches in the sole; and his travelling with these to Liverpool, Warrington and other places, was took notice of by some persons of distinction, particularly Lord Strange, and Mr Hardman, Member for Liverpool, &c., who after making strict enquiries of Mr Morris, concerning their nature and properties, reported their utilities to the House, which occasioned an Act of Parliament being made in their favour....

"Therefore let us congratulate ourselves on making thus far so happy a progress; and as the publick roads continue to mend and improve, as they polish and smooth, and arrive nearer perfection, so let us try if the carriage that travels this road may not continue to improve too, and receive a similar degree of perfection."

The Act of Parliament referred to by Bourn was, presumably, that of 26 Geo. II., c. 30, which laid down that—with certain exceptions—no cart or waggon should be allowed on any turnpike road at all unless the "fellies" of each and every wheel had a breadth of at least nine inches, the penalty for a breach of this enactment being a fine of £5, with one month's imprisonment in default of payment, and forfeiture of one of the horses, together with its harness, to the sole use and benefit of the person making the seizure. As a further encouragement of such wheels, the trustees of turnpike roads were required to accept reduced tolls for all vehicles having wheels of a breadth of nine inches. Two years later a further Act (28 Geo. II., c. 17), set forth that, the former statutes relating to cart-wheels not having answered the good purposes intended, it was now provided that for a period of three years from June 24, 1753, waggons having 9-inch wheels were to be allowed to pass free through every turnpike in the Kingdom, [ 47 ]the trustees being authorised to protect themselves against loss from such free passage by imposing higher tolls on all carts and waggons the wheels of which were not nine inches in width.

The idea in having these broad wheels was that they would not only be less injurious to the roads than the narrow wheels, but would even tend to keep the roads in good order by helping to smooth and consolidate them in the same way as would be done by garden rollers. Mr Bourn, who was an enthusiast on the subject, even proposed to have cart and waggon wheels made of cast iron with a breadth of sixteen inches! He says in his pamphlet:—

"I would recommend having the wheels made in the following manner:—

"Let there be run out of cast iron at the founders hollow rims or cylinders, about two feet high, sixteen inches broad or wide, and from one to near two inches in thickness, according to the design or necessity of the proprietor, and the burden he intends them to bear. Let the space, or cavity between these cylinders be filled up solid with a block of wood, through the center of which insert your arbor or gudgeon, and leave it two inches and six eighths at each end longer than the cylinder; which parts must be round, and about two inches thick, being the pivots, and when the whole is well wedged the wheel is compleat.

"Here then is a solid wheel, which answers all the intentions of the garden roller; now can anything be conceived that would have so happy a tendency upon the roads? to render them smooth and even to harden and encrust the surface, and make it resemble a terrass walk? I say, can anything be equal to these kind of cast iron rollers to produce the foregoing effects?"

Without adopting Mr Bourn's 16-inch cast-iron garden rollers, the carriers of the period did, apparently, adopt the 9-inch wheels favoured by Parliament; but as they found that, with 9-inch wheels, they could carry much heavier weights, there had to be a further resort to legislation directed to a limitation of loads. This was done by 5 Geo. III., c. 38,[1] [ 48 ]while under 6 Geo. III., c. 43, turnpike trustees were directed to issue orders to their collectors not to allow any waggon or other four-wheeled carriage having wheels of less than 9 inches in breadth to pass through a toll-gate when drawn by more than four horses without seizing one of the horses. By 13 Geo. III., c. 84, the reduced tolls already conceded to 9-inch wheels were extended to 6-inch wheels, and it was further provided that waggons with 16-inch wheels should pass toll free for a year, and then pay only one-half of the tolls to be paid by 6-inch wheeled waggons.

In order to give still further encouragement to the use of 16-inch wheels, an Act passed in the following year provided that any waggon having wheels of those dimensions should pass toll-free for five years instead of one, and pay only half toll afterwards.

Among the many other Acts that followed, mention may be made of 55 Geo. III., c. 119, which gives an especially good idea of the infinite pains taken by the Legislature to adapt the construction of vehicles to the apparently hopeless deficiencies of the roads. The Act authorised road trustees to exempt certain vehicles from tolls for overweight "provided such Waggon, Cart or other such Carriage shall have the Soles or Bottoms of the Fellies of all the Wheels thereof of the Breadth of Six inches, or of Nine Inches, or of Sixteen Inches or upwards, and be cylindrical, that is to say, of the same Diameter on the Inside next the Carriage as on the outside, so that when such Wheels shall be rolling on a flat or level Surface, the whole Breadth thereof shall bear equally on such flat or level Surface; and provided that the opposite Ends of the Axletrees of such Waggon, Cart or other Carriage, so far as the same shall be inserted in the respective Naves of the Wheels thereof, shall be horizontal and in the continuance of one straight Line, without forming any Angle with each other; and so that in each pair of Wheels belonging to such Carriage, the lower Parts, when resting on the Ground, shall be at the same distance from each other as the upper Parts of such Pair of Wheels: Provided always," etc.

Under 3 Geo. IV., c. 126 (1822) no waggon or cart with wheels of less breadth than 3 in. was to be used on any turnpike road from the 1st of January, 1826, under a penalty of not exceeding £5 for the owner and not exceeding forty shillings [ 49 ]for the driver; but this provision was repealed by 4 Geo. IV., c. 95 (1823), "in compliance," says Dehany, "with a cry raised on the part of the farmers and agriculturists, who, in petitions and complaints against the Act, put forward this clause as a principal grievance."

The broad-wheel policy of successive Governments evoked a good deal of criticism from others besides farmers and agriculturists, who themselves seem to have been reduced from time to time by the ever-changing regulations and restrictions to a condition almost of despair. In speaking of the roads in the parish of Eccles, Dr Aikin, writing in 1795, says in his "Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester" that although "much labour and a very great expense of money" had been expended on them, they still remained in a very indifferent state owing to the immoderate weights drawn in waggons and carts, and he adds: "To prevent this, vain and useless are all the regulations of weighing machines; and the encouragement of broad and rolling wheels still increases the evil, which must soon destroy all the best roads of Great Britain."

The general effect of the legislation in question was, also, thus commented on by William Jessop in an article on "Inland Navigation and Public Roads," published in vol. vi. of the "Georgical Essays" (1804):—

"I do not know anything in this country ... that has been more neglected than the proper construction of wheel carriages and the formation of roads. It has been generally acknowledged that for carriages of burden broad wheels, which will roll the roads, are the most eligible; and by the exemptions which have been granted to those who use broad wheels, the legislature has certainly looked forward to the benefits to be expected from the use of them; but never was a proposition more misunderstood, or an indulgence more abused. Of all the barbarous and abominable machines that have been contrived by ignorance, and maintained by vulgar prejudice, none have equalled the broad-wheeled carriages that are now in use; instead of rolling the roads, they grind them into mud and dust."

Not alone cart-wheels, but even cart-wheel nails, engaged the serious attention of Parliament, and formed the subject of special legislation. The Act 18 Geo. II., c. 33, provided, among [ 50 ]other things, that the streaks or tires of wheels were to be fastened with flat, and not rose-headed, nails; and an Act passed in 1822, in the reign of George IV., directed that when the nails of the tire projected more than a quarter of an inch from the surface of the tire the owner of the waggon should pay a penalty of £5 and the driver one of forty shillings for every time such vehicle was drawn on a turnpike road; though an amending Act, passed the following year, reduced the penalties to "any sum not exceeding" forty shillings for the owner and twenty shillings for the driver.

Towards the end of the long period here in question it began to be realised that what was wanted, after all, was an adaptation of the roads to the traffic rather than an adaptation of the traffic to the roads; but the change in policy was not definitely effected until two practical-minded men, John Loudon McAdam and Thomas Telford, had introduced, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first attempt at really scientific road-making which had been made in this country since the departure of the Roman legions in the early part of the fifth century.

  1. This Act also provided that when the wheels of a waggon were so arranged that those at the back followed in a line with those in front, the two pairs thus running in one and the same groove, only half the usual tolls should be charged.