A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 9

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
[ 64 ]

CHAPTER IX

THE AGE OF BAD ROADS


In the present chapter I propose to bring together the testimony of various contemporary writers with a view to enabling the reader thoroughly to realise those bad-road conditions from which, it was hoped, the country would at last be saved by the introduction of the system of turnpike roads inaugurated by the Act of 1663.

Evidence of the general character of English roads at the time the Act was passed, and, also, probably, for a considerable period afterwards, is afforded by the maps and descriptions of routes given by Ogilby in his "Britannia" (see page 33). The maps indicate by means of lines and dots where the roads had been enclosed, by hedges or otherwise, on one side or both, and where they were still open. Taking the series of maps for the route from London to Berwick, and so on to Scotland, one finds that for a distance of about twenty-five or thirty miles from London, the road was then mostly enclosed; and from that point, through a large part of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, only occasional stretches, mostly in the neighbourhood of towns, and often for lengths of no more than half a mile each, were enclosed either on one side of the road or both. The enclosures began again about six miles south of York, and continued for a short distance on the north of that city; but beyond York they became still more rare, and from Morpeth (Northumberland) to Berwick, a distance of about fifty miles, the total extent of enclosed road did not exceed six miles. Taking roads in the west, it is shown that in forty miles or so between Abingdon and Gloucester there was not a single enclosure.

What all this meant was that, where there had been no enclosure, the road was simply a track across commons, fens, [ 65 ]marshes, heaths, etc., or through woods, where drivers of carts, waggons or coaches picked and chose to the best advantage, discarding an old path when it became a deep rut or was otherwise impassable, in favour of a new one alongside, or some distance away, and leaving the new one, in turn, when it got into the same state as the old.[1]

The crossing of heaths and other open spaces was rendered the more difficult by the general absence of finger-posts.[2] In some instances land-beacons were constructed as a guide to travellers. One which had a height of seventy feet, served as a landmark by day and was provided with a lantern at night, was raised in 1751 by Squire Dashwood on a dreary, barren and wholly trackless waste in the neighbourhood of Lincoln known as Lincoln Heath. The lantern was regularly lighted until 1788. The beacon itself stood until 1808, when it fell and was not rebuilt.

One especially important factor in the situation was the nature of the soil.

I have already mentioned, on page 5, Defoe's references in his "Tour" to this particular matter; but the description he gives of some of the roads which crossed the 50-mile belt of "deep stiff clay or marly" soil throws a good deal of light on the conditions of travel in his day. Thus, in dealing with the roads from London to the north, he says:—

"Suppose we take the great Northern Post Road from London to York, and so into Scotland; you have tolerably good Ways and hard Ground, 'till you reach Royston about 32, and to Kneesworth, a Mile farther: But from thence you enter upon the clays which, beginning at the famous Arrington Lanes, and going on Caxton, Huntington, Stilton, Stamford, Grantham, Newark, Tuxford (called for its Deepness Tuxford in the Clays), holds on 'till we come almost to Bautree, which [ 66 ]is the first town in Yorkshire, and there the Country is hard and sound, being Part of Sherwood Forest.

"Suppose you take the other Northern Road, by St. Albans.... After you are pass'd Dunstable, which, as in the other Way is about 30 Miles, you enter the deep Clays, which are so surprisingly soft, that it is perfectly frightful to Travellers, and it has been the Wonder of Foreigners, how, considering the great Numbers of Carriages which are continually passing with heavy Loads, those Ways have been made practicable; indeed the great Number of Horses every Year kill'd by the Excess of Labour in those heavy Ways, has been such a Charge to the Country, that new Building of Causeways, as the Romans did of old, seems to me to be a much easier Expence. From Hockley to Northampton, thence to Harborough, and Leicester, and thence to the very Bank of Trent these terrible Clays continue; at Nottingham you are pass'd them, and the Forest of Sherwood yields a hard and pleasant Road for 30 miles together."

On the road to Coventry, Birmingham and West Chester he had found the clays "for near 80 miles"; on the road to Worcester "the Clays reach, with some intermissions, even to the Bank of the Severn," and so on with other roads besides.

Bourn, to whose "Treatise upon Wheel Carriages," published in 1763, earlier reference has also been made, said, among other things, in support of his scheme of broad-wheeled waggons:—

"So late as thirty or forty years ago the roads of England were in a most deplorable condition; those that were narrow were narrow indeed, often to that degree that the stocks of the wheels bore hard against the banks on each side, and in many places they were worn below the level of the neighbouring surface many feet, nay, yards perpendicular, and a wide-spreading, bushy hedge, intermixed with old half-decayed trees and stubbs, hanging over the traveller's head, intercepted the benign influence of the heavens from his path, and the beauties of the circumjacent country from his view, made it look more like the retreat of wild beasts and reptiles than the footsteps of men.

"In other parts, where the road was wide, it might be and often was too much so, and exhibited a scene of a different aspect. Here the wheel carriage had worn a diversity of tracks [ 67 ]which were either deep, or rough and stony, or high or low, as mother nature had placed the materials upon the face of the ground; the spaces between these were frequently furzy hillocks or thorny brakes, through or among which the equestrian traveller picked out his entangled and uncouth steps. To these horrible, hilly, stony, deep, miry, uncomfortable, dreary roads the narrow wheel'd waggon seems to be best adapted, and these were frequently drawn by seven, eight, or even ten horses, that with great difficulty and hazard dragged after them twenty-five or thirty hundred, seldom more."

A writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine" for November, 1752, declares that the roads from London to Land's End, and even those as far as Exeter, Plymouth or Falmouth, were then still "what God left them after the flood"; while in comparing England with some of the Continental countries, he says:—

"Nothing piques me more than that a trumpery despotic government like France should have enchanting roads from the capital to each remote part of use. Some roads in Holland are very fine.... The republic of Berne hath made lately three or four magnificent roads, some of which are near 100 miles in length, and that, too, in a country to which Cornwall, Derbyshire, Cumberland and Westmoreland are perfect carpet ground."

Sydney Smith professed to know—approximately—the number of "severe contusions" he received in going from Taunton to Bath "before stone-breaking McAdam was born." He put the figure at "between 10,000 and 12,000."

In Sussex the roads were especially bad. In 1702, the year of Queen Anne's accession to the throne, Charles III. of Spain paid a visit to London, travelling by way of Portsmouth. Prince George of Denmark went from Windsor to Petworth to meet him, and an account of this 40-mile journey by road says:—

"We set out at six in the morning ... and did not get out of the carriages (save only when we were overturned or stuck fast in the mire) till we arrived at our journey's end. 'Twas a hard service for the Prince to sit fourteen hours in the coach that day without eating anything, and passing through the worst ways I ever saw in my life.... The last nine miles of the way cost us six hours to conquer them."

[ 68 ]Defoe tells how the transport of timber from the neighbourhood of Lewes to Chatham by road sometimes took two or three years to effect. He saw there twenty-two oxen engaged in dragging "a carriage known as a 'tug'" on which the trunk of a tree had been loaded; but the oxen would take it only a short distance, and it would then be thrown down again and left for other teams to take it still further short distances in succession. He also speaks of having seen, at Lewes, "an ancient lady, and a lady of very good quality," going to church in a "coach" drawn by six oxen, "the way being stiff and deep that no horses could go in it."

There would seem to have been difficulties not only in going to church in Sussex but even in getting buried there, for in the "Sussex Archæological Collections" mention is made of the fact that in 1728 Judith, widow of Sir Richard Shirley, of Preston, Sussex, directed in her will that her body should be brought for burial to Preston, "if she should die at such time of the year as the roads thereto were passable."

An authority quoted in the article on "Roads" in Postlethwayt's "Dictionary" (1745), in referring to "that impassable county of Sussex," bears the following testimony thereto: "I have seen, in that horrible country, the road 60 to 100 yards broad, lie from side to side all poached with cattle, the land of no manner of benefit, and yet no going with a horse but at every step up to the shoulders, full of sloughs and holes, and covered with standing water."

On the other hand the bad roads were regarded by many of the inhabitants of Sussex as a distinct advantage. They afforded increased facilities for the smuggling operations practised there down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, by rendering pursuit more difficult.

Arthur Young is an especially eloquent witness as to the conditions of travel in England about the year 1770. In making his tours through the country, with a view to investigating and reporting on the state of agriculture, he passed over all sorts of roads, and, though some of them were "good," "pretty good," and even "very good"—these compliments being more especially paid to roads constructed by the country gentry at their own cost—he experiences a difficulty in finding words sufficiently strong in which to express himself when he attempts to describe the roads that were really bad; and this [ 69 ]was the case in regard to many of the turnpike roads on which alleged improvements had been carried out.

The following examples of his experiences are taken from his "Six Months' Tour through the North of England":—

"From Newport Pagnel I took the road to Bedford, if I may venture to call such a cursed string of hills and holes by the name of road; a causeway is here and there thrown up, but so high, and at the same time so very narrow that it was at the peril of our necks we passed a waggon with a civil and careful driver."

"From Grinsthorpe to Coltsworth are eight miles, called by the courtesy of the neighbourhood a turnpike; but in which we were every moment either buried in quagmires of mud or racked to dislocation over pieces of rock which they call mending."

"From Rotherham to Sheffield the road is execrably bad, very stony and excessively full of holes."

"Those who go to Methley by Pontefract must be extremely fond of seeing houses, or they will not recompense the fatigue of passing such detestable roads. They are full of ruts, whose gaping jaws threaten to swallow up any carriage less than a waggon. It would be no bad precaution to yoke half a score of oxen to your coach to be ready to encounter such quagmires as you will here meet with."

"To Coltsworth. Turnpike. Most execrably vile; a narrow causeway, cut into rutts that threaten to swallow one up."

"To Castle Howard. Infamous. I was near to being swallowed up by a slough."

"From Newton to Stokesby, in Cleveland. Cross,[3] and extremely bad. You are obliged to cross the moors they call Black Hambledon, over which the road runs in narrow hollows that admit a south country chaise with such difficulty that I reckon this part of the journey made at the hazard of my neck. The going down into Cleveland is beyond all description terrible, for you go through such steep, rough narrow, rocky precipices that I would sincerely advise any friend to go an hundred miles about to escape it."

"From Richmond to Darlington, by Croft Bridge. To Croft Bridge, cross, and very indifferent. From thence to Darlington is the great north road and execrably broke into [ 70 ]holes, like an old pavement; sufficient to dislocate ones bones."

"To Lancaster. Turnpike. Very bad, rough and cut up."

"To Preston. Turnpike. Very bad."

"To Wigan. Ditto. I know not in the whole range of language terms sufficiently expressive to describe this infernal road. To look over a map, and perceive that it is a principal one, not only to some towns, but even whole counties, one would naturally conclude it to be at least decent; but let me most seriously caution all travellers who may accidentally propose to travel this terrible country to avoid it as they would the devil; for a thousand to one but they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down. They will here meet with rutts which I actually measured four feet deep, and floating with mud only from a wet-summer; what therefore must it be after a winter? The only mending it receives is the tumbling in some loose stones, which serve no other purpose but jolting a carriage in the most intolerable manner. These are not merely opinions but facts, for I actually passed three carts broken down in these eighteen miles of execrable memory."

"To Warrington. Turnpike. This is a paved road, and most infamously bad.... Tolls had better be doubled and even quadrupled than allow such a nuisance to remain."

"From Dunholm to Knotsford. Turnpike. It is impossible to describe these infernal roads in terms adequate to their defects. Part of these six miles I think are worse than any of the preceding."

"To Newcastle. Turnpike. This, in general, is a paved causeway, as narrow as can be conceived, and cut into perpetual holes, some of them two feet deep, measured on the level; a more dreadful road cannot be imagined; and wherever the country is in the least sandy the pavement is discontinued, and the rutts and holes most execrable. I was forced to hire two men at one place to support my chaise from overthrowing, in turning out from a cart of goods overthrown and almost buried. Let me persuade all travellers to avoid this terrible country, which must either dislocate their bones with broken pavements or bury them in muddy sand."

"I must in general advise all who travel on any business but absolute necessity to avoid any journey further north [ 71 ]than Newcastle. All between that place and Preston is a country, one would suppose, devoid of all those improvements and embellishments which the riches and spirit of modern times have occasioned in other parts. It is a track of country which lays a most heavy tax upon all travellers and upon itself. Such roads are a much heavier tax than half a crown a horse for a toll would be. Agriculture, manufactures and commerce must suffer in such a track as well as the traveller.... Until better management is produced I would advise all travellers to consider this country as sea, and as soon think of driving into the ocean as venturing into such detestable roads."

That the roads in the south of England were no improvement on those in the north is shown by the same writer's "Six Weeks Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales," wherein he says:—

"Of all the cursed roads that ever disgraced this kingdom in the very ages of barbarism, none ever equalled that from Billericay to the King's Head at Tilbury. It is for near 12 miles so narrow that a mouse cannot pass by any carriage; I saw a fellow creep under his waggon to assist me to lift, if possible, my chaise over a hedge.... I must not forget the eternally meeting with chalk waggons, themselves frequently stuck fast till a collection of them are in the same situation that twenty or thirty horses may be tacked to each to draw them out one by one."

Of the "execrably muddy road" from Bury to Sudbury, in Norfolk, he says: "For ponds of liquid dirt and a scattering of loose flints, just sufficient to lame every horse that moves near them, with the addition of cutting vile grips across the road under pretence of letting water off, but without the effect, altogether render at least 12 out of these 16 miles as infamous a turnpike as ever was travelled." As for Norfolk in general, he declares that he "does not know one mile of excellent road in the whole country."

Conditions in and around London were not much better than in the country. In 1727 George II. and his Queen were the whole night in making their way from Kew Palace to St. James's. At one particularly bad place their coach was overturned. In 1737 the time usually occupied, in wet weather, in driving from Kensington to St. James's Palace was two [ 72 ]hours—assuming that the vehicle did not stick in the mud. Writing from Kensington in this same year, Lord Hervey said: "The road between this place and London is grown so infamously bad that we live here in the same solitude as we would do if cast on a rock in the middle of the ocean; and all the Londoners tell us there is between them and us an impassable gulf of mud."

Middleton, again, speaking in his "Survey of Middlesex" of the Oxford Road at Uxbridge, in 1797, says that during the whole of the winter there was but one passable track on it, and that was less than six feet wide, and was eight inches deep in fluid sludge.

In 1816 the Dublin Society made a grant of £100 to defray the cost of a series of experiments to be carried out by Richard Lovell Edgeworth at the Society's premises in Kildare Street, Dublin, with a view to ascertaining "the best breadth of wheels, the proper weight of carriages and of burthen, and the best form of materials for roads." Edgeworth's report, published under the title of "An Essay on the Construction of Roads and Carriages" (second edition, 1817), includes, in its introductory matter, a short account of the history and development of roads. After pointing out that before vehicles for the conveyance of goods were in use little more was required than a path on hard ground which would bear horses; that all marshy grounds were shunned; that inequalities and circuitous roads were of much less consequence than was the case when carriages, instead of packhorses, began to be employed, he proceeds:—

"When heavier carriages and greater traffic made wider and stronger roads necessary, the ancient track was pursued; ignorance and want of concert in the proprietors of the ground, and, above all, the want of some general effective superintending power, continued this wretched practice until turnpikes were established....

"The system of following the ancient line of road has been so pertinaciously adhered to that roads have been sunk many feet, and in some parts many yards, below the surface of the adjacent ground; so that the stag, the hounds and horsemen have been known to leap over a loaded waggon, in a hollow way, without any obstruction from the vehicle."

After this the reader will better appreciate the fact that in [ 73 ]the course of a report on agriculture in the county of Northampton, in 1813, it was stated that the only way of getting along some of the main roads there in rainy weather was by swimming!

Nor is there any lack of testimony as to the prejudicial effect on trade and agriculture of the deplorable condition into which so many of the roads had fallen.

Whitaker, in his "Loidis and Elmete" (1846), speaking of the impediments to commerce and manufactures in the Leeds district prior to the rendering of the Aire and Calder navigable, impediments which, he declares, "it will be difficult for a mind accustomed only to modern ideas and appearances to conceive," says:—

"The roads were sloughs almost impassable by single carts, surmounted at the height of several feet by narrow horse-tracks, where travellers who encountered each other sometimes tried to wear out each other's patience rather than either should risk a deviation. Carriage of raw wool and manufactured goods was performed on the backs of single horses, at a disadvantage of nearly 200 to 1 compared to carriage by water. At the same time, and long after, the situation of a merchant was toilsome and perilous. In winter, during which season the employment of the working manufacturer was intermitted, the distant markets never ceased to be frequented. On horse-back before day-break, and long after night-fall, these hardy sons of trade pursued their object with the spirit and intrepidity of a fox chase, and the boldest of their country neighbours had no reason to despise their horsemanship or their courage."

There is the evidence, also, of Henry Homer, author of "An Enquiry into the Means of Preserving Publick Roads," published in 1767. He regarded the state of the roads and the difficulties of internal communication as among the chief reasons for the backward state of the country in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), saying on this subject:—

"The Trade of the Kingdom languished under these Impediments. Few People cared to encounter the difficulties, which attended the Conveyance of Goods from the Places where they were manufactured, to the Markets, where they were to be disposed of. And those, who undertook this Business, were only enabled to carry it on in the [ 74 ]Wintry-Season on Horseback, or, if in Carriages, by winding Deviations from the regular tracks, which the open country afforded them an Opportunity of making.... The natural Produce of the Country was with Difficulty circulated to supply the Necessities of those Counties and trading Towns, which wanted, and to dispose of the superfluity of others which abounded. Except in a few Summer-Months, it was an almost impracticable Attempt to carry very considerable quantities of it to remote Places. Hence the Consumption of the Growth of Grain as well as of the inexhaustible stores of fuel, which Nature has lavished upon particular Parts of our Island, was limited to the Neighbourhood of those Places which produced them; and made them, comparatively speaking, of little value to what they would have been, had the Participation of them been enlarged.

"To the Operation of the same Cause must also be attributed, in great Measure, the slow Progress which was formerly made in the Improvement of Agriculture. Discouraged by the Expence of procuring Manure, and the uncertain Returns, which arose from such confined Markets, the Farmer wanted both Spirit and Ability to exert himself in the Cultivation of his Lands. On this Account Undertakings in Husbandry were then generally small, calculated rather to be a Means of Subsistence to particular Families than a Source of Wealth to the Publick."

Postlethwayt's authority on the roads of Sussex declared that their condition at that time (1745) "hardly admits the country people to travel to markets in winter, and makes corn dear at the market because it cannot be bought, and cheap at the farmer's house because he cannot sometimes carry it to market." This fact is confirmed by G. R. Porter, who, in his "Progress of the Nation" (1846), gives the authority of an inhabitant of Horsham, Sussex, then lately living, for the tradition that at one time sheep or cattle could not be driven to the London market at all from Horsham, owing to the state of the roads, and had to be disposed of in the immediate neighbourhood, so that "under these circumstances a quarter of a fat ox was commonly sold for about fifteen shillings, and the price of mutton throughout the year was only five farthings the pound."

In Devonshire the Rev. James Brome, who published in [ 75 ]1726 a narrative of "Three Years Travels in England, Scotland, and Wales," found the farmers carrying their corn on horseback, the roads being too narrow to allow of the use of waggons.

Altogether the need for improved facilities for inland communication in the interests alike of travellers and of traders was great beyond all question, and there was unlimited scope for the operation of such improvement as was represented by the turnpike system, now coming into vogue.

It was, however, not so much the general needs of the country as the rebellion in Scotland in 1745, accompanied by such disasters for the Royalist troops as their defeat at Preston Pans, which had led the Government to pay special attention to the subject of road-making and road-improvement. Between 1726 and 1737 General Wade, employing in summer about 500 soldiers on the work, had constructed in Scotland itself some 250 miles of what were, in point of fact, military roads, being designed as a means of reducing disorder in that country. The communications between Scotland and England still remained, however, very defective, and, though English cavalry and artillery had gone forward bravely enough when the rebellion broke out, they found roads that, apart altogether from any question of fighting on them, were not fit for them even to move upon; so that while the troops from the south were hampered and delayed by the narrow tracks, the ruts and the bogs which impeded their advance, the enemy, more at home in these conditions, had all the advantage.

No sooner, therefore, had the rebellion been overcome than the Government, recognising that, even if turnpikes were set up along the roads on the border between Scotland and England, the tolls likely to be raised there would be wholly inadequate for the purpose, themselves took in hand the work of road construction and improvement; and this action gave impetus to a movement for improving roads in England and Wales generally.

Down to this time the turnpike system had undergone very little development. For a quarter of a century after it had been applied, by the Act of 1663, to the Great North Road, no Turnpike Acts at all were sought. A few were then obtained, but until the middle of the eighteenth century, at least, even if not still later, travellers from Edinburgh to London met [ 76 ]with no turnpikes until they came within about 110 miles of their destination. Newcastle and Carlisle were still connected by a bridle path only, while a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine" for November, 1752, in alluding to the journey from London to Falmouth, says that "after the first 47 miles from London you never set eyes on a turnpike for 220 miles."

The policy adopted by the Government so far stimulated the action of private enterprise that between 1760 and 1774 no fewer than 453 Turnpike Acts were passed for the making and repairing of roads, and many more were to follow.




  1. Incidentally, this fact may explain why country roads to-day, still following old tracks, often have so many twists and turns when, one might think, they could just as well have been made straight.
  2. A writer in the "Westminster Review" for October, 1825, referring to the lack of finger-posts, says: "There is scarcely a parish in the country, and not one in the remoter parts, where a stranger can possibly find his way, for want of this obvious remedy. South Wales is an inextricable labyrinth; it is a chance if there is a finger-post in the whole principality. Cornwall and Devonshire are as bad. If by chance they are once erected they are never repaired or replaced. The justices know their own roads and care nothing for the traveller."
  3. Cross = cross road.