Travel in Georgian England

Travel became popular in Georgian times but because of the poor condition of the roads, it was not easy.

When the Romans invaded Britain, they had a different use for roads — military, so they wanted a straight line from Point A to Point B, which had to be capable of taking the marching feet of their Legions. But when they left England, life reverted to the quiet country style.

Some Roman roads still survive in England, Watling Street for one, which can be seen from the air as a straight line from London to the north. G.K. Chesterton summed up the English roads with a poem which begins

"Before the Romans came to Rye,

Or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard

Made the rolling English road.

The roads were just cart tracks, and while Britain was an agricultural country, and people seldom moved far from their villages, that was all that was required. so the state of the roads was not a matter of concern. People walked, and if the roads became impassable by foot, they would know, and could cope with it. But strangers might need to hire a guide to take them to the next village or town. However, once the life of the country people changed, it was obvious that these roads would have to be improved.

It was a legal requirement that each parish had to take care of its own roads. The grandly named "Surveyor of Highways" was in charge. This was one of the locals, chosen by his neighbours. He could command his neighbours to work on the roads (for no pay) for six working days every year. He could also demand the free use of horses, carts and tools from the richer members of the community. However, with no specialised tools or knowledge, it was not a success.

If enough support could be gained, a Turnpike Trust could be set up by an Act of Parliament to allow the roadmakers to build a tollgate or turnpike at the beginning of their section of road and to charge a toll on all users. This would raise funds to help defray the cost of keeping the road in good repair.

Some of the tolls were very complicated and very explicit about how much would be charged for what kind of traffic — a two-wheeled cart would be charged a different rate from a four-wheeled carriage. Some road users tried to evade the tolls, and allowance was made for that in the notice posted up at the tollgate, which included the fines for evasion of tolls.

By 1830 there were about 1000 Turnpike Trusts in Britain. Most of them had about 10 or 12 miles of road, though some had many more. By 1840 there were about 15,000 miles of new road and with 8,000 turnpikes to pay for their upkeep. Turnpike Trusts expected a lot of traffic, so they employed surveyors who knew how to build roads properly — Thomas Telford and John Macadam were two successful road builders.

Thomas Telford was a Surveyor who knew how to build roads properly. His innovative road making system involved drainage.

First a well-drained base, then a layer of large stones, finally a layer of gravel to make a smooth surface.

The most famous road he built was the one from London to Holyhead — where the passenger ships sailed to Dublin. But he also built the road from Glasgow to Carlisle, shown on our present-day maps as the A74. As a matter of interest, Telford also built and designed bridges, and was responsible for the suspension bridge over the Menai Straits, linking the Isle of Anglesey to the mainland of Britain.

When coach owners saw the new roads, they made much better coaches. They were light, well sprung, and comfortable. They would rattle along at 20 mph and keep an average speed of 12mph. People could now go to places in one fifth of the time it had taken before. London to Edinburgh, for example, now took 2 days instead of 10.

The Coaching Era :-

Stage Coaches

On Macadam's new roads travel by night became more common.

In the last 30 years of the Georgian period 1800-1830, traffic increased in speed and numbers beyond anything which had ever been known. Over 1000 vehicles left London every day, using altogether about 4000 horses. 15 kilometres on — in all directions — and at stages all over the country, hundreds more horses were waiting to relieve them.
Illustration "Snow Storm" from an old print

"The stagecoach was a heavy vehicle, pulled by four or six horses, and travelled at a steady eight kilometres per hour. Inside the coach were two cushioned seats, taking three persons on each side. Outside passengers travelled at a cheaper rate, either in the luggage basket,(*) which was slung between the back wheels, or on the roof, clinging to the baggage. It is difficult to say which was the more uncomfortable way of travelling."

(Quoted from 'Queen Anne to Queen Victoria' by R.J. Unstead)

(*) This was the origin of the phrase "in the basket", to denote being short of money.

In the introduction to the book "Transport in the Industrial Revolution" Michael J Freeman points out that the Mailcoaches and the stagecoaches "...existed primarily to meet the needs of merchants, manufacturers and the business community as a whole. They developed from the last quarter of the 18th century in response to the quickening pace of the economy, to the evolving order of merchants and industrialists to whom an efficient and deepening contact network was a fundamental necessity. The ability to track market prices closely, to buy or sell when profit margins were greatest, to achieve a quicker and more reliable circulation of capital, to read the opportunities for expansion — all these things hinged upon the coaching system. It was not simply a matter of facilitating contact and speeding up the conveyance of letters, the latter bearing information on prices, transmitting orders and bills of payment and establishing terms of trade. Alongside this, there was the intensive traffic in parcels and small packages, that in trade samples above all. Stagecoaches were used for conveying samples ranging from raw cotton and wool to yarn, thread and cloth, from bar iron to precision tools and from hops to drinking ale...."

The mail coaches were the top order of coaches on the road, and they were run primarily for the transport of the mails and for passengers. They were so reliable that country towns set their clocks by their arrival. For instance, the mail coaches from London reached Reading (38 miles away) at ten past one in the morning and Newbury(55 miles) at five minutes past three in the morning. (Nearly two hours to cover 17 miles)

They made regular runs between London and most large towns,  stopping at stages
along the road to put down and collect passengers,   to change horses,  and to stay
for the night at an inn.

However, there were many other stage coaches, run more especially for the carriage of freight. They were usually hired at a specific charge for a double mile ( that is there and back), by private companies with their own distinctive liveries and colours. Some of these are quoted in the letters, such as "Blossoms", "Regent", "Emerald" etc., and often the Inn is quoted from where the company had its headquarters, or an office.

"The stage coaches went faster and faster, and the sight of them varnished and shining, their splendid horses driven by skillful coachmen filled men with excitement and pleasure. Some men indeed spent much of their time riding in any new coach, on any fast run, for the sheer joy of it.

Their coaches all had names like Magnet, Comet, Express, Lightning, Greyhound and Rocket, and each had it's rival belonging to another company which would race neck and neck along Macadam's smooth roads. Speed was everything, and the drivers took a pride in arriving punctually, at every stage."

(Quoted from 'Queen Anne to Queen Victoria' by R.J. Unstead)

the Blenheim Coach, c 1831

Stage Coaches — from Carlisle

Photocopy of page from an old Carlisle directory, giving details of the names and destinations of the mail coaches and stage coaches travelling in and out of Carlisle. This includes the inns/coffee houses, and times at which the coaches stop, and in some cases, the towns en-route.

Carlisle Stage coaches click here for a larger image

The Express to London every Mon. Wed. and Fri. mngs at 6, through Penrith, Appleby,Greta-Bridge, Boroughbridge, York, Doncaster, Grantham, Stamford, &c; ret 1/2 past 11 night.

The New Times to Manchester & Liverpool, every mng at 1/2 past 4, through Kendal, Lancaster, Preston &c; ret 9 evg

Royal Sailor to Whitehaven, every mng at 1/2 past 8, through Wigton, Allenby, Maryport & Workington; ret 4 aft

The Sir Walter Scott to Edinburgh, every Mon. Wed & Fri mngs at 1/2 past 4, through Langholm, Hawick, and selkirk; ret at 6 evg

Independent to Glasgow, every mng (Sun excepted) at 1/2 past 3, through Annan, Dumfries, Kilmarnock and Lanark; ret at 10 night

Royal Invincible to Manchester, every mng at 1/2 past 4, through Penrith, Kendal, Lancaster, Preston, Bolton &c; ret at 9 night

Independent to Edinburgh, every Mon. Wed & Fri at 5 mng through Longtown, Langholm, Hawick &c; ret Tue. Thu & Sat at 6 evng

True Briton every mng at 6 to Newcastle, through Brampton, Haltwistle, Hexham &c; ret at 1/2 past 2 aft.

This engraving of 1825 'The Mail Coach in a drift of snow', engraved by R.G. Reeve after James Pollard (1925), shows the hazards to be encountered travelling in the winter-time. It is hard to see that a road exists at all. The mail coach drivers were expected to keep to their time bills even in such conditions.

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