A Better Picture?
Britain’s roads in the Georgian and Regency periods were much busier than many people might imagine. Modern life makes it attractive to conjure up an idyllic picture of an 18th-century landscape free from human intrusion. There might be the occasional shepherd or other rustic present in these mental pictures. Otherwise, fields stretch away on all sides, dotted with a few sheep perhaps, or some distant ploughman or reapers.
How realistic are such images as representations of what life must have been like for travellers on Britain’s roads during the long eighteenth century? A little thought suggests the roads of that time may not have been that much less crowded than many rural roads today; perhaps even busier at peak times. We’ve all read contemporary comments on the poor state of eighteenth-century roads, yet it’s clear many people—even fairly poor ones—travelled a great deal.
In Norfolk in particular, travel was extremely common over both short and longer distances. That’s despite the fact that, save for the main London–Norwich road, there were no turnpikes until quite late in the period. Even then, such ‘main’ roads were few and far between. In north Norfolk—an area of wide heathlands—‘roads’ were quite likely to be little better than meandering trackways through the gorse and bracken. The only bright spot was the sandy soils and low rainfall meant there were few of the muddy ‘quicksands’ found elsewhere to bog-down cart wheels.
All Communication had to be physical. There were no ways of sending or receiving anything that did not involve some kind of physical transportation. The only alternative to face-to-face contact was correspondence. Even so, every letter had to be taken by someone between sender and recipient. Outside of towns, all these transactions involved road travel.
Given that the aristocracy, gentry, professional classes and many people of the middling sort were enthusiastic letter-writers, this must have ensured a constant traffic in messengers, servants, carters, mail coaches and any other persons who might be persuaded to carry correspondence. Tradesmen had to send in their accounts, friends and family swapped news, gentry kept in contact with their estate managers; almost everyone above the lowest levels kept in some contact with those important to them—much of it by letter.
The wealthy landed gentry and aristocracy of the period were inveterate travellers. They went to London to take part in government and mingle with other persons of influence. They visited Bath for ‘The Season’ and their country estates for periods in the summer. They went to see friends and relatives and sought out cures for their gout and other ailments. Spas arrived, then flourished. Sea-bathing became a significant attraction on the south and east coasts.
These rich folk could travel in style in their own coaches or chaises, as well as on horseback. Just how much even a middle-ranking member of the landed gentry might expect to travel is indicated by the size of stables and coach-houses. In 1730, Patrick St. Clair wrote to his friend and patron, Ashe Windham, Squire of Felbrigg, about the new stables being added to his house at Felbrigg Hall. These were to have stabling for no fewer than 13 horses, plus space for three coaches!
We must add to this purely social and local travel by coach, chaise or on horseback. The menfolk went to hunts, shooting parties and meetings of all kinds. Those voting or standing for office had to go to wherever the hustings were set up. In Norfolk, all parliamentary elections were held in Norwich, as were elections for the city’s government. Since Norfolk had an unusually broad electorate for the time, this must have meant significant travel for various freemen from all over one of England’s largest counties to cast their votes in person. Some came from as far away as London, their travelling costs paid for by the candidates expecting their vote.
Nor did such travelling take quite as long as we might expect, especially in Norfolk. Both Parson Woodford and Arthur Young, the agricultural writer, thought the Norfolk roads far better than in many counties. Nathaniel Kent, the writer on agricultural improvement who was once land agent at Felbrigg Hall, stated that:
The roads, though often called bad by Norfolk men, are so good, comparatively with those in other counties, that … a traveller may cross the county in any direction, in a post-chaise, without danger; and … may trot his horse from one parish to another, at the rate of six miles an hour.
Ladies paid calls on their acquaintances according to strict codes of etiquette. Just how much visiting took place was shown when The National Trust assumed responsibility for Felbrigg Hall. They found drawers stuffed with hundreds of visiting cards. Visiting family was another major reason for travel. And, as today, people went shopping to the nearest town of any size, as much to see and be seen as to make purchases.
The Middling Sort and The Rest
Whatever the rich did soon filtered down to the middling sort, who became both more numerous and more prosperous as the century progressed.
Doctors, lawyers, magistrates and judges were almost professional travellers. Judges followed circuits between assizes, as did magistrates attending petty sessions. The clients of professionals of all kinds typically expected their lawyers, doctors and other agents to come to them, not the other way around.
Clergymen and Dissenting ministers also travelled between preaching engagements, as did their congregations. Early Methodists like the Wesleys were constant travellers. Those rectors, vicars and ministers who were attentive to their flocks might need to travel between several churches on a Sunday, as many do now. Pluralists and those less interested in their supposed religious duties had to pay poor curates to conduct services for them. The payment given to such ‘clerical hacks’ was so meagre that they often had to serve many parishes to scrape a living. More travel there.
The laity travelled as well to ‘try out’ a new preacher or enjoy a sermon from a favourite. We know from their diaries that folk like Mary Hardy, the wife of a Norfolk brewer, and Sylas Neville, doctor and scrounger, made many such journeys. ‘Sermon Tasting’ was a popular pastime and Sylas Neville often recorded his impressions in his diary. They read just like a modern critic reviewing last night’s performance.
The Ipswich Journal of September 11th, 1773, even reported a case where the volume of traffic on what was only a country road saved one traveller from being robbed.
On Monday last as Peter Muiliman was coming from his seat at Castle Hedingham, he was stopped between the 5th and 6th mile stone on the Rumford road by two highwaymen on fresh [sic] and well mounted with one on each side of the chaise, but not finding any booty they tossed back what they had taken also his watch, so he lost nothing, there were many horsemen and carriages and particularly two timber carriages on the road at the time.
Merchants, Manufacturers and Tradesmen
Naturally merchants and businessmen were often on the road, travelling to conduct or negotiate business, buying and selling, visiting customers, suppliers, premises and other factories.
Further down the social scale, dressmakers, tailors, carpenters, builders and the like also had to travel to seek business or do their work. In 1752, William Windham at Felbrigg Hall decided to buy some new wallpaper, including some expensive and highly-fashionable Chinese wallpaper for one room. He then needed an expert to hang it all, so that it fitted the various wall-spaces. Much to his annoyance, the expert charged him three shillings and sixpence a day for the work (it took a month!), plus sixpence a mile for periodic travelling of the 25 miles to and from his base in Norwich. In his accounts, Windham annotated these expenses as “a cursed deal”!
Then there were chapmen, hawkers, tinkers, hucksters and all kinds of charlatans and quacks going from place to place to sell their wares. Farmers and their wives went to market. Servants went on various errands. Parson Woodforde regularly sent his manservant into Norwich (ten miles each way on foot) to bring back the newspaper and undertake other minor jobs.
Nor must we forget the many day-labourers and craftsmen going to work, moving between workplaces, driving animals and going home at the end of the day. Itinerants too: people seeking work, people seeking food and shelter, beggars, gipsies and the like. All added to the continual flow of people.
I have left this to last, but it was far from the least source of traffic on Norfolk’s roads in the eighteenth century. Sea transport may have been easier for heavy items like coal, as was canal transport towards the end of the period, but local deliveries still had to come by road. Coal, timber, bricks, stone and the like travelled by water where it could, but bringing the large amounts of fuel needed for towns, workplaces and even large country houses those last few miles must have produced at good deal of cart and packhorse traffic.
Outbound goods had to use the roads as well. More of Norwich’s main production of fine cloth went to London by packhorse than by sea, though both methods were used. Grain for London and beyond also had to go first by road to ports such as Blakeney, Wells, Cley and even Cromer. Fortunately, Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, the county’s principal ports, were both served by good river networks. Yet even there, grain from the threshing-barns still had to be taken to inland loading points for the wherries and barges.
A good example of a thriving local delivery network comes from the diary of Mary Hardy, whose husband ran a brewery at Letheringsett, just outside Holt in north Norfolk, in the 1770s to 1790s. Their two brewery drays were large, horse-drawn carts with a single driver. Each carried several of the standard 36-gallon barrels, holding 288 pints of beer, and must have been extremely heavy when fully loaded. Yet at any one time, this brewery seems to have been supplying beer to between 40 and 45 inns scattered over an area of some 700 square miles. What is even more remarkable is that deliveries had to be fitted in with other work in the brewery and its environs. If the roads had been truly bad, such a complex and demanding distribution network would have been impossible.
What about highwaymen?
While robberies did take place, a good many people travelled without a great expectation of being robbed along the way. Highwaymen there were, and footpads, but maybe not so many as some works of fiction might suggest. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that most crime in the long eighteenth century was opportunist, caused by poverty and hunger. Aside from smugglers, there’s little evidence for significant ‘professional’ groups devoted to criminality.
I suspect that the eighteenth-century attitude to highway robbery was similar to our modern attitude to road accidents. We know they take place, we may even have experienced one or two ourselves, but they do not prevent us from getting in our cars and driving where we want to. The human mind has a wonderful capacity to assume bad things are going to happen to other people, if they happen at all!
Just as only a fool today drives too fast in ice and fog, only a fool in Georgian times would set out on a long journey over roads known for robberies with his pockets jingling with guineas.
Coaches carried weapons for protection, though the coachmen or postillions might be sensibly wary of starting a fire-fight with a well-armed robber. Even individuals might carry one or two small pistols. The threat was probably worth more than their actual firepower, but a hungry, desperate labourer driven to robbery would probably be unlikely to attack a young, active man rather than wait until someone less dangerous came along.
This picture of busy roads, often crowded with carriages, carts, people and animals is much more accurate than a good many derived from paintings and engravings of the time, in which the picturesque counted for more than realism. We also forget that people were rather more used to walking long distances than we are today. In the late 1920s, my own grandmother used to walk from her farmhouse home into the nearby town to do her regular shopping. That would only have been a ten-mile round trip—though she would, of course, have to carry her groceries on the way home.
Bird, Margaret. “Supplying the Beer: Life on the Road in Eighteenth-Century Norfolk.” The Glaven Historian 14. (2014): 2–29.
Bird, Margaret. The diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809 Burnham Press, 2013.
Cozens-Hardy, Basil. The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767–1788. London: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Kent, Nathaniel. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk. London, 1796.
Moritz, Carl Philipp. Journeys of a German in England: Walking Tour of England in 1782. Ed. Reginald Nettel. London: Eland Books, 1983.
Woodforde, James. James Woodforde: The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758–1802. Ed. John Beresford and Ronald Blythe. Canterbury Press Norwich, 1996.
Young, Arthur. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk. London, 1804.
- St. Clair had long been a friend to Ashe Windham and his mother. Once Ashe had reached the age when he could take personal charge of his estates, St. Clair acted as his ‘right hand man’ in Norfolk, supervising his agents, relaying news and generally keeping an eye on things. This involved a good deal of travel over the northern part of the county, even though St. Clair was already in his 70s. The old man was also a parson, with several livings to deal with, and a tireless visitor to the main Norfolk families and mentor to his fellow clergy. From time to time, he also ventured to London, accompanied by his unmarried daughter. ↩
- It’s interesting that the German pastor, Moritz, who walked through large parts of southern England in 1782, rarely seems to have been worried about being robbed. He even lay down by the side of the road at times and had a nap! Of course, his ‘immunity’ may have had more to do with his habit of walking than anything else. He certainly encountered some very poor treatment along his way, notably at inns, because he arrived on foot. It seems as if he had no idea of the English Poor Law and failed to understand that people would have taken him for a vagrant! ↩