The Main Problem for Travellers wasn’t Highwaymen
It’s inevitable that historical novelists, screen-writers – even the writers of popular history – should focus primarily on the more dramatic dangers facing travellers in the 18th century. Like highwaymen and footpads on land or pirates at sea. Dangerous and desperate men intent on robbery and ready to maim or kill if thwarted.
All true, of course, though probably never as common as costume dramas and romantic thrillers would have us believe. Highway robbers must always have tried to to pick victims with something worth taking. That meant the wealthy or their retainers – at least those amongst them who could not afford private coaches with plentiful servants to act as guards. Other people would simply not be worth the trouble of robbing, or the danger of being caught. When you might be hanged or transported for a first offence, you wanted the profits to more than match the dangers involved.
The authorities took a very dim view of highway crime and offered substantial rewards for bringing the perpetrators to justice. The reward of £40.00 mentioned here was more than most people could earn in a year, or even two.
On Saturday last, about two o’clock in the morning, as James ALTHERTON, servant to Mrs Rhoda COBB, of Hoe, next East Dereham, in this county, was driving his team upon the turnpike road near the six-mile stone, and within a small distance of the church of Hockering, he was stopped by two footpads, armed with bludgeons, who demanded his money, seized him, beat him, threw him down, and robbed him of half a guinea in gold and a silver watch, and then made off towards Mattishall Bergh. These two footpads appeared to be labourers, the one was rather tall, had on a slop, and the other rather low, and had on a brown coat. From the darkness of the morning the said ALTHERTON cannot at present give any further description of them, but is certain he can recollect the face of one of them. — The reward for apprehending a highwayman, and prosecuting him to conviction, is 40 pounds. (Norfolk Chronicle, January 6, 1782)
Just as with terrorist attacks and major disasters today, the incidents that offer the most drama are rarely the stuff of everyday experience amongst ordinary people. Most of us are much more likely to be troubled by delays, strikes, missed connections and mislaid baggage. Then there’s the endless queuing at security and general hanging around at airports or railway stations, waiting for boarding calls or information announcements.
The commonest dangers of 18th-century travel were just as humdrum in their way, though often more painful. They must also have been extremely common. All the examples in this series of posts come from the diaries of Mary Hardy, the wife of a local brewer who lived in Letheringsett, about two miles from Holt in north Norfolk.
These then are the travel problems that happened to people of the middling sort or below. Some might be modestly prosperous local merchants and traders, like Mary’s husband; some local clergy or preachers; many were servants, skilled or semi-skilled workers or agricultural labourers. What we have here represents the vast bulk of the population in Georgian times. Not the kind of folk you find in the pages of most historical romances. They tend to be populated by more titled, noble families than England ever actually possessed!
Letheringsett, where the Hardy family lived, lies in a quiet, rural and rather out-of-the-way part of England. The people Mary most often refers to all lived within a dozen miles of her, many in her own parish of maybe 300 or fewer people at the time – 1500 or so if you included the neighbouring market town of Holt.
This is a tiny fraction of the English population in the 1780s and 1790s. If you multiply the number of local travel problems and accidents accordingly, the total you would arrive at for the entire country would be huge. I suspect that, per head of the population, the dangers of the roads in the 18th century were probably not so very different to those today.
In the next post, we’ll look at road accidents and breakdowns. Carriages and carts were even more likely to break down than modern vehicles. And the internal combustion engine does not suffer from nerves, as horses do, nor suddenly fall down or bolt.
P.S. This is the 100th posting on Pen and Pension!
Bird, Margaret, ed. The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809 (4 vols.). United Kingdom: Burnham Press, 2013.
Cozens-Hardy, Basil. The History of Letheringsett in the County of Norfolk. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1960.