Dangerous Driving in Georgian Norfolk

Norwich Market Place
Thomas Rowlandson

Today’s traffic may seem horrific, especially at busy times, but at least the cars, however badly driven, have *brakes*. Pending ‘driverless cars’, they also lack minds of their own, unlike horses. In Georgian times, the press of horses, carts, carriages and wagons could be just as frenetic, few having any brakes. The drivers too could be wild and thoughtless, to say nothing of being drunk at almost any hour of the day. To add to it all, poorly-trained horses, inexpert drivers and riders and the tendency of horses to take fright and bolt for no apparent reason, must have rendered town life in the eighteenth century at least as dangerous as it is today.

Here are some excerpts from the local paper to illustrate the point.

Wild Wagoners

It seems that Norfolk in Georgian times was as much inclined to ‘do different’ as it is today, even when this caused danger to those involved. Here’s the Norfolk Chronicle complaining about the dangerous way farm hands in the county drove the heavy wagons of the time.

It happens frequently to persons who travel this county, that their terror is excited, not so much at seeing waggoners [sic] riding on so dangerous a place as the shafts, as their jumping off immediately on any person of genteel appearance meeting them; and subjecting themselves of course from haste to those accidents, which we have frequent occasion to relate and to lament. We believe not all the counties in this kingdom produce so many accidents in this way as Norfolk and Suffolk; the reason we apprehend is, from the different modes of driving. The Norfolk and Suffolk drivers using a short whip and constantly driving by the thiller [see below], are induced to mount the shafts; while drivers in other counties drive with long whips, and from the heads of their teams, and when ease or fancy induce them to ride, it is as natural for them to mount either the leader, or the next to him, as the drivers before-mentioned do the shafts. Where the danger is ten-fold, humanity induces us to wish that farmers would enforce this method, which from the superior excellence of drivers accustomed to it, is well known be the best. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 19 November 1791)

The thiller or thill-horse is the horse that goes between and supports the thills or shafts of a cart, i.e. the rearmost horse in a wagon-team. These wagoners are walking beside the rearmost horse, it seems, taking a rest by hopping up onto the shafts, since they cannot sit on the horse that is between them. The recommended method is to walk beside the lead-horse, then either ride it or the next in line before the shafts.

If you slipped off the shafts, or fell when getting up or down, it was almost certain that the wheels of the wagon would go over you, few recovering from such injuries, given the primitive medicine of the time.

Bolting horses

One night last week as the coachman of Bartlett Gurney, Esq. of this city, was driving his carriage (empty) in trying to pass another which stood at the gate of Alderman Weston’s brewery, near Black Friar’s Bridge; the street being very narrow, one of the wheels caught upon a bench, and the driver was suddenly thrown from his box between the two carriages, the wheel of the chariot passing over the flap of his hat. The horses set off full speed through Bridge-street, Gilden-gate, round Botolph into Pitt-street, Southgate and Muspole streets, rounded St. George’s church into St. Clement’s, over Fye-bridge, and were stopped on Tombland. We are happy to add, the coachman is not materially hurt, and the horses and carriage were still more fortunate. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 8 January 1791)

I wonder what “not materially hurt” means?

One day last week an accident happened to Mr. Waters, farmer at Dagenham, in Essex: Having business a few miles from home, mounted a young spirited horse, but had not rode above a mile and a half when the beast took fright, threw him, and at the same time struck him so violent a blow on the head, that he died on the spot. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 27 June 1778)

In my latest book charting the career of Dr. Adam Bascom, “A Tincture of Secrets and Lies”, he too suffers a fall from his horse which brings him close to death. It was all too common. Because people rode a good deal, it did not mean all of them rode well.

Other Mishaps

On Tuesday last, while the carriage of S. Day, Esq. was standing at Miss Flamwell’s door, with a child in it, a hackney coach driving furiously past, overturned the same, by which accident the child was greatly hurt.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

There were other hazards too. Not potholes, like today, but piles of muck!

On Wednesday evening Mr Suffield’s carriage was nearly overturned in going to Catton, owing to a quantity of muck being left in the middle of Coslany-street. Such dangerous nuisances are too frequent in this city, and cry loudly for redress.— It is certainly no small reproach to the police [watchmen] of this extensive city, that the necessary and salutary office of scavenger, should not be filled by a responsible character; and we sincerely hope, that the inhabitants of the market, the shambles, and fish-market will unite in preventing those pestilential nuisances, which have lately abounded in those quarters. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 9 April 1791)

Perhaps today’s roads and traffic aren’t quite so bad after all!

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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1 Response to Dangerous Driving in Georgian Norfolk

  1. A.J.Furley Furley says:

    However, there cannot be a nicer form of travel than a horse and two wheeled tip-cart on a country lane in summer. My memories of a 1950,s childhood.

    Andrew Furley

    On Wed, Dec 6, 2017 at 6:12 AM, Pen and Pension wrote:

    > William Savage posted: ” Today’s traffic may seem horrific, especially at > busy times, but at least the cars, however badly driven, have *brakes*. > Pending ‘driverless cars’, they also lack minds of their own, unlike > horses. In Georgian times, the press of horses, carts, carriage” >


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