Here is a final group of examples of travel problems from the diaries of Mary Hardy. Most relate to coping with bad weather, especially in winter, but bad roads were just as great a difficulty in many parts of the country. Some so-called roads in the period were more like wandering tracks, not marked by neat verges or metalled surfaces. People, horses and vehicles might choose various paths around obstacles or patches of mud and deep ruts.
The result would be a network of trackways, all going approximately in the same direction. When cattle drovers and their herds passed along them, these ‘roads’ would be widened still more. Until enclosure became near-universal, hedges by roadsides were even less frequent than they are today in places like Norfolk, where the agriculture is mostly arable.
The roads in Norfolk, especially north Norfolk, were judged to be much better than many in the 18th century. This was mostly due to the geology: extremely sandy soils above a bedrock of chalk and flint. The ground drains very quickly. In those parts of the country plagued by heavy clay soils, like the midlands and areas close to London, roads in winter might become virtually impassable through mud. Problems continued in the summer too, with reports of sun-baked ruts several feet deep! After journeys from 1724 to 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote:
… the soil of all the midland part of England, even from sea to sea, is of a deep stiff clay, or marly kind, and it carries a breadth of near 50 miles at least, in some places much more nor is it possible to go from London to any part of Britain, north, without crossing this clayey dirty part … the roads had been plow’d so deep, and materials have been in some places so difficult to be had for repair of the roads, that all the surveyors’ rates have been able to do nothing—nay, the whole country has not been able to repair them.
In Mary Hardy’s diary for February 1784, she reports a Letheringsett man returning from Wells-next-the-sea fell into a lime pit in a snowstorm and lost his life, as much from exposure as the fall itself. Something else to remember is that roads may have been reasonably busy during the day, but far fewer people travelled by night, especially in bad weather. Such lights as were available—basically candles in boxes, with perhaps a reflector—would have given only a feeble glimmer. If you became stuck, or fell and were injured, you were unlikely to get help quickly. Add cold and wet and the potential for dying from exposure rose alarmingly.
Also in December 1784, on Christmas Eve, Mary’s husband went in their chaise to see his brother and sister, who lived about 10 miles away. He left around 6:00 am. The chaise “broke down” on the way home and he had to return to where his family lived and borrow a cart. He got home again “after 8 [pm]”.
On February 2, 1784, one of the Hardy’s delivery wagons went out into a snowy morning landscape, heading for two inns half a dozen miles distant. It got lost in the snow drifts and finally made it back around ten in the evening.
Feb 10 1784 “Sharp frost, storms of snow. Cornwell went to Cromer lost himself upon Holt Heath, the snow being so very deep.” [Mary wrote that the snow drifts were 14 to 15 feet – 4 to 5 metres – deep in places]
Feb 18, 1807 “A very terible [sic] morning With Wind and.. snow. Mr Hardy and I and sister Raven sett out for Sprowston [near Norwich] morng [sic] 7 in Love’s post chaise, had a terrible journey, the snow being very much drifted and wind very high and stormy. Baited [fed horses] at Aylsham and got to Sprowston ½ past 2. The man could not return that night but slept there.
It wasn’t just snow and ice that caused bad accidents. In June, 1796, after days of rain, a cart belonging to a Mrs Booty, a rival brewer based a few miles away at Binham, tried to cross the ford of the river (the bridge may have been too narrow or the cart too heavy). The flow was too strong and the cart was overturned, then pulled under the bridge. One of the horses drowned and the man on the cart was thrown into the river. Mary notes he was “providentily [sic] sav’d”.
Norfolk has abundant marshes and fens in some areas, of course, and the neighbouring counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire even more. Draining was primitive or non-existent, so heavy rain might block some roads and river-crossings for lengthy periods. Increased flows could also damage or destroy bridges and block fords. Our modern experience of major floods can be bad enough; imagine the chaos caused by flooding when few roads had any real surface or drainage, and fields and water-meadows were expected to fill with water through most of the winter months.
With the roads so bad and slow in many places, it wasn’t unusual for people to take passage on a coastal ship for long journeys north or south along the east coast. In good weather, it could be a useful means of travel. In bad storms, it could be lethal, particularly considering the effects of high tides and storm surges.
The North Sea (or German Ocean as it was called before World War I) is shallow, turbulent and prone to violent storm surges when conditions are right. This was probably why fewer people in the 18th century were drawn to living close to the coast. It was simply too wild and dangerous. There are reports of 18th century storms in which hundreds of small ships perished, along with all their crews, so that miles of shoreline were strewn afterwards with flotsam of all kinds. Defoe remarked that almost every fence or hedge in Norfolk’s coastal areas was made-up mostly from the timbers of wrecked ships.
The Norfolk Chronicle of 7 November 1789 reported:
For the sake of humanity, we wish it were in our power to contradict, or at least to soften, the dreadful consequences of the storm from the north-east, which happened this day se’nnight [a week ago].
The article then goes on to list 28 ships lost in that single storm, with more severely damaged or washed up on shore. When this happened, sailors and any passengers ran a high risk of being drowned.
In 1770, thirty vessels were lost on Lowestoft Sands and all aboard them drowned. On October 31, 1789, 40 vessels were driven ashore between Yarmouth and Southwold and 120 bodies washed up with them. On the night of 18 February, 1807, no fewer than 144 bodies were washed up at Yarmouth alone.
Despite all the hazards, the threats from robbers and the uncertainties of wind, weather and mishap, people did travel in Georgian times, many both widely and often. I suspect they were a great deal more stoical about the problems they faced than we are today. They knew well that life is uncertain and dangers frequent.
I wonder what they would make of the tantrums of modern commuters when delays are caused by leaves on the line?
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.
Bentham, Hervey. Once Upon a Tide. London, Harrap, 1971.
Do you enjoy historical fiction?
A new Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, is now available. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.
Check it out here.