A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 11
TRADE AND TRANSPORT IN THE TURNPIKE ERA
In strong contrast to the vigorous denunciations of Arthur Young of so many, though not all, of the roads over which his extensive journeyings through England had led him, are the statements of other authorities, writing about the same time, as to the commercial and social advantages resulting from such improvements as had been brought about. The conflict of testimony appears inconsistent until one remembers that, bad as were the particular conditions which Arthur Young describes, the general conditions were, nevertheless, better than before. Just as the first bone-shaking stage-coach, without springs, seemed to Chamberlayne an "admirable commodiousness," such as the world had never before seen, so, in the view of the writers who had not the same experience of travel as Arthur Young, turnpike roads of any kind may have appeared a vast improvement on the boggy roads or the narrow bridle paths they had succeeded.
Whatever, again, the dangers and discomforts of so many even of the new turnpike roads, there is no doubt that a distinct stimulus was given to trade and travel as the result not only of the better roads but of the better vehicles that could be, and were being, used on them. Agriculture, industries, commerce and social progress all, in fact, took another step forward as these opportunities for transport and communication relatively improved.
Under the influence, possibly, of such considerations as these Henry Homer, writing in 1767, regards with great satisfaction the general outlook at that time. He says:—
"Our very Carriages travel with almost winged Expedition between every Town of Consequence in the Kingdom and the Metropolis. By this, as well as the yet more valuable Project of increasing inland Navigation, a Facility of Communication is soon likely to be established from every Part of the Islandto the sea, and from the several places in it to each other. Trade is no longer fettered by the Embarrasments, which attended our former Situation. Dispatch, which is the very life and Soul of Business, becomes daily more attainable by the free Circulation opening in every Channel, which is adapted to it. Merchandise and Manufactures find a ready Conveyance to the Markets. The natural Blessings of the Island are shared by the Inhabitants with a more equal Hand. The Constitution itself acquires Firmness by the Stability and Increase both of Trade and Wealth which are the Nerves and Sinews of it.
"In Consequence of all this, the Demand for the Produce of the Lands is increased; the Lands themselves advance proportionably both in their annual Value and in the Number of Years-purchase for which they are sold, according to such Value....
"There never was a more astonishing Revolution accomplished in the internal System of any Country than has been within the Compass of a few years in that of England.
"The carriage of Grain, Coals, Merchandize, etc., is in general conducted with little more than half the Number of Horses with which it formerly was. Journies of Business are performed with much more than double Expedition. Improvements in Agriculture keep pace with those of Trade. Everything wears the Face of Dispatch; every Article of our Produce becomes more valuable; and the Hinge, upon which all these Movements turn, is the Reformation which has been made in our Publick Roads."
In the article on "Roads" in Postlethwayt's "Dictionary" (1745) it is declared that the country had derived great advantage from the improvements of the roads, and from the application of tolls collected at the turnpikes. Travelling had been rendered safer, easier and pleasanter. "That this end is greatly answered," we are assured, "everyone's experience will tell him who can remember the condition of the roads thirty or forty years ago." There had been, also, a benefit to trade and commerce by the reduced cost of carriage for all sorts of goods and merchandise. On this especially interesting point the writer of the article says: "Those who have made it their business to be rightly informed of this matter have, upon inquiry, found that carriage is now 30 per centcheaper than before the roads were amended by turnpikes." He proceeds to give a number of examples of such reductions in freight, among them being the following:—
"From Birmingham to London it is said there is not less than 25 or 30 waggons sent weekly; 7s. per hundred was formerly paid, the price now paid is from 3 to 4s. per hundred.
"From Portsmouth to London the common price was 7s. per hundred, the Government paid so in Queen Anne's war, and now only 4 to 5s. per hundred is paid; and in the late war arms and warlike stores for his Majesty's service were carried at the rate of 4 or 5s. per hundred.
"From Exeter to London, and from other towns in the west of like distance the carriage of wool and other goods is very great, especially in times of war.—12s. per hundred was formerly paid, now only 8s. per hundred. The same can be affirmed with respect to Bristol, Gloucester and the adjacent counties."
While the traders and the consumers were, presumably, both benefitting from these reduced charges, the carriers also gained, by reason of the greater loads they were able to take with the same number of horses. On this point the writer says: "The roads in general were formerly so bad and deep, so full of holes and sloughs that a team of horses could scarce draw from any place of 60 miles distant, or upwards, above 30 hundred weight of goods; whereas the same team can now draw with more ease 50 or 60 hundred." On the other hand he did not overlook the fact that the keeping up of the turnpike roads was "a prodigious expense to the nation," so that, in his opinion, the reduction in transport charges was only "a seeming alleviation" of the general burden.
At the time Defoe made his tour of England the turnpike system was still in its infancy; but he is very eulogistic over the improvements then already made.
Having, as already mentioned on p. 65, described the roads from London to the North across the clay-belt of the Midlands, Defoe tells how "turnpikes or toll-bars" had been set up on "several great roads of England, beginning at London, and proceeding through almost all those dirty deep roads" in the midland counties especially, "At which Turn-pikes all Carriages, Droves of Cattle and Travellers on Horse-back are obliged to pay an easy Toll; that is to say, a Horse a Penny, a Coach three Pence, a Cart four Pence, at some six Pence to eight Pence, a Waggon six Pence, in some a Shilling, and the like; Cattle pay by the Score, or by the Head, in some Places more, in some less." Several of these turnpikes had been set up of late years and "great Progress had been made in mending the most difficult Ways."
On these roads toll was, of course, being taken by authority of Act of Parliament; but there was one road, at least, on which tolls were being enforced without Parliamentary sanction; for Defoe goes on to say:—
"There is another Road, which is a Branch of the Northern Road, and is properly called the Coach Road ... and this indeed is a most frightful Way, if we take it from Hatfield, or rather the Park Corners of Hatfield House, and from thence to Stevenage, to Baldock, to Biggleswade and Bugden. Here is that famous Lane call'd Baldock Lane, famous for being so impassable that the Coaches and Travellers were oblig'd to break out of the Way even by Force, which the People of the Country not able to prevent, at length placed Gates and laid their lands open, setting men at the Gates to take a voluntary Toll, which Travellers always chose to pay, rather than plunge into Sloughs and Holes, which no Horse could wade through.
"This terrible Road is now under Cure by the same Methods, and probably may in Time be brought to be firm and solid."
In regard to the turnpike system in general he says:—
"The Benefit of these Turnpikes appears now to be so great, and the People in all Places begin to be so sensible of it, that it is incredible what Effect it has already had upon Trade in the Counties where the Roads are completely finished; even the Carriage of Goods is abated, in some Places, 6d. per hundred Weight, in others 12d. per hundred, which is abundantly more Advantageous to Commerce than the Charge paid amounts to....
"Besides the benefits accruing from this laudable Method we may add, The Conveniency to those who bring fat Cattle, especially Sheep, to London in the Winter from the remoter counties of Leicester and Lincoln, where they are bred: For before, the Country Graziers were obliged to sell their Stocks off in September and October when the Roads began to be bad, and when they generally sell cheap; and the Butchersand Farmers near London used to engross them, and keep them till December and January, and then sell them, though not an Ounce fatter than before, for an advanced price to the Citizens of London; whereas now the Roads are in a Way to be made everywhere passable the City will be serv'd with Mutton almost as cheap in the Winter as in the summer, and the profit of the advance will be to the Country Graziers, who are the original Breeders and take all the Pains.
"This is evidenc'd to a Demonstration in the Counties where the Roads are already repair'd, from whence they bring their fat Cattle, and particularly their Mutton, in Droves, from Sixty, Seventy or Eighty Miles without fatiguing, harrassing or sinking the Flesh of the Creatures, even in the Depth of the Winter."
Whether or not the fat cattle and the sheep were really able to do their long walk to London without fatigue and loss of flesh, it is certain that the naturally bad condition of the roads leading to London was made worse by the "infinite droves of black cattle, hogs and sheep" which passed along them from Essex, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. When the roads were being continually trodden by the feet of large heavy bullocks, "of which," says Defoe, "the numbers that come this way"—that is, out of Lincolnshire and the fens—"are scarce to be reckon'd up," the work done by the turnpike commissioners in the summer was often completely spoiled in the winter. Among, therefore, the many advantages of the rail transport of to-day we may reckon the fact that the roads and highways are no longer worn to the same extent as before by cattle and sheep on their way to the London markets.
Defoe alludes, also, to the influence of improved communications on the development of the fish industry, with the subsidiary advantage of improving the food supplies of the people, saying, in this connection—
"I might give Examples where the Herrings which are not the best Fish to keep, used, even before these Reparations were set on foot, to be carried to those Towns, and up to Warwick, Birmingham, Tamworth and Stafford, and though they frequently stunk before they got thither, yet the people were so eager for them, that they bought them up at a dear Rate; whereas when the Roads are every where good they will come in less Time, by at least two Days in Six of what theyused to do, and an hundred times the quantity will be consumed."
Until, again, the advent of better roads, food supplies and provender—peas, beans, oats, hay, straw, etc.—for London were brought in on the backs of horses. In proportion as the roads improved and were made available for carts and waggons the area of supply widened, and the counties immediately adjoining London even petitioned Parliament against the extension of turnpikes into the remoter counties. These other counties, they alleged, would, from the cheapness of their labour, be able to sell their grass and corn cheaper in the London market than the nearer counties, and would reduce the rents and ruin the cultivation in the latter. Here, of course, the producer wanted protection against competition, and wished to retain the benefit of his geographical advantage. The broader view as to the effect of improved communications on national progress in general was expressed by Adam Smith. In Book I., chapter xi., Part I., of his "Wealth of Nations," he says:—
"Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce. Monopoly, besides, is a great enemy to good management, which can never be universally established but in consequence of that free and universal competition which forces everybody to have resource to it for the sake of self-defence."
The conditions under which the traders of the country in general conducted their business was, naturally, influenced, if not altogether controlled, by the conditions of locomotion.
Hutton tells us in his "History of Birmingham" that the practice of the Birmingham manufacturer for, perhaps, a hundred generations was to keep within the warmth of his own forge. The foreign customer, therefore, applied tohim for the execution of orders, and regularly made his appearance twice a year.
Concerning the Manchester trade, Dr Aikin, in his "Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester" (1795), says:—
"For the first thirty years of the present century, the old established houses confined their trade to the wholesale dealers in London, Bristol, Norwich, Newcastle, and those who frequented Chester fair.... When the Manchester trade began to extend the chapmen used to keep gangs of pack-horses, and accompany them to the principal towns with goods in packs, which they opened and sold to shopkeepers, lodging what was unsold in small stores at the inns. The pack-horses brought back sheep's wool, which was bought on the journey, and sold to the makers of worsted yarn at Manchester, or to the clothiers of Rochdale, Saddleworth and the West Riding of Yorkshire. On the improvement of the turnpike roads waggons were set up, and the pack-horses discontinued; and the chapmen only rode out for orders, carrying with them patterns in their bags. It was during the forty years from 1730 to 1770 that trade was greatly pushed by the practice of sending these riders all over the kingdom, to those towns which before had been supplied from the wholesale places in the capital places before mentioned."
Thus one effect of the improvement in communications was to allow of the Manchester manufacturers establishing direct relations with retailers in the smaller towns who had hitherto been supplied by the wholesale dealers in the large towns, one set of profits being saved. Dr Aikin adds:—
"Within the last twenty or thirty years the vast increase of foreign trade has caused many of the Manchester manufacturers to travel abroad, and agents or partners to be fixed for a considerable time on the Continent, as well as foreigners to reside at Manchester. And the town has now in every respect assumed the style and manners of one of the commercial capitals of Europe."
In an article headed "Change in Commerce," published in No. XI. of "The Original," (1836), Thomas Walker gives ("by tradition," as he says) some particulars as to the methods of business followed by a leading Manchester merchant who was born there early in the eighteenth centuryand realised a sufficient fortune to be able to have a carriage of his own when not half a dozen were kept in the town by persons connected with business.
"He sent the manufactures of the place into Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and the intervening counties, and principally took in exchange feathers from Lincolnshire and malt from Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire. All his commodities were conveyed on pack-horses, and he was from home the greater part of every year, performing his journeys entirely on horseback. His balances were received in guineas, and were carried with him in his saddle-bags. He was exposed to the vicissitudes of the weather, to great labour and fatigue, and to constant danger.... Business carried on in this manner required a combination of personal attention, courage, and physical strength not to be hoped for in a deputy.... The improvements in the way of carrying on commerce, and its increase, may be attributed in a great degree to the increased facility of communication, and the difference between the times I have alluded to and the present is nearly as great as between a pack-horse and a steam-carriage."
Walker also mentions that in the early days of the trader here referred to Manchester was provided with wine by a wine merchant who lived at Preston and carried his supplies to Manchester on horseback. The quantity then consumed, however, was but small, as "men in business confined themselves generally to punch and ale, using wine only as a medicine or on very extraordinary occasions."
A no less interesting phase of the improvements being brought about, and one to which I shall revert in the chapter on "The Canal Era," was found in the influence of better communications on the social conditions of the people.
That these conditions had been greatly prejudiced by the bad roads is beyond all question. Villages which could be reached only with difficulty in summer, and were isolated from the rest of the world for four or five months in the autumn, winter and early spring, were steeped in ignorance and superstition. True it is that in such communities as these the games, sports, customs and traditions which represented the poetry of old English life survived the longest, and have not even yet disappeared before the march of Modern Progress. But no lesstrue is it that such communities were the longest to foster that once popular belief in witchcraft which meant, not merely the looking askance at any decrepit old creature who was believed to have turned the milk sour in the pails, or to have stopped the cows and ewes from breeding, but the putting to death of many thousands of supposed "witches" in England and Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The total number of victims in the first eighty years of the seventeenth century alone is estimated by Dr Charles Mackay, in "Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions," at forty thousand! This particular mania was certainly shared by Kings, Parliaments and ecclesiastics no less than by ignorant villagers; but it decreased in proportion as general intelligence increased, and the increase in general intelligence was materially influenced by those improvements in locomotion and communication which led to wider knowledge and a greater intermingling of the classes.
The same isolation fostered the belief in ghosts, goblins, wraiths, kelpies and other inhabitants of the world of spirits, whose visitations or doings probably formed a leading topic of conversation as the isolated family sat round the fire in the long winter months, wives and daughters busy, no doubt, with their distaffs, their spinning-wheel or their needlework, but none the less able to tell or to listen to the favourite stories.
The whole conditions of existence were of the most circumscribed kind. Many a village got no news at all of what was happening in the world except such as the pedlar might bring, or, alternatively, might circulate through his London-printed "broadsides," telling of some great victory, giving the last dying speech of a noted highwayman, or recording the death of one ruler and the succession of another, of which events the villagers might not hear for two or even three months after they had occurred. "Whole generations," in the words of Samuel Smiles ("Early Roads and Modes of Travelling"), "lived a monotonous, ignorant, prejudiced and humdrum life. They had no enterprise, no energy, little industry, and were content to die where they were born."
In the Elizabethan era, and even later, inhabitants of the northern counties were regarded by dwellers in the south as people among whom it would be dangerous for them to go.English navigators were entering on voyages of discovery and conquest in distant seas, where they would fearlessly encounter the enemies of England or the Indians of the New World, at a time when their fellow-countrymen at home would have shrunk from the perils of a journey across the wilds of Northumberland or of an encounter with the supposed savages of Lancashire.
Even when it was a matter of visiting friends, journeys to distant parts of the country were but rarely undertaken. In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for December, 1752, it was remarked that English people were readily going to France, where they spent in 1751 nearly £100,000; but though a rich citizen in London who had relatives or friends in the west of England might hear of their welfare half a dozen times in his life, by post, "he thinks no more of visiting them than of traversing the deserts of Nubia."
On the other hand, one result of this limitation in the facilities for home travel was to give to many a county town a far greater degree of social distinction that it can claim to-day.
Just as in mediæval times England had consisted of so many separate self-governing and self-dependent communities, each with the house of the lord of the manor as the "hub" of its own little universe, so—in the days when communications had certainly, though still only relatively, improved—did the county town become the recognised centre of social life and movement for each and every county where there was any pretence to social life at all. The country gentry, with their wives and daughters, came to regard a visit to the county town, and indulgence there in a round of balls, feasts, visits and functions, in the same light as a season in London is regarded at the present date.
London in the seventeenth century, if not even down to the middle of the eighteenth, was, for all practical purposes, as far away from the western counties of England as London to-day is from Vienna or St. Petersburg. Visits to the Metropolis were then, indeed, of extremely rare occurrence. In Macaulay's sketch of "The State of England in 1685," forming chapter iii. of his "History of England," there is a diverting account of what must have happened to the lord of a Lincolnshire or Shropshire manor when he appeared in Fleet Street, to be "as easily distinguished from the resident populationas a Turk or a Lascar," and to be subjected to numerous "vexations and humiliations" until, enraged and mortified, he returned to his mansion where "he was once more a great man, and saw nothing above himself except when at the assizes he took his seat on the bench near the judge, or when at the muster of the militia he saluted the Lord Lieutenant."
Adding to such "vexations and humiliations" the cost, the inconveniences and the perils of a journey to London—perils, too, that arose from highwaymen as well as from the roads themselves—the country gentleman was generally content to seek his social distractions nearer home than London. To quote again from Macaulay:—
"The county town was his metropolis. He sometimes made it his residence during part of the year. At all events he was often attracted thither by business and pleasure, by assizes, quarter sessions, elections, musters of militia, festivals and races. There were the halls in which the judges, robed in scarlet and escorted by javelins and trumpets, opened the King's commission twice a year. There were the markets at which the corn, the cattle, the wool and the hops of the surrounding country were exposed for sale. There were the great fairs to which merchants came from London, and where the rural dealer laid in his annual stores of sugar, stationery, cutlery and muslin. There were the shops at which the best families of the neighbourhood bought grocery and millinery."
Defoe, in his "Tour," affords us some interesting glimpses of the social life of various country towns in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Dorchester he describes as "indeed a pleasant town to live in.... There is," he says, "good company and a good deal of it," and he thinks "a man that coveted a retreat in this world might as agreeably spend his time, and as well, in Dorchester" as in any town he knew in England. Exeter was "full of gentry and good company." He has much to say in praise of social life in Dorsetshire. In Plymouth "a gentleman might find very agreeable society." Salisbury had "a good deal of good manners and good company." The "neighbourhood" of "Persons of Figure and Quality" caused Maidstone to be "a very agreeable place to live in," and one where a "Man of Letters and Manners" would always "find suitable Society both to Divert and Improve himself," the town being, in fact, one of "very greatBusiness and Trade, and yet full of Gentry, of Mirth, and of Good Company." King's Lynn, the head-quarters of so important a shipping business in those days, he found "abounding in very good company," while of York he writes: "There is abundance of good Company here, and abundance of good Families live here, for the sake of the good Company and cheap living; a Man converses here with all the World as effectually as at London; the Keeping up of Assemblies among the younger Gentry was first set up here, a thing other Writers recommend mightily as the Character of a good Country and of a Pleasant Place."
The general effect, from a social standpoint, of the combination of better roads and better coaches is well told in an essay "On the Country Manners of the Present Age," published in the "Annual Register" for 1761. The writer has much to say that is of interest from the point of view of the present work, but the following extracts must suffice:—
"It is scarce half a century since the inhabitants of distant counties were regarded as a species almost as different from those of the Metropolis as the natives of the Cape of Good Hope.... Formerly a journey into the country was considered almost as great an undertaking as a voyage to the Indies. The old family coach was sure to be stowed with all sorts of luggage and provisions; and perhaps in the course of the journey a whole village together with their teams, were called in to dig the heavy vehicle out of the clay, and to drag it to the next place of wretched accommodation which the road afforded. Thus they travelled like the caravan over the deserts of Arabia, with every disagreeable circumstance of tediousness and inconvenience. But now the amendments of the roads with the many other improvements of travelling have in a manner opened a new communication between the several parts of our island.... Stage-coaches, machines, flys and post chaises are ready to transport passengers to and fro, between the metropolis and the most distant parts of the Kingdom. The lover now can almost literally annihilate time and space, and be with his mistress before she dreams of his arrival. In short the manners, fashions, amusements, vices and follies of the metropolis now make their way to the remotest corners of the land as readily and speedily, along the turnpike road, as, of old, Milton's Sin and Death, by meansof their marvellous bridges over the Chaos from the infernal regions to our world.
"The effects of this easy communication have almost daily grown more and more visible. The several great cities, and we might add, many poor country towns, seem to be universally inspired with the ambition of becoming the little Londons of the part of the country in which they are situated."
But if the easy communication rendered possible by turnpike roads and flying coaches conferred on the country towns a hope of becoming so many little Londons, the day was to come when a still easier communication by means of railway lines and express trains was to take provincial residents just as readily to the great and real London, and so deprive not a few provincial centres of much of that social life and distinction which the improved transport facilities had brought them.
In London itself, as may also be learned from Defoe, the betterment of the roads around the metropolis led to the citizens flocking out in greater numbers than ever to take lodgings and country houses in "towns near London," which many people having business in the City had not been able to do before because of the trouble involved in riding to and fro on the bad roads. We are told, further, of the consequent increase in the rent of houses, and of the greater number of dwellings being built, in places the roads to which had thus been improved, as compared with other suburban districts to which the turnpike system had not yet been extended.
We have here the beginnings of that creation of a Greater London which has since undergone such enormous developments, and has led to the almost complete disappearance of the custom, once in vogue in the City of London, of a merchant or tradesman living on the same premises as those in which he carried on his business.
Of the various circumstances that led to the eventual decline and fall of the turnpike system, which, with all its faults and short-comings, had at least helped to bring about the improvements in trade, transport and social conditions here described, I shall speak in Chapter xxiii.