It’s so easy to get from one place to another in this century, isn’t it? We have the motor car to take us almost anywhere by road, we can use trains (if they run on time) to take us to cities not only here in Britain, but over most developed countries. No need to think about anything other than catching the train, heaving luggage on the rack then settling back in comfort with our iPads, looking dreamily out of windows at the passing scenery. Most amazing of all, we have aeroplanes to transport us right up into the sky over miles and miles of territory, right to the furthest reaches of the planet. Nothing is really inaccessible any more, anything can be arranged, the strangest places visited and – sadly –spoilt with tourism.
How different it was in the 19th century! The majority of working people had to get everywhere on foot. If they were lucky they might be comfortably off and own a horse and cart but most of the time it was –to use the vernacular – ‘shank’s pony’, their own stout legs. If you wanted to visit your nearest town or city, you walked or begged a ride on a wagon. Dick Whittington, so it is said, walked all the way to London from Lincolnshire or some such far off place. The tale may be a myth but the idea of it didn’t seem so strange in those days. Few ordinary people ever went to London or even to a nearby town but spent their whole life in the village they were born in, a small enclosed community and lifestyle. If migrations occurred due to lack of work, you usually walked and hitch-hiked the miles to your new destination.
The whole world has changed because of the rapid changes in our means of transport during the 19th century, starting in Britain and spreading to all corners of the globe.
When I was at the British Library in London researching The Crimson Bed I found a fascinating lot of information on Victorian Transport. The roads were nothing like as well kept as those of today but on the well used ones turnpikes were installed along the routes to raise money for improvement of the roads. By the start of the 19th century there were regular and fast stagecoaches along the main arteries which used the turnpikes and helped in the maintenance of the highways.
The London to Holyhead stagecoach, with its VR for Victoria Regina painted on the door made such frequent journeys, carrying the post from London to Wales along what was once part of an old Roman Road, the Anglo-Saxon road called Watling Street and nowadays called the A5. There were red and black seats at the back and on top of the coach while the coachman sat in front.
A famous stagecoach operator was a Mrs Ann Nelson of the Bull Inn in Aldgate, London. She took over the coaching business with the help of her two sons when her husband John died. She was said to be a cheerful lady, up with the lark, running her inn and business with a canny and exacting sense of business. Her coaches ran into the Eastern Counties but her son, George, drove the night mail to Exeter while her other son kept 400 horses and ran a very profitable business. If any coach came in late they were fined half a crown. If they were very late, it was instant dismissal. Ann dealt with her rivals by cutting fares and created quite a price war. At one point she took passengers for free and even gave them a dinner at Witham. Her rivals soon went out of business!
The other mode of transport at that time was also, of course, the barge and these carried coal and iron upriver or along the many canals built during that time. They might bring back wheat, oats, barley and bricks, certainly it wasn’t profitable to return upstream empty. The bargees earned a penny a day and a skipper would earn a £1 for a two day journey from Sudbury to the sea. When floods were high it was often unsafe to let water in the lock which meant a delay in the journey and a loss of earnings. Life was tough in those days.
The Port of London was the busiest in the world and the tall ships waited downriver for a place to dock. The gangways and wharves would be filled with ships disgorging their exotic wares from all parts of the British Empire and the rich customers would often arrive at the docks to sample the wines at the dock, moving from cask to cask, hogshead to hogshead and trying out the rare and wonderful vintages and brandies. They often got so drunk they had to be carried away in a cart! Hard now to imagine as we take a leisure boat trip up the neat clean riverside where warehouses have become desirable apartments or shopping malls and the whole embankment is elegant with gardens, the river clean and not stinking as it was then! The various wharves were filled with exotic goods, ivory from Africa, perfumes from France, Persian carpets offloaded at Surrey Docks, German barrels filled with apple pulp (of all odd things), Victoria and Albert melons from Spain, peaches from Italy and tobacco in hogsheads. Spices came to the India Dock. It must have smelt amazing though mixed with this would be the stench of the River Thames whose banks were home for rats that carried diseases from all the stinking effluence of sewage, dead bodies, rotting meat thrown out by the butchers – all flung therein, leading to cholera outbreaks and other horrible diseases amongst the poor who crowded their homes along the banks further upstream. By 1858 steam and paddle ships were brought into use and the era of those gracious tall ships was nearing its end.
When the railways first began to criss-cross the countryside, children used to run away screaming when the train got up its steam and emitted fierce and frightening noises. The railway was a total sensation and opened up the whole country for people in Britain, a wonderful thing for many but a desecration of the countryside in the minds of others. Navvies toiled on the roads and railways, gouging great gaps through streets and even burial grounds. Houses were knocked down to make way for the iron monster that seemed to eat everything in its way as greedy entrepreneurs put their cash into this marvellous new enterprise. Many of the navvies were Irish, escaping the potato famine to look for work but they were often resented by the locals and often riots would ensue. The men were rough and violent and had a bad reputation but they were used like slaves. However, the railways were a boon for working men and women in the factories. How they enjoyed their fortnight holiday when they would all take off to the seaside together! It must have been amazing to live in those times, the discovery of far off villages, towns, cities for all to enjoy and visit. It opened people’s minds up but also spelt the eventual decline of the village as a community, small minded as it may have been. It certainly spelt the end of the stage coach as mail could be taken by mail trains much faster, the mail thrown out of the train as it passed a station! And other goods also began to be delivered far more speedily by trains than the slow moving barges with their horses patiently clopping along the tow paths. Now these beautiful peaceful waterways remain and are being brought back to use for leisure pursuits.
In London, horse bus services began to be implemented, taken over in their turn by horse-drawn trams (how those poor horses were used!) and eventually by 1881 electric trams were introduced with all the dangers of electrocution from the tram lines along the street. These were replaced with overhead wires. I still recall these ugly, overhead wires when I was in London in the 1950’s and was so glad when they were at last taken away! The first underground railway was the Metropolitan line built in 1863. Baker Street is the famous one, Sherlock Holmes lived there didn’t he? The Underground was a most helpful innovation in a crowded London where streets were then almost as congested as they are today and a good deal more confused for there were no traffic lights, speed limits or even an up and down lane. Everyone trundled and barged around together and fatal accidents often occurred. Order eventually prevailed and the traffic system was sorted out. Now we have new problems with so many cars on the road that driving anywhere is at times becoming almost as slow as it was in the days of horse drawn barges.
Loretta Proctor, September 8, 2014
Proctor’s The Dying Phoenix will be discounted on Kindle September 14-21
Barges picture from http://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2
Port of London from www.portcities.org.uk