18th Century Road Travel


When William Webb travelled from his birthplace of Whitchurch in Hampshire to Sawston in Cambridgeshire before his marriage in 1764, he may well have ridden on horseback. Subsequent journeys with his wife and children to Eynsham in Oxfordshire, and from there to Beoley in Worcestershire (prior to 1773) would have been made by stage coach.

No main roads were built in Britain from the end of the Roman occupation until the era of the Turnpike Trusts in the 18th century. The Roman roads were maintained to some extent and there existed many ancient paths, tracks and ridgeways such as the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury. There were also Pack horse trails used in the transportation of, for example, wool from the Cotswolds and salt from Droitwich. Pack horse trails were wide enough to allow the horses or mules to move in single file, and where the track crossed a river, the bridge was made very wide to allow for the paniers, and hump-backed for added strength. Whole villages would turn out to see the long "trains" pass by and of course accommodation was available for drivers and animals, as most journeys took many days.

Other pathways were drovers' ways, along which sheep and cattle were moved from Wales, through Herefordshire and south to the expanding markets of London. These drovers' ways were much wider as 200 - 400 animals might be on the move at a time, and perhaps 2,000 geese in a single goose-drive. By the mid 18th century 30,000 head of cattle travelled annually through Hereford.
The cattle for the London markets were fattened up in the lush grazing grounds on the outskirts of the city, e.g. at Barnet, before being taken to their final destination at Smithfield.

The wear on the animals' hooves had to be taken into consideration. Pigs could be driven no more than 6 miles a day, and cattle between 15 - 20 miles. Cattle and sheep were shod for the journey, and some drovers employed smiths to accompany the train on horseback, who carried spare shoes and nails. Pigs, who were driven shorter distances, wore knitted woollen socks with leather soles. Geese were driven through tar and then through sand or sawdust to harden their feet.

Inns provided accommodation for the drover and there was often a smithy nearby. Famous drovers' inns in the Midlands were the Feathers at Ledbury, and the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds. The term "Cold Comfort" dates from this time, and provided basic shelter for drovers who had not reached an inn by nightfall. Such stopping places were often marked by 3 or 5 pine trees, tall enough to be seen from a distance. "Greens" were grazing places for cattle and sheep on the move, as well as for local stock, and terms such as "Halfpenny Green" reflect the charge per night for grazing and fodder.

Drovers were responsible men in a position of trust, and had to be licensed. They were in charge of valuable herds and also carried considerable sums of money on behalf of their masters - either for his business dealings at the market town, or, on the return trip, the proceeds from the sale of the livestock. The first bank in Wales was founded by drovers John Jones and David Lloyd - The Black Ox at Llandovery, which occupied premises at The King's Head inn from 1799 - 1848. Promisory notes from this and similar enterprises avoided the need to carry large quantities of cash. Later these early banks amalgamated to form Lloyds Bank.

The state of main roads in England remained fairly dire for many centuries. Parishes were responsible for the upkeep of roads within their boundaries and usually managed basic repairs to enable local traffic such as carts to proceed, but there was no central organisation or standard of maintenance throughout the kingdom, nor indeed the knowledge or skill for the upkeep of major highways. In the 17th century some counties such as Hertfordshire were able, by means of an Act of Parliament, to levy a charge or toll from road users to pay for maintenance and this was paid at the tollgate or turnpike. Later, other counties petitioned for Acts to establish Turnpike Trusts and in 1706 an Act was passed which served as a model for the next 130 years. By the 1720s and 30s, several Trusts existed to manage roads around local towns, for example by 1726 Worcester had 76 miles of turnpiked roads. However there was little co-operation between neighbouring Trusts, and travellers would notice a distinct change from "improved" to "unimproved" surfaces along a stretch of road.

England was still predominantly a rural and agricultural society, but things were changing, the population was expanding and the export market was growing, so goods and people needed to move around more freely. The years 1751 - 1772 saw "Turnpike mania" and in 1773 came the General Turnpike Act.

It was not only goods that were transported, but information in the form of newspapers. In the 1770s a shopkeeper in Cumbria (then in Westmorland) could sell five different London magazines. Access to national and international news was obviously of vital importance to the growth of trade and industry.

Journeys were undertaken by "stages" of 10 - 15 miles when the horses would be changed, the length of each day's journey being determined by the hours of daylight. Coaching inns provided accommodation and refreshment to travellers, as well as stabling and smithies for the horses. Stage-coaches charged different rates for seats inside or outside the coach - the expression "to drop off" i.e. to fall asleep, once had a very literal meaning! By 1775 there were 400 registered stage coaches on the road, and by 1760 the coaches were better sprung and could average 6 miles an hour, rising to 8 miles an hour by the 1780s.

In those days of highwaymen, the coach guard was important, and he was armed with a blunderbuss if the coach was carrying mail. He would sound his horn to clear the road ahead and to warn the hostelry of the approaching coach, which would require a fresh team of horses if travelling through the day, or refreshments for the passengers if a longer stop was envisaged.

Mail coaches were introduced in 1784 and ran to regular timetables at an average speed of 10 miles per hour. They could take paying passengers, but the mail was of primary importance. In the case of accident or bad weather the passengers would be left at the side of the road while the mail was carried on foot or horseback to the nearest town. Horses were changed very speedily for mail coaches - one minute was allowed to take out the old horses and harness up a fresh team. This desire for increased speed was only possible due to the road improvements brought about by the Turnpike Acts, and by the improvements to road construction and surfacing as developed by Thomas Telford and John Loudon MacAdam (from whose name we derive the term "tarmac").

A impression of the era of coach travel may be gleaned from the following advertisement in The London Post for February 1753:
"Birmingham Stage Chaise, made with steel springs and very easy and genteel, to carry four passengers at five shillings each passenger, to or from Worcester, the money to be paid when the places are taken; sets out from the Rose Inn in Birmingham every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at seven o'clock in the morning, to the Hop pole Inn in Worcester, and will return from thence on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, to be at their Inn each morning at 12."

A five-hour journey of some 30 miles! This was apparently a up-market "post coach" as it carried so few passengers. Stage coaches usually carried up to 18 passengers (though not all inside the coach) while mail coaches would cater for four passengers inside and six outside. The poor did not travel - the cost of a one-way journey on the above would be 5 days' wages for a labourer. In 1794 the stage coach charged 9 shillings for a seat inside, and 5 shillings for a seat outside on the same Worcester to Birmingham run.

We are left to speculate how William Webb and family journeyed from Eynsham to Beoley in the early 1770s (see Chapter 1). Beoley is on Roman Iknield Street, so he might have travelled either from Oxford via Chipping Norton and Moreton-in-Marsh to Evesham, and from there via Offenham to Bidford and onto the Roman road via Alcester, Studley and Ipsley. Alternatively, as the "new" road over Broadway Hill was opened in 1771 (with the Fish Inn built at the top to cater for travellers and to house stabling for horses), he might have joined Iknield Street at Broadway, and proceeded via Weston-sub-Edge and Cow Honeybourne to Bidford.

Coach travel reached its peak in the 1820s and 30s, when inns were doing a roaring trade. An inn at any important town might have had 50 or 60 horses available in its yard. There were about 3,000 stage and mail coaches on the (much-improved) roads, but all this was to change with the advent of the railways.
For additional information see Shire Books - Stage and Mail Coaches (David Mountfield); Medieval Roads and Tracks (Paul Hindle); Turnpike Roads (Geoffrey Wright); The Drovers (Shirley Toulson)