In the year 1702 King Charles III of Spain decided to adventure himself into that little known and barbarous island called Great Britain. Accordingly, he sailed with his suite to Portsmouth, and from there the company was conveyed as far as Petworth in Sussex, where they waited for the Queen's husband, Prince George of Denmark, who was to meet them and escort them to Windsor. His experiences on this journey of forty miles, which occupied fourteen hours, are thus described by one of the attendants.
"We set out at six in the morning by torchlight to go to Petworth and did not get out of our coaches (save only when we were overturned or stuck fast in the mire) till we arrived at our journey's end. 'Twas hard service for the Prince to sit fourteen hours in a coach that day without eating anything and passing through the worst ways I ever saw in my life. We were thrown but once indeed in going, but our coach, which was the leading one, and his Highness's body coach would have suffered very much if the nimble boors of Sussex had not frequently poised it or supported it with their shoulders from Godalming almost to Petworth; and the nearer we approached the Duke of Somerset's house the more inaccessible it seemed to be. The last nine miles of the way cost us six hours to conquer them; and indeed we had never done it if our good master had not, several times, lent us a pair of horses out of his own coaching whereby we were able to trace out the road for him."
It seems indeed extraordinary that Prince George was obliged to go without food for fourteen hours. If there was no inn on the road of sufficient consequence to entertain a Prince, any nobleman or country squire, whose seat they passed, would have welcomed him. Hospitality was often thus extended to total strangers who might be stranded upon the road; but perhaps the Prince did not wish to keep the King of Spain waiting at Petworth.
"I looked like a crazy creature when I entered the metropolis"
Pastor Moritz writes after one of his journeys. He had come up in the day from Northampton, and
"could hardly call it a journey but rather perpetual motion or removal in a closed box".
Upon no subject were travelling Englishmen more unanimously eloquent than upon the shocking condition of the roads.
"I know not, in the whole range of language, terms sufficiently expressive to describe this infernal road"
says that great traveller Arthur Young, about a road which he had just traversed in Lancashire.
The Upkeep Of The Roads
"The roads grew bad, beyond all badness, the night dark, beyond all darkness, the guide frightened beyond all frightfulness"
says Horace Walpole speaking of a journey from Tonbridge to Penshurst. The roads, in many parts of England, were very bad. In Sussex they were generally so impassable in winter that the judges on circuit refused to hold the assizes at Lewes, the county town. They struggled down as far as Guildford or Horsham and waited there for prisoners, constables and jurymen to plough through the mud as best they might. In Devon there were no roads west of Exeter, which could be used for wheeled traffic. "This infernal road was most execrably vile with ruts four feet deep" is Arthur Young's description of a road between Preston and Wigan. There is no doubt that the state of the highways varied very much and that as the century progressed they were, in some cases, greatly improved. Early in the eighteenth century it was still the custom to repair the roads by statute labour and all parishioners were called on to contribute to their upkeep. The squire and the farmer were obliged to send a certain number of horses and carts; labourers had to contribute six days work in the year. The way-warden, who was an unpaid official chosen by the local magistrates, was supposed to superintend their labour. At times, when he had nothing better to do or when the local squire made a fuss about it, he may have infused a little energy into the workmen. More often he would join them in consuming the beer which thoughtful parish vestries generally provided. In the spring, when the road-ploughs went out and scraped away the winter's accumulation of mud and stones, very little improvement could be discerned. Farmers were always grumbling at having to lend waggons and horses. It was never convenient to part with them, and six days' work on the roads caused more damage than six months' work upon the farm. Labourers protested, in spite of much beer, that they were hardly used. In many parishes it became the custom to accept payment in money. Instead of lending his waggon, a squire or farmer might pay the sum of £1 10s. towards the upkeep of the roads, and in time a sort of highway rate was evolved. A man who paid a rent of £50 was considered as a possessor of a waggon and four horses and was charged accordingly. The roads, for the most part, remained as bad as ever. Telford and Macadam, those great engineers, were the first men to understand how a road should be made. Before their time it was usual to throw a few large stones into the ruts and potholes and even that was not always done. People were resigned to the state of the highways. They had never known anything better. One country squire, despairing of any improvement, measured the width between his native ruts and had his carriage designed accordingly. If a neighbourhood had very bad roads, travellers avoided it. In some parts even a cart was a rarity.
"Dorchester" we read in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1739 "is to us a terra incognito and the map makers might, if they pleased, fill the vacuities of Devon and Cornwall with forests, sands, elephants, savages and what they please."
It is a curious commentary on continental highways that most foreigners should have praised our roads. Even Grosley, who disliked many things in England, says nothing about that road from Dover to London, over which he went and of which Arthur Young, writing about the same time, declares that "it would be a prostitution of language to call a turnpike". "These roads are magnificent, being wide, smooth and well kept" says Cesar de Saussure, the Swiss traveller from Lausanne, who came to England in 1784. "The road (from Harwich to London) is always kept in good order with fine gravel and sand, and the slightest unevenness is mended at once" is a description by Count Kielmansegg. "Incomparable" was Moritz's comment on the roads of England, and Alfieri was "astonished and, delighted with the excellence of the highways and the beauty of the horses". Casanova also speaks of the goodness of the roads and the speed and reasonable cost of travel.
As the century advanced the authorities began to consider the question of turnpikes. In days before universal rating or highway boards the idea was not a bad one. Everyone who travelled, except foot passengers, paid for the roads. If the government had kept the turnpikes in its own hands, there would, doubtless, have been peculation and inefficiency; but it might have been better than the system which was adopted. This was to farm out the turnpikes to various bodies known as trusts who bought the roads by auction and made what they could out of them. These turnpike trusts were set up all over the country. There were high white gates at every five miles or so of the principal roads with the curiously shaped, minute houses, of which many survive to the present day. From these the turnpike men ran out whenever they heard the sound of horses hooves or of wheels upon the road. At night the wretched men might be roused several times by knocks upon the door and window, and cries of "Pike, Gate, Hallo ". No wonder they became bad-tempered and morose, inclined to charge more than they should and browbeat the poor. Every vehicle except the mail-coaches paid toll and even animals driven along the road. A rider on horseback paid 1½d. at each toll-gate, a cart or carriage with one horse paid 42d. and a four-in-hand 1s. 6d. Cattle, sheep and pigs were paid for by the score. A list of tolls was displayed at each tollhouse; but as many could not read, the keeper often charged what he pleased. The turnpike trusts were very unpopular. To stop every five miles or so and pay out good money was extremely irksome, and the roads did not seem to be much improved. Infuriated mobs set upon the toll-gates and houses and in some cases pulled them down. In Yorkshire the soldiers were called out to quell a serious popular outbreak against the obnoxious trusts. The drivers of waggons and flocks and herds avoided the toll-gates when they could. The beasts were driven through the fields, the waggons went on the side roads, which were still kept up by the parish. After protests from the turnpike trusts, this latter practice was made illegal. Any waggoner thus avoiding the turnpikes was liable to forfeit "one horse not being the shaft or thill horse, and all his gear and accoutrements", but the penalty was not often enforced. The beasts were generally driven through the fields. It had been the custom from earliest times and though farmers might grumble and talk about trespass, English custom was too strong for them, and foot passengers had always the right to walk on adjacent land if the highway was impassable.
About the middle of the eighteenth century milestones replaced, on many roads, the old crosses which had been put up in ancient times to mark the tracks. There were other stones which showed the boundaries of a turnpike trust and on hills there were stones marked "put on ". This signified that another horse was allowed for the hill without any extra charge being made by the turnpike authorities. On the top of the hill would be another stone marked "take off". The milestones appealed to the German traveller. English miles were shorter than the German, and he had the illusion that he was journeying much faster than he expected. Some travellers complained that the mile-stones were inaccurate. Probably they varied in different parts of the country.
"This place (Leicester") is called seventy eight miles from London" says Sarah Duchess of Marlborough writing to her daughter, "but the miles are so long in this country that I am sure that it is a great deal more".
On the road from Salisbury to Shaftesbury there were no mile-stones; but Lord Pembroke had had a tree planted at every mile of the way. This would not be of much use nowadays; but in the eighteenth century in unenclosed country there was no hedgerow timber. Signposts were very few, and in many parts of the country non-existent. It was often absolutely necessary to hire a guide for the journey, if travelling otherwise than by stage or mail. John Metcalf, Blind Jack of Knaresborough as he was called, who had walked from London to York and marched in the '45 from York to Scotland, was one of the best guides over the moors. Others, though possessed of sight, were by no means so reliable and guided their parties into swamps or to wrong destinations.
The Treatment Of Horses
The treatment of horses seems to have varied as did the beasts themselves. The fast mail-coaches had very good teams and the coachmen were proud of their animals. They were often renewed and if the work proved too much for them they were sold to tradesmen and others where they would have an easier time.
"The coach whip" says Grosley "is no more in their hands than a fan is, in winter, in the hands of a lady . . . their horses scarce ever feel it."
"Certainly in no part of Europe are horses better fed, better housed or more attended to" Meister declares, though this was after visiting the stables of a large country house. "A hell for horses and a heaven for women" was another and as regard the horses perhaps a truer commentary. On the old slow coaches and the night coaches conditions were very bad. Any aged, spavined, broken-down beast would be put to this sort of work and the drivers had to get them along the roads somehow. Many, it is to be feared, used a horrible thing called a "short Tommy ", a sort of cat-o'-ninetails. There was no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, no laws for their protection. John Woolman the American Quaker, who was one of the first to protest against slavery, protested also vehemently against cruelty to horses. He insisted upon walking the whole distance from London to Yorkshire, though it took him six weeks to do so, and he died from the effect of the journey. He would not countenance the cruelty which he saw by travelling in a coach.
"Stage coaches" he says "frequently go upwards of one hundred miles in twenty-four hours and I have heard Friends say in several places that it is common for horses to be killed with hard driving and that many others are driven till they go blind . . . so great is the hurry in the spirit of this world that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan."
Grosley, on the other hand, comments on the humanity of the English and the kindness of both riders and blacksmiths towards the horses, though he admits that that good treatment did not extend to asses.
Cesar de Saussure tells us how he hired a horse which he calls a sorry jade. It took him, however, from London to Guildford and back in one day, without using whip or spur. He rode it, he says, at a hard gallop, except upon the stones and pavement.
"England" de la Rochefoucauld declares "is perhaps the only country where you may travel with your own horses, without a man to look after them. You may rely on their getting the best treatment in the world. Inn-keepers indeed will bestow such attention upon them as can be accounted for only by the national affection for the horse."
Englishmen might not have agreed with him. When putting up at an inn an Englishman always sent his servant to see that the horses were properly fed and cared for. If he were travelling alone he went himself to see that his mount was comfortable. The care and nurture of the horse was indeed part of the education of an English gentleman. English horses were highly prized on the Continent. Alfieri, the Italian dramatist, came here to buy horses. He purchased fourteen for which he paid large sums. Ill luck, however, attended his purchase; one horse coughed, another fell lame, a third refused to eat and the amount he spent getting them home to Italy across Mont Cenis, and their sustenance and upkeep during five years, exhausted the large sums of money which he had in the French funds.
Besides the roads there were tracks over the country where the pack-horses went. Itinerant merchants loaded their horses at Stourbridge or some other large fair, and set off over pack-horse roads and bridges to sell their wares in country towns and villages. As many as thirty or forty of these small, sturdy creatures would proceed in a string, the leader wearing a bell to warn other pack-horse owners of their approach through the narrow ways with their high banks. In some parts of the country these tracks were the only way of getting about the country and everything was carried by the horses in panniers or sometimes drawn in a narrow sledge.
In the early days of the century there was little Sunday travelling. Coaches did not run except occasionally from Dover to London if the amount of passengers was very great. It was indeed sometimes possible to hire post-horses. Grosley did so, but such a thing was evidently unusual even upon the Dover Road.
"We were a sort of show" he says "to the inhabitants of the several towns and villages through which we posted."
Sunday travelling was expensive, the hire of horses was doubled and the toll-gates on the outskirts of London charged two or even three times their usual charges. Towards the end of the century Sunday traveling increased. Brighton, now becoming a fashionable resort, was the first place from which a coach ran to London on a Sunday. Expensive though it might be to travel on this day, people would occasionally do it. Highwaymen were taking their weekly rest, and the roads were safe from their attentions. They did not consider it worth their while to ride out on a Sunday.
Captain McLean and Sixteen-String Jack
Perhaps the palmy days of the highwaymen were in the seventeenth century, when the roads were even worse than in the eighteenth, the coaches slower, and no attempt had been made to police the highways. There were only four really famous highwaymen in the eighteenth century-Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, Captain McLean and Jack Rann. Dick Turpin's history does not bear looking into; he is a sorry disappointment. He was a deer stealer, a horse thief and a burglar, and if he ever robbed the traveller it must have been only occasionally and in his spare time. He never rode from London to York; that famous feat was performed by an enterprising gentleman in the previous century. Captain McLean, who robbed Horace Walpole, was more romantic. He was the son of a clergyman and had very good manners. Respectable people, ignorant of his profession, invited him into their houses, where he stole the hearts of their daughters. We are not told if he stole anything else, but it is not probable, the highwayman had usually a profound contempt for the sneak thief, and pickpocket, not did he really think much of burglars. The most picturesque of the four was Jack Rann or Sixteen-string Jack as he was called, because his breeches had eight strings of various colours at each knee. He had begun life as a postillion and then became a coachman, so he knew the roads well. When he came before Sir John Fielding on a charge of highway robbery, he wore an enormous bunch of flowers in his coat and had his irons decorated with blue ribbons. Asked by the magistrate if he had anything to say, he replied with a ready insolence, "I know no more of the matter than you do or half as much." He was acquitted on that occasion for lack of evidence and repaired a day or two later to Bagnigge Wells, a place of entertainment and evil reputation near London. He wore a scarlet coat, white silk stockings and a laced hat, and proclaimed himself as Sixteen-string Jack the Highwayman. When he was arrested for robbing Princess Amelia's chaplain he appeared in court in a pea-green coat, ruffled shirt and a hat with silver strings, and while waiting execution he had several girls to dine with him in Newgate. He kept up the picturesque highwayman tradition which was immortalized in The Beggar's Opera; but the German traveller Lichtenberg seems to think that it was not what it had been. "The English highwaymen" he says sadly "have lost their magnanimity." What caused this melancholy reflection, whether the attack by a highwayman on Lord North or the fact that he used firearms, is not clear.
Another traveller seems to have heard of the tradition, but knew nothing of it from personal experience.
"I have been told " he said " that some highwaymen are quite polite and generous, begging to be excused for being forced to rob, and leaving passengers the wherewithall to continue their journey."
These gentlemen of the road, however generous they may have been upon occasion, were undoubtedly a serious menace to the countryside and even to the towns. Von Uffenbach, the German scholar, who was in England in 1710, returned late one night from Richmond to London. He confessed that he was
"in considerable terror of being robbed. It is no small scandal" he says "that in so mighty a realm and such a capital, one can feel no security even in the vicinity of a town ... such robberies take place at night in the town itself and even in the neighbourhood of St. James's Palace."
Hogarth's engraving Night, we may remember, depicts a coach being held up in a crowded street in London, and a highwayman firing through the window. The crowd do not seem to be regarding the attack as anything out of the way or doing anything about it. Count Kielmansegg tells us how he had been invited to dine with one of the City Companies near Gray's Inn.
"We took the road round the town" he says "which was more convenient than going through the City; but we provided ourselves with an armed servant on horseback, because my Lady Huntingdon had been robbed a few days previously of her watch and money by a highwayman in those parts. We remained close together in our three carriages and divided our party so that we drove in pairs."
Two Purses And Bad Money
Highwaymen had often their own particular beats. There was Claude Duval who robbed and danced on Hounslow Heath, Johnnie Abershaw who frequented the Surrey commons, the Golden Farmer who looked after the Exeter road. Many of these men had been soldiers and when peace came they found themselves thrown upon a cold world, having lost any aptitude or taste for work which they might formerly have had. Sometimes a bankrupt tradesman would take to the road. Sophie de la Roche tells us how she, with a party of friends, were held up by a single highwayman. One of them, a young lady, seeing that the robber was young and shy and obviously new to the job, remonstrated with him and pointed out the probable end of his career. Sophie says that he thanked her for her kindness and rode away without robbing them. On the next day the ladies collected 150 guineas between them and put an advertisement in the papers saying that he might have the money if he called for it. The highwayman arrived full of contrition and gratitude, vowing that the young lady's voice "had resounded in him like an angel's and had moved his soul". He took the money, paid his more pressing debts and went to an uncle in the country who received him, promised to help him and "blessed the lady". It was another of the pleasant adventures which befell the delightful Sophie. Besides an armed guard, travellers adopted other means of circumventing highwaymen.
"We English " said Sir Augustus Hervey to Casanova "always carry two purses on our journeys, a small one for the robbers and a large one for ourselves."
Casanova took the advice and when he was travelling to London from Lord Pembroke's he put six guineas for highwaymen in a separate purse. He was, however, not attacked. Other people collected bad money and offered it to robbers; some had boots made with cavities in the heel in which they put their valuables and hid their money about their persons. This, however, was not always of much use, for if the highwaymen found nothing, they would sometimes search the travellers.
There were many complaints about the dangers of the roads, and some efforts were made to mitigate them. The turnpike men in their toll-houses were provided with speaking trumpets that they might give warning of the approach of robbers. A reward of £40 was offered for the arrest of a highwayman attacking a stagecoach, £200 was given to anyone apprehending a robber of the mail and as much as £300 if the attack was made within five miles of London. Few highwaymen tried to rob the mails openly, the guards were well armed, and it was too dangerous. They often abstracted goods or parcels in the inn yard before the coach started, or while they were changing horses, if the guard's attention could be diverted. The high rewards offered no doubt led to the apprehension of many highwaymen, but it also encouraged the informer. Readers of Fielding will remember the classic example of Jonathan Wild; and there were many more of his trade. In 1768 five men made a kind of syndicate, and having persuaded some poor wretches to rob the coaches, they collected as much as £960 in rewards.
Towards the end of the century the roads undoubtedly became safer. Near London the Bow Street Runners, precursors of Peel's police, affected many arrests, and a few other large towns had a similar force. Bank notes, which could be more easily concealed and cheques which were useless to highwaymen, took the place of the bags of gold, which merchants and others had been compelled to carry. Fire-arms were improved, the old blunderbuss, which generally misfired, was replaced with more lethal weapons, and as highwaymen sadly complained, travellers were not slow to use them. The days when the highwaymen were kings of the road, with innkeepers and ostlers in their pay, were nearly over.
Even as early as the middle of the century improvements of all kinds had been made and the English scene had changed. A contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine writes in 1754,
"Were the same persons, who made a full tour of England thirty years ago, to make a fresh one now, they would find themselves in a land of enchantment. England is no more like to what England was than it resembles Borneo or Madagascar."
The romantic revival which was exemplified in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto and the publication of the Percy Reliques, led to an ever growing interest in ancient buildings and to a desire for travel and exploration. This desire spread even to the Continent and brought travellers to our shores who were drawn there, not by the attraction of business, the lure of learning or the ties of kindred, but by a curiosity to see the island of whose beauties they had heard so much.