Late Georgian Carriage Travel
Have you ever wondered how long it would take to drive 200 miles in 1810 and whether the average person could afford the trip?
Long-distance travel in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was slow and very expensive, which explains why most people spent their entire lives within five miles of their birthplace. But the upper classes did travel—to London, to their secondary estates, to visit friends… Yet it wasn’t easy. Roads were bad—muddy, rutted, sometimes completely impassible due to weather. The turnpikes gradually improved as the 18th century progressed, but even with that, by 1800 only the Bath-to-London road was truly good – it had been moved and rebuilt from scratch in 1787. Macadamization, which produced a smooth, fast surface, did not start nationally until 1818, wasn’t finished on the turnpikes until 1828, and wasn’t affordable for secondary roads until well into Victoria’s reign. During the upgrade, many travelers encountered detours that sent them along secondary roads, country lanes, or worse. (I encountered a similar situation a few years ago when my European highway turned into a construction zone; the detour sent me down a winding country lane and across a muddy pasture to reach a second winding country lane that finally returned to the main road. Scenic, but I hadn’t expected the pasture…)
Anyone traveling more than twenty miles had to hire horses because using personal horses for a long journey doubled or tripled the total travel time. If the traveler owned a carriage, he would hire one or two pairs to pull it. The number of horses depended on his desired speed, the weight of the loaded vehicle, and how many hills the road climbed. Hired horses were changed out every 15-20 miles. Each pair of horses came with a postilion who controlled his pair, cared for their needs, and got them back to their home stable. Post horses were hired by the mile. Every ostler knew the precise distance to the next change, so travelers paid for the hire in advance, then tipped the postilions at the end of their stage.
If the traveler did not own a carriage, he could hire one from the post office. Post office vehicles were called yellow bounders because of their color and inadequate suspensions. They were rented for a single stage just like the horses, so the traveler had to change carriages along with the horses.
Another expense of travel was turnpike tolls. Every turnpike was littered with toll gates—by the Regency there were more than 8000 of them. Tolls were collected by turnpike trusts and used to maintain the section of road under their jurisdiction. Parliament established each trust as a way to provide good roads without the government having to pay for them. Secondary roads were maintained by the parishes, which rarely had much money, so anyone wanting to travel quickly without getting bogged down in mud used turnpikes whenever possible. But all those tolls added up—each trust set its own base price, but all charged according to vehicle type and the number of horses pulling it.
When using hired horses, speed on the turnpikes averaged about five miles per hour. Postilions operated under a strictly enforced speed limit of seven miles per hour along rural turnpikes, but they had to slow for all towns and villages and stop at every toll gate which slowed their overall speed. On secondary roads the average speed was less because the road surface was so bad. After macadamization was complete, the speed limit was raised so the average speed jumped to ten miles per hour during the golden age of coaching from 1830-1840. After 1840, long-distance travel mostly switched to trains, with carriages covering only the short distance to and from the nearest railroad station.
When heading to London for the Season, the travel party would contain a man, his wife, and any older children not in school—young children usually stayed in the country. Each family member had a lady’s maid or valet. There might also be a governess and/or tutor for the children, a secretary for the husband, and possibly a secretary or companion for his wife. They might even take their housekeeper and butler, along with a coachman to drive them while in town. Plus luggage. Obviously, this would require multiple carriages, so travel expenses would skyrocket. Another reason London Seasons were so expensive.
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Travel was deucedly dangerous too, I’ve been researching weather changes, and in the course of so doing, I’ve come across a heap of accidents that happened to carriages, even the Mail. Like one where a rapidly rising river swept away the centre of the bridge, and the Glasgow to London Mail went through it, falling 20′ into the torrent below. Miraculously, only the two outside passengers were killed, and the 4 inside passengers, guard and coachman surived and were rescued by the Mail coach driver going the other way, who was warned by the guard who had swum ashore. This was 10 o’clock at night. No headlamps. No catseyes. Scary… there are tales of people freezing to death in carriages after driving into a snowdrift, and of course multiple tales of being struck by lightning. I used to think that the phrase in old phrase books ‘my postillion has been struck by lightning’ might be apocryphal or a joke, but no. Unlike modern cars, a wooden coach was not a Faraday cage and might well be the tallest thing around – lightning strikes were more common than today because there were no pylons to attract them away! I’ll be blogging about carriage disasters in more detail soon I hope…
Scary! I’ll have to follow your blog, Sarah. I’m into carriage travel these days, you see…
John Loudon Macadam moved to Cornwall in 1804, where he was responsible for road maintenance, and experimented with the process that later took his name. So Cornish main roads were macadamised earlier than most. An interesting fact that may come in handy in a story some time.
Great post, Allison! We take travel so for granted in our modern age, but it really was a challenge in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sarah, your planned blogpost sounds fascinating –I’ll look for it! And Jude, I love tidbits like this. You never know what will come into a story! I have a Cornish character in The Lady from Spain (in the Regency Masquerades boxed set) but have never set a story there, so far. Would love to visit there!!
Thanks for a great post, Allison. I think it’s good to know the challenges of traveling then. I was taken aback once reading a historical romance in which the characters traveled from London to the far reaches of Cornwall (from the descriptions of the scenery it was near Land’s End or Tintagel) in half a day. I don’t think so!
Sarah, that is interesting about the lightning strikes. Wonder how that might work into a story…
Susana, thanks for helping us spread the word on Regency Masquerades!
My pleasure, Elena!