The First Age of Speed
Short as was the hey-day of canal transport the supremacy of the “flying coaches” was even shorter, From about 1810 to the late 1830’s. The Golden Age of coaching lasted a mere generation but it has held the popular imagination for over a century.
Unlike their floating counterparts—the canal packet-boats that have been forgotten—the stage coaches are a familiar feature to people who were born long after their disappearance. They have a romantic appeal that was fostered by Victorian writers who looked back to them with nostalgia once the noisy, smoky locomotive had taken their place.
But there was nothing romantic about coach travel. It developed in an age of ruthless competition, in fact the first age of speed, when speed became important for its own sake. Men and horses were driven ruthlessly to keep to strict schedules and constant efforts were made to clip minutes off travelling times. The Comet on the London to Exeter run aimed to change horses at Hounslow near London in 30 seconds.
It was understandable, that after centuries of painfully slow travel, a smooth and swift transport system should appeal to people, but fantastic risks were taken that often resulted in accidents. Wealthy idiots would drive private carriages at break-neck speeds and would even bribe coach drivers to let them take the reins of the public coaches. But in spite of this it was still an efficient transport system that would have seemed impossible only a few years before. This system was made possible by the far reaching improvements in road construction and bridge building that had taken place at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.
The hopeless state of the roads during the first half of the 18th century that had led to canal construction, led also to constant agitation for road improvement. One 18th century cartoon portrays a sailor with a wooden leg refusing an offer of a lift in a coach saying “No thanks I’m in a hurry.” But the problem was a complex one. Since the departure of the Romans 1300 years before no properly constructed roads had been built on any large scale. The Romans had built with great thoroughness, their roads often being five feet in depth and carried across swampy land on piles driven down to firm soil. After over a thousand years of neglect they were still the best roads in England in spite of having been robbed for stone.
The roads of Medieval Britain were, in short, little better than the farm tracks of today. Medieval man regarded a road as a right of way rather than a permanent highway. A person or vehicle had a right of passage “without let or hindrance” but no more. If the road was impassable a traveller had the right to pass along the edge of the road even through standing crops. Pack-horse trains on finding a track in a bad condition would tread out a new one alongside. In this way a number of parallel tracks would be formed, sometimes covering a hundred yards or more. This situation survives today in the public “rights of way” through the countryside where there is the right of passage from point to point but no obligation to provide, a surface to the path. Medieval man could manage with such an arrangement but a growing industrial country could not.
By the 18th century, responsibility for the upkeep of the roads had been thrust on to the unwilling parishes. The parishes were responsible for all roads that passed through them and the work had to be done without payment. A surveyor had to be appointed for a year, to organise the work. This official was forced to accept the job and was unpaid. The inhabitants were forced to work without pay for a number of days a year and the parish had to supply all tools, materials and horses free of charge. Under these circumstances very little real work was done. At the same time the parishes were fiercely independent and resisted any attempt at a central control.
To meet this problem the Turnpike System came into being. Barriers were set up on the road and anyone passing through had to pay tolls which went to pay for the road’s upkeep. Turnpike trusts were set up to administer the system, the first Turnpike Act being passed in 1663. From the beginning there was bitter and violent opposition. The canals and the later railways were privately owned and after the necessary Act of Parliament had been obtained work could go on with little or no regard for anybody affected. But the roads were public and the idea of charging tolls for their use aroused tremendous resentment. Tollgates were destroyed, gate-keepers were attacked and sometimes murdered and their houses burned down. The Government retaliated by extending the death penalty for offences against the turnpikes. Although with the passage of time opposition died down, the system was never popular and riots would break out from time to time. This attitude was strengthened by the Turnpike trusts themselves. In the main they were corrupt and regarded the income from tolls as something to be milked, consequently road improvement was very slow. Not until late in the 18th century did the need for well-constructed and therefore expensive roads become generally accepted.