Welcome Bridge Map Places to Visit Canal Topics Miscellaneous

1775 Roads

The Romans had an empire that stretched for thousands of miles, so they built roads, so they could get around. They built very good roads, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into 4 major kingdoms and many minor kingdoms and territories.  Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall were considered separate territories, but they were further divided into smaller tribal areas.  A lot of the time, these kingdoms were at war with each other, so very few people actually travelled outside the small part of the country they were born in.  Both the Vikings and the Normans operated manorial systems which endured beyond the English Civil War (1642-1651). Until 1790, the people in power actively discouraged the peasantry (working class) from travelling.  Generally speaking, goods and produce did not travel far. The only people who travelled regularly were royalty, the nobility, and the knights:- and they rode on horseback, so there was no incentive to maintain the old Roman roads, or to build new ones.

The image of 1775 roads evoked by Charles Dickens at the start of chapter 2 of A Tale of Two Cities is probably accurate. The roads were muddy, and pot holed and just wide enough to get a cart through. They were often blocked by windfall (tree), landfall or flood, and highwaymen were a common scourge.  According to Dickens, this led to a distrust between travellers because any one of them could be "in the captain's pay".

An English LongwaggonIn those days, people used long wagons to carry any serious load across country. An English long wagon was just like those long wagons you see in films and TV programs depicting life on the 19th century American Prairie, except they would have very wide wheel rims because England is much wetter than the Prairie. A team of eight horses would have been used to pull such a wagon, with a full load of two tons, over Shooter's Hill. This picture of an English long wagon is from the website of the Jane Austin Society of North America, and they have a very interesting write up on English roads of the period.

It is because of the state of the roads during the late 18th century that canals flourished.  What would you rather do: walk in the mud beside a small coach, fearful of highwaymen and knowing that riding in the coach would be uncomfortable, like the passengers in Charles Dickens’ novel?  Or sit in a large heated cabin with dozens of other travellers, moving smoothly and steadily, with the knowledge that your group was too big for a highwayman to tackle?

By the time Dickens wrote his novel in 1859, the Macadam construction method had improved roads dramatically, the turnpike trusts had resulted in better maintenance, and the trusts had largely been amalgamated, making long stretches of road viable for passenger transport. The problem of dragging 2 tons up and down hill remained, however, and while the Macadam method meant the roads were no longer muddy, they were very dusty instead. This problem of dust was only solved in 1901 by the introduction of tarmacadam.

It is often assumed that the railways took the canal’s trade away, but that is a misconception. The railways did take the canal passenger trade away very quickly, because they rivalled the canal for comfort, and outpaced the boats by a factor of ten, so by 1840, the passenger trade on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal had ceased.  But the steam railways were not very efficient, and never took the commercial trade from the canals.  It was the invention of the internal combustion engine that finally led to the tarmac roads being able to carry large loads over hilly country, leading to the demise of the canals.