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Saturday, 4 June 2016

Speed of Travel in Jane Austen's England

I’m going to expand upon an earlier blog post, as I’ve been looking at very fast horses, to look at the speed of travel in late 18th and early 19th century England.

I originally wrote this because I was a little irritated at reading books in which the heroine left London in the morning and had tea in Devon.  Presumably she shoehorned a V-8 into her carriage and the horses were just for show. 

However, in order to address travel times, I need to speak a little bit about the roads, because the speed of travel may depend a lot on the state of the roads, which improved markedly over the 18th century and on to the end of the Georgian era.

The pike roads, which were maintained by tolls taken at toll booths or turnpikes [hence pike roads], started to come into use with the turnpike trusts in 1707, the major growth in this being between about 1750 and 1772.  It is fair to say that by 1772 the speed of travel to most places had increased significantly owing to metalled roads which had the potholes and wheel ruts filled in regularly.  There was further improvement between 1815 and 1826 when the roads were improved and expanded in number under Thomas Telford. Telford’s design of roads with a heavy stone foundation covered with gravel and broken stone, cambered to shed water, was known as ‘Telford pitching,’  making the surface safer and less likely to be slick.  Following from Telford’s improvements, John Macadam, [who loaned his name a century in 1902 later to tar Macadam, later just ‘tarmac’].  Macadam’s idea was that angular small stones bound together without needing stonework beneath them.  The weight of traffic would force the stones to bind, so long as they were all smaller than the 4” width of many wheels.  Note: tar or pitch was NOT used on a macadamed road in this period.  The Macadam method started to be used after 1819.
So, we see an improvement in roads.  How does that relate to speed of horses?

We have a number of facts.

1/ carriages in London on paved roads generally went at 4 mph.  Walking pace, in other words.  Why so slow?  I would postulate that it is for the same reason that taxicabs still go at walking pace in London; heavy traffic.  Also, paving slabs and cobbles rapidly become slick and slippery with such usual detritus as emptied out water [and other liquids] in a city which still had no proper drainage system, also dropped vegetables from stalls,  the waste matter of hundreds of horses who did what they needed when and where they needed to, and so on.

2/ The  Mail Coach was a marvel to manage an average of 8mph.  The Mail Coach changed horses frequently and did not stop to do more than change horses and get fresh drivers; if you had to get off for a comfort break, you might not have finished in the Jericho before the Mail had gone without you. This includes the toll gates; the blowing of the ‘yard of tin’ ensured that the keepers had the gates open in a hurry for the Mail to go straight through. The Royal Mails did not pay toll.  
Although 8mph does not sound much, this was day and night [incredibly the Mail continued to run even on appalling roads in the worst of weather, without more than carriage lights at the same average speed unless there were serious snow drifts]  and moreover whatever the topography.  Up hill, down dale, 8mph with a heavy coach.  It could do London to York in 25 hours, an incredible speed.  The mail doesn’t do that well nowadays.   

3/ Look at a map of Surrey; googlemaps will find you Leatherhead quite easily. Leatherhead is a very thinly disguised Highbury in Jane Austen's 'Emma'.  It is stated clearly as being 16 miles from London, a journey of some 2 hours. It’s reasonable to suppose that Jane Austen, who did a lot of travelling, had a fair idea how long a journey took.  We have again a figure of 8mph.  I shall return to this.

4/ London to Brighton in 4 hours was a record time.   According to Patterson’s ‘Roads’, an extant travel guide, London to Brighton is 51½ miles.  So the average speed here is about 12½ mph.
This was a run which was either on the flat or downhill, and was achieved by sporting gentlemen who had lightweight curricles and the sort of horses you didn’t see change out of 300 guineas a pair to purchase.  They would have been trained to be short-steppers, that is they took rapid steps with an economy of movement, less showy than the gait of the high-steppers favoured by many for tooling around town, but more efficient.  The fastest sporting horses could manage about 15 miles an hour for short bursts,  but of course doing that in a sustained fashion was not feasible.  I assume that the London to Brighton dash was achieved without changing teams, so these horses had stamina as well as speed.

Which brings us to horses, which are of varied quality, as well as their gait being important.  The best carriage horses were probably the Cleveland Bays, renowned for both speed and stamina.  A broken-down hire horse is not going to manage more than a plod, a high-bred short-stepper will manage more than most people of the era realise is possible.   And of course, how many horses are harnessed to a vehicle, and the weight of the vehicle makes a significant difference; two horses on a curricle with one up might do London to Brighton in four hours, but harnessed to a carriage with a family inside with luggage and they’d be lucky to get half way in the same time.  The Mail had 6 horses, but it was a big and cumbersome vehicle.  Equally, a sporting gent with a curricle might manage Highbury to London  in a little over an hour, much of which is negotiating the traffic in London, as was the time spent by John and Isabella Knightley when they travelled.  

So on to the average travel time of the average carriage.  It is not unreasonable to take the speed Jane Austen cites of about 8mph.  However this is with a coach adequately pulled by the right number of horses for its size; and it also assumes stops to change horses every 2-4 hours, or rest them, and for the passengers to get down for comfort stops or to eat.  Most people do not enjoy being bounced about like peas in a frying pan  as they must have been in the Mail on straight sections, to make up time for the less easy sections.   Let us take the journey to York from London, accomplished by the Mail in 25 hours; a journey of a little under 200 miles.  Depending on the quality of the horses, whether your own were at various posting stations, the weather, the delicacy of constitution of the traveller and whether he could stomach being bounced around at speed, might affect the average.  And taking 8 mph as a good working average, we know that this means 25 hours total on the road, give or take.  It was very rare for any traveller to be on the road for more than 8 hours at a time, so we are looking at 3 days travel.  Travelling all day, every day, feeling every bump, every irregularity.  Held up by argumentative toll-keepers perhaps, or other road users trying to cheat the tolls, or needing 30 head of cattle to be counted…
Although springs had improved out of all recognition since the 1750s, it was still a rather hard transmission.  And believe me, I’d not like to be 8 hours a day for three days in a Land Rover which has the nearest comparable transmission in today’s vehicles.  But people did it.  And were glad to fall into bed in their wayside inns overnight. 

I would postulate that before the improvements of the pike roads, an average of 6 mph might be taken, or on out of the way roads, 4mph or less.   However, I have little data to work on, and I’m going largely on the relative time of driving a 4x4 offroad as compared to on a rudimentary surface.

For toll charges see my earlier article HERE


  1. Fascinating deductions; I would suggest that, like now, traffic in London would have to be wary of pedestrians crossing in front of them....I'm sure small boys played chicken back then too

  2. I agree, Helen! and there were more feral dogs to make horses shy [and potentially carrying rabies then], crossing sweepers, and so on. And I doubt that the pedestrians of the day were any more sensible than they are now. And we all know how pedestrians wander vaguely into the road....

  3. Oh thank you, Candice. This helps my nit-picking mind immensely!

  4. Lol, Janice, wrong author but no problem! I am glad it helps. I worked it out for my own nit-picking mind. I use Patterson's 'Roads' a lot to help me out with the distances and routes, you might want to check it out if you haven't got a copy, mine is an 1828 reprint which is close enough. You can pick them up secondhand surprisingly often.