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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.

  5. Thank you for enlightened me. I have often wondered about travel times and the horses.

  6. Many thanks, I'm glad it was useful and interesting

  7. Thanks Sarah
    Traveling must have been very tiring and there wasn't much pleasure in it either. I wonder if 'private' carriages were faster than the mail version. If the mail carried a lot of luggage plus six passengers inside - and some outside, it would be a lot heavier than a private carriage with one or two passengers along the same route. Logically it would be a lot faster, as long as other carriage didn't block their progress at a toll gate, or when changing horses. Very interesting. Thank you.

  8. Wendy, Mail was the fastest of all, going at a guaranteed average of 8 miles an hour which included the stops for changes of horses and drivers; the mail stopped for no man, and probably went at around 12 miles an hour for most of the time. The mail had 6 horses, remember! because horsepower does count, and also the momentum of those heavy coaches when started obeys Newton's second law. Probably private carriages were amongst the next speediest, depending on whether you were in a sporting vehicle like a curricle and pair, which could reach 16mph with good horses, but of course only for a relatively short time. Fastest was a nabob's light carriage with horses of his own stabled every 25 miles or so! the post, not to be confused with the mail, went at a good average speed but also stopped overnight, which the mail did not, for the comfort of the passengers, and because there were fewer drivers to change over and the driver needed to sleep. There were overnight postchaises, but they would usually terminate somewhere like London where any chaise going on would be a different chaise, team and driver. So, sorry, logically no, it's not the private carriage. Its the mail, with its yard of tin because ALL traffic was obliged to get out of the way of the mail. And they didn't have to wait for toll gates either.
    I would think travelling would be very uncomfortable, especially on the mail, being bounced around like peas in a frying pan as it sped up to maximum to maintain a good average speed. The mailcoach London to York was 25 hours.

  9. I really appreciate this post. I have been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You’ve made my day! Thanks again. Unterkunft Frankfurt Oder

  10. You are welcome, Jim, glad it was useful!

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  12. Here's some confirmation from Austen. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe drives his horses too fast on their failed trip to Blaise Castle. He appears to travel 23 miles in 3.5 hours (which is an average of 6.6 mph). He is also driving an admittedly flashy but low quality open carriage or gig. So if you wanted to treat your horses better, and they were pulling a sturdier carriage, you'd have to slow down:

    "John Thorpe, who in the meantime had been giving orders about the horses, soon joined them, and from him she directly received the amends which were her due; for while he slightly and carelessly touched the hand of Isabella, on her he bestowed a whole scrape and half a short bow. He was a stout young man of middling height, who, with a plain face and ungraceful form, seemed fearful of being too handsome unless he wore the dress of a groom, and too much like a gentleman unless he were easy where he ought to be civil, and impudent where he might be allowed to be easy. He took out his watch: “How long do you think we have been running it from Tetbury, Miss Morland?”

    “I do not know the distance.” Her brother told her that it was twenty-three miles.

    “Three and twenty!” cried Thorpe. “Five and twenty if it is an inch.” Morland remonstrated, pleaded the authority of road-books, innkeepers, and milestones; but his friend disregarded them all; he had a surer test of distance. “I know it must be five and twenty,” said he, “by the time we have been doing it. It is now half after one; we drove out of the inn-yard at Tetbury as the town clock struck eleven; and I defy any man in England to make my horse go less than ten miles an hour in harness; that makes it exactly twenty-five.”

    “You have lost an hour,” said Morland; “it was only ten o’clock when we came from Tetbury.”

    “Ten o’clock! It was eleven, upon my soul! I counted every stroke. This brother of yours would persuade me out of my senses, Miss Morland; do but look at my horse; did you ever see an animal so made for speed in your life?” (The servant had just mounted the carriage and was driving off.) “Such true blood! Three hours and and a half indeed coming only three and twenty miles! Look at that creature, and suppose it possible if you can.”

    1. we don't know what hills there were, or what the ground was like; I think the point being made is that his carriage and horses are both inferior, as 23 miles in three and a half hours is a bit on the drag - In 'Emma', Mr Knightley expected to make 16 miles from Highbury into London in a matter of some two hours without pushing his horses at all. I suspect Thorpe pushed his horse too hard at first so it was tired out. 6.6 mph is about the speed of a man jogging. The slow speed is a measure of his inability to manage anything very well...

  13. This is so useful! And something that I've been looking for! Thank you!

    1. I am so glad! I am planning on putting together a book called 'the wannabe regency lady's guide to real life' which will include this sort of thing and all the little things you don't usually find in history books

    2. This sounds like a fabulous book. I look forward to it when you have it all put together. Also, this post was super useful. Thanks!

    3. it's getting collated slowly, I am not ignoring the writing muse on fiction while it happens ...