Thursday Thought: Bad Roads

Communications were primitive and slow in the late 18th century. Roads across much of England were poor, especially when one got far from London.

Mule train

Mule train

In Cornwall the roads were not good enough for stage coaches, and there were few wagons. Much land travel was on horse back. It took John Wesley 5 days to ride from London to Altarnun in Cornwall.  Goods of all kinds were carried by trains of pack horses or mules, from vegetables to fish to the markets, from ore from the mines to the smelters, and coal to the steam engines.

The wealthy would avoid the roads and sail around the coast. There is a quay at the riverside in the Port Eliot estate for the convenience of the Eliot family.

Turnpikes were being introduced. In Chapter 7 of The Miner & the Viscount Edward Eliot is seeking the support of William Pitt the Elder, the first minister, for an Act of Parliament to build a turnpike near Liskeard. It was actually passed in 1761.

“On our journey here we passed over roads that were not only poor but also unsafe. We came across a stage wagon that had been forced off the road by highwaymen and into a huge rut, thus losing its wheel. The Town Clerk of Liskeard, one of my boroughs, was a victim. The prosperity of Port Eliot and, indeed, all of Cornwall depends on better and safer roads for the travel of our people and, as important, to get our goods to market. If Parliament would add a turnpike trust for Liskeard, I am sure my neighbors as well as myself would provide support and indeed be grateful.”

“I understand perfectly,” said Pitt. “That would be an appropriate expenditure of parliamentary time. We all remember the horse and rider drowning in a pothole on the Great North Road!”

In Chapter 52 young Jemmy Penwarden is on an errand with John Smeaton, the great inventor. They see a typical mule train. Jemmy, as ever, is inquisitive.

As they drove along the crooked track towards St. Just, they came across a large number of heavily laden mules in a train traveling towards them. They were carrying panniers strapped to their backs. The drovers gave them a cheerful wave.

“Look at all them mules, scores of them. What are they carrying?” asked Jemmy.

“Mining coals,” said Smeaton. “Won’t be long before we get more steam engines installed, and there’ll be hundreds of them bringing coal from the Cornish ports, shipped by sea from south Wales. 


2 thoughts on “Thursday Thought: Bad Roads

  1. Sounds like very slow going back then. Can’t imagine the labor involved in moving heavy product from the mines. Would seem impossible today. You capture the times wonderfully.

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