Monday, 21 April 2008

A horse-drawn society?

The popular image of Victorian England is of a society whose members travelled by train[1]. Certainly there is little doubting the impact that railways had on English society, its landscapes and its attitudes. However, for most people for most of the time the railways were not the main means of transport. F.M.L. Thompson first called Victorian England 'a horse drawn society' in an article published in 1970 and more recently[2]

'Railways paraded the power of the machine across the whole country, they eroded localism and removed barriers to mobility and they created new jobs and new towns. Their very modernity and success in generating new traffic, however, also generated expansion in older forms of transport, for all the feeder services bringing freight and passengers to the railway stations were horse-drawn. This, coupled with the needs of road transport within the larger towns, produced a three or fourfold increase in horse-drawn traffic on Victorian roads. The result, in employment terms, was that there were consistently more than twice as many road transport workers as there were railwaymen until after 1891 and that in the early twentieth century the road transport men, by now including some handling electric trams and soon to include others on motor vehicles, remained easily the largest group of transport workers.'

In early 1830 twenty-nine coaches operated between Liverpool and Manchester; by early 1831 there were four and two years later only one remained. One of the leading coach owners considered 'annihilation' as the most appropriate word to describe the effects of railways. But this experience was not typical of all parts of the country. Where the new railways ran roughly parallel to long-established trunk roads there was certainly little future for stage coaching. Where roads traversed or fed into the route of the railway a very different situation existed and horse-drawn vehicles still had a very important part to play for many decades to come in the overall provision of transport services.

Initially the effect of railways on towns that had previously been important staging posts was disastrous. In 1839 Doncaster found employment for seven four-horse coaches, 20 two-horse coaches, nine stage wagons and 100 post horses; the total horse population was 258. In 1845, after the town had had railway links for five years, only one four-horse coach, three stage wagons and 12 post horses were still in service and the number of horses had fallen to 60. Trade had suffered badly and the value of property had fallen between 25 and 30 per cent. Where coaches acted as 'feeders' there were still opportunities for them to stay on the road and, in some cases, increase their business. The completion of the early skeleton network by about 1840 provided many opportunities for opening up new combined coach and railway routes for passenger traffic. In April 1839 the well known coach magnate George Sherman expressed the opinion that after the railway had driven most of the coaches off the long distance routes 'there would be as much employ more horses as there ever was through the extra ordinary quantity of omnibuses and cabs that were appearing on the streets.'

The result was a significant increase in the cost of horses: in 1872 the London and South Western were paying £54 17s for the same type of animal that had only cost them £44 10s five years earlier. The increased demand for horses was certainly not confined to London; there is also significant evidence from the provinces. Thompson commented that 'Without carriages and carts the railways would have been like stranded whales, giants unable to use their strength, for these were the only means of getting people and goods right to the doors of houses, where they wanted to be.'  There was also an increase in privately owned heavy carriages: from 30,000 in 1840 the number grew to 120,000 by 1870. Over the same period the number of light two-wheeled carriages increased six times. By 1902 12 out of every 1,000 people in Great Britain owned some kind of private horse-drawn vehicles. This compared with 14 per 1000 in 1870 and 4 per 1000 in 1840, and it was not until 1926 that the number of car owners exceeded the number of persons who had owned horse-drawn carriages in 1870.

Road traffic

In 1838 there were 1,116 turnpike trusts, private, profit-making bodies, managing some 22,000 miles of road compared to the 104,770 managed by parish authorities. Neither was well equipped to meet the challenge of the railways. In the first place both operated on too small a scale to be run economically: the average turnpike road was under 20 miles long and parish roads even less. Secondly, they were in financial difficulties: turnpikes were in debt for over £7 million [four times their annual income] and parishes had considerable difficulty collecting the highway rates. Reform was necessary. It extended through the century and was a tediously slow process:

Some amalgamation or consolidation of turnpikes had already occurred by 1830. In 1826, for example, north London set up the Metropolitan Turnpike Trust uniting under one management the administration of 122 milers of roads formerly controlled by separate trusts. In 1844, following the Rebecca riots, the trusts in South Wales were brought under the control of county road boards. This process was not followed in other areas of the country where trusts suffered from increasing indebtedness and their roads lay unrepaired. Parliament was aware of the need for reform and Royal Commissions and select committees recommended consolidation and abolition. It was not until the Local Government Board took over responsibility for roads from the Home Office in 1872 that the dissolution of the trusts was hastened. In 1871 there were 851 trusts, by 1881 this had been reduced to 184 and by 1890 only two remained. the last trust -- on the Anglesey section of the Holyhead road -- ceased to function on 1 November 1895.

Reform of the parish roads occurred equally slowly. Parishes, even when it was obvious that they could not maintain their roads, were unwilling to surrender their authority. This did not help bring about uniformity of practice. The pattern became more orderly from 1872 but it was not until 1894 that the chaos that previously existed was finally sorted out. The Local Government Act 1894 merged the old highway districts and highway parishes into the rural sanitary authority. The recently created county councils [1888] assumed responsibility for the main through roads. The reform of road administration occurred at the same time as a reawakening of interest in long-distance road transport from the 1880s. The main reasons for this were:

  1. A revival of horse-drawn coach transport for carriage of the new parcel post because of the terms offered by railway companies; success on the London-Brighton route in 1887-8 led to the scheme being extended to other routes.
  2. A revival on four-in-hand coaching primarily as a leisure activity.
  3. The development of the bicycle for the less well off. The British bicycle industry had its origins in the late 1860s in Coventry. It was the Rover safety bicycle with rear wheel chain drive, first produced in Coventry in 1885 that extended the craze. This was aided by the introduction of the pneumatic tyre by J.B.Dunlop in 1888 considerably increasing the comfort of cycling and helping to make the new means of recreation socially acceptable to women. By 1885 there were already 400,000 cyclists in Britain and the 1890s saw the bicycle reach the peak of its popularity: in 1896 for example they were issues to all police stations in the country. By 1900 the Raleigh Cycle Factory was producing 12,000 cycles a year.
  4. The ending of the 12 mph speed limit [the 'Red Flag' legislation of 1865] in 1896. Though originally designed to limit the speed of 'steam-carriages', the decision liberated the newly developed motor vehicle for which good roads were essential.

As the proportion of people living in large towns and cities rose, the problems of urban transport assumed an ever-growing importance. Suburban railways met some of the demand but during the second and third quarters of the century an attempt was made to meet this by expanding the provision of horse-drawn short stage and omnibus services. The number of horses engaged in commercial passenger transport rose from 103,000 in 1851 to 464,000 by 1901. The carriage and the horse-drawn omnibus [each of which required 11 horses a day to keep running] were essentially middle class conveyances. The working class largely still went by foot. A survey of London in 1854 found that to teach their place of work 52,000 people used their own or hired carriages, 88,000 used horse-drawn omnibuses, 54,000 used suburban trains and 30,000 river steams but 400,000 people still walked to work. After 1875 there was a rapid expansion of the tramway network, especially the growth of the electric tram from the turn of the century, with fares sufficiently low to give general access to the working class. By 1900 1 million passengers were carried each year on electric trams rising to 3.3 million by 1913. This produced, for the first time, genuine mass transport. Traffic jams are not the product of the car: urban traffic congestion was a consequence of the nineteenth century horse.

The growth in passenger traffic on the roads was paralleled by a growth in good traffic, nearly all horse drawn. An estimated 161,000 horses were pulling freight vehicles in Britain in 1851. By 1891 the figure was 500,000, by 1901 702,000 and by 1911 832,000. Throughout the nineteenth century three things need to be noted about transport than have been all too long overlooked:

  1. There was the central importance of walking, both as a mode of transport and as a way of carrying and delivering, from the porters, packmen, coster girls and street vendors of urban areas to the carriers, peddlers and postmen of the countryside.
  2. There was the sheer diversity of experience of transport. Just as today, people did not restrict themselves to one mode of transport.
  3. There was the gradual adoption of the bicycle which in its flexibility and ease of use and its speed -- it was four times faster than walking -- foreshadowed automobile travel.

British motor transport had a greater impact on social life than it did on the economy in the period up to 1914. The country's roads were in no fit state to accommodate the noisy new vehicles with their solid rubber or even metal tyres. They generated huge clouds of dust and this was a major cause of their unpopularity. Cottages and market gardens whose properties fronted by roads popular with motorists were angry than the quality of their crops and hence the saleability of their land had fallen sharply: on the London to Portsmouth road the fall was in the order of 25 to 35 per cent. Animosity also had a class dimension: cars were only for the wealthy who seemed to drive oblivious of their effects on others.


[1] P.S. Bagwell The  Transport Revolution  since  1770, Batsford,  1974, H.J. Dyos  and D.H. Aldcroft British Transport: an economic survey from the seventeenth to the twentieth century,  Leicester, 1969,  Penguin, 1976 and H. Perkin The Age of the Railway, Routledge,  1970 are  the basic general surveys. The central role of the Stephensons can  be examined  in  L.T.C. Rolt George and Robert Stephenson: The  Railway Revolution, 1960  and R.H.G. Thomas The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Batsford, 1980.  See also Rolt's biography  of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1957.  On  the construction of railways see T. Coleman The Railway Navvies, Penguin, 1968, an eminently readable book. On  the  impact of railways see T.R. Gourvish Railways and the  British Economy 1830-1914,  Macmillan, 1980, M.C. Reed (ed.) Railways in the Victorian Economy: Studies in Finance and Economic Growth, David & Charles, 1969, G.R. Hawke Railways and Economic Growth  in England and Wales 1840-1870, OUP, 1970 and J.R. Kellett Railways and Victorian Cities, Routledge, 1969. H. Parris Government and  the Railways in the Nineteenth Century, 1965 deals with state regulation.

[2] F.M.L.Thompson The Rise of Respectable Society, page 47.

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