Religious chaos continued through the Stuart years, with Charles I being beheaded and the country ruled by a Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. It wasn’t until 1675, well into the reign of Charles II and after the turmoil of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666, that attention began to turn to the state of the roads in England.
In that year, Thomas Mace, one of the clerks of Trinity College, Cambridge, published a pamphlet about the condition of the roads.
Its title was brilliant – so of its time:
“The Profit, Conveniency, and Pleasure for the Whole Nation. Being a short Rational Discourse lately presented to His Majesty concerning the Highways of England; their badness, the causes thereof, the reasons of these causes, the impossibility of ever having them well mended according to the old way of mending; but may most certainly be done, and for ever so maintained (according to this New Way) substantially, and with very much ease.”
It described how the country was for the most part unenclosed, so that when the traffic had worn the road into deep ruts, or when mud had rendered it impassable, the waggons, carts, and laden horses went wide and struggled past each other using the nearest firm spots.
Thomas wrote: “Much ground is now spoiled and trampled down in all wide roads, where coaches and carts take liberty to pick and chuse for their best advantages; besides, such sprawling and straggling of coaches and carts utterly confound the road in all wide places, so that it is not only unpleasurable, but extremely perplexing and cumbersome both to themselves and to all horse travellers.”
As traffic went round unpassable sections of the road, the route became wider and also curved round the original track.
This is the cause of the many twists and turns that still exist in many of our roads. When we see an old road winding snake-like through a flat country, with no hills or other obvious reasons for its circuitous course, we may in most cases, safely attribute this apparent indecision and infirmity of purpose to these ancient difficulties, thus perpetuated.
This ancient state of things occasioned many disputes and even fatal affrays between the packhorse men, who carried goods slung across their horses’ backs from one part of the country to the other, and between the market-folk and those who travelled on horseback and coaches. Mace would himself seem to have experienced some of these contentions as to who should take the clean and who the muddy part of the road, for he writes with great bitterness about “these disturbances, daily committed by uncivil, refractory, and rude, Russianlike rake-shames, in contesting for the way.”
“Hundreds of pack-horses,” he continues, “panniers, whifflers, coaches, wagons, wains, carts, or whatsoever others,” fought and schemed for precedence; and a horseman, his horse already exhausted by a long and tedious journey, might, at the entrance to a town, especially on market day, be compelled to go out of his way twenty times in one mile, owing to the peevishness of these whifflers and market-folk. “I have often known many travellers,” he continues, “and myself very often, to have been necessitated to stand stock still behind a standing cart or wagon, on most beastly and unsufferable wet wayes, to the great p. 8endangering of our horses and neglect of public business: nor durst we adventure to stirr (for most imminent danger of those deep rutts and unreasonable ridges) till it has pleased Mr. Carter to jog on, which we have taken very kindly.”
His plan was to once get the roads in good repair, and then, he says, with the employment of “day men” to every five miles or so, they could be easily kept in order. The prospect induces him to rise to poetry:
“First, let the ways be regularly brought
To artificial form, and truly wrought;
So that we can suppose them firmly mended,
And in all needful points, the work well ended,
That not a stone’s amiss; but all complete,
All lying smooth, round, firm, and wondrous neat.”
So far good. But then comes the heavy traffic to destroy the good work:
“Then comes a gang of heavy-laden wains
Of carts and wagons, spoiling all our pains.”
But he is ready for this. His proposed “day men” by at once filling up the ruts would make the damage good. All these things he commends to the notice of his Majesty with the concluding lines:
“There’s only one thing yet worth thinking on,
Which is, to put this work in execution.”
That it was not “put into execution” is a matter of history.
The Stuart monarchs - James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William II, Anne II and Anne
Section 2 Menu
Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.
Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.
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