Thomas Mace, clerk in the choir at Trinity College Cambridge and probably the person illustrated here.

1675: The first horse-drawn coach services had four disadvantages. The coaches were heavy,  they were unsprung, they had no windows and they travelled over appalling roads. The lack of springs and windows was not surprising when you think about it. Horse riders had never enjoyed springs or windows so it didn’t occur to anyone to include them in coaches. The travellers riding inside had a roof over their heads and this probably seemed like an unheard-of luxury at the time. 

The bad roads made for slow progress, averaging about two miles per hour, and the entire journey was made with the same horses, so overnight stops were essential. It all made for a long and uncomfortable journey. 

Despite this, they were a commercial success and added to the growing need to improve England’s roads. The first turnpike system had been created in 1656, but it was only on one part of the Great North Road.

In 1675 Thomas Mace, one of the clerks of Trinity College, Cambridge, published a pamphlet which addressed the condition of the roads. He had a plan!

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 High-ways 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.”

He continues:-

“Hundreds of pack-horses, panniers, whifflers, coaches, wagons, wains, carts, or whatsoever others fight and scheme 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, is 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 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 endangering 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 get the roads into good repair, and then, employ “day men” every five miles or so, who could easily keep them in order.  The prospect induced 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 “day men” would fill the ruts and 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.

Next: What is a “Highway”

Section 3:

The Roads


‍ The world of long-distance coach travel.




‍ text




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