View Full Version : Coach travel in JE and other 19th century literature

08-14-2012, 06:14 PM
Jane Eyre has at least cast light on something I have been wondering about for a while: what was it like to travel about England by horse-drawn travel? I imagined it would be very tedious and take a long time. Jane Eyre confirms that it was, although I never got that impression from other 19th century literature.

In Pride & Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet, Darcy and others travel fairly long distances, but never seem to complain about it.

In Tom Brown's School Days, I think it takes the boys a day or so to travel to Rugby. I cannot remember where they started from, but I remember being surprised it did not take longer.

In Great Expectations, Pip seemed to be constantly going up and down from Rochester to Kent, although that's only about twenty odd miles, which he walked once. I did wonder after reading the original ending of Great Expectations, that Estella may as well live in America as Shropshire, as it was just too far to get down to London very often.

The Patrick O'Brien Aubrey/Maturin series were written in the 20th century but set in the early 19th century. Their coach journeys were generally from Portsmouth to London and back, which is less than a hundred miles. The journeys always seemed to take a matter of hours. They never complained about them, but then I suppose they would be used to ship journeys taking months.

The journeys in Tess of the d'Urbervilles seemed to be mostly in the order of twenty miles or so. Tess is setting off from her village Marlott to go to her new employers in Trantridge by cart when Alec d'Urberville appears and offers to drive her there in his gig. He then proceeds to drive so fast that Tess eventually gets off and walks. So how fast was the cart and how fast was the gig?

I am no expert in horses, but I gather they can gallop fast for several miles, but then have to slow to a canter. At a canter, I don't think they're much faster than a fast human runner. In fact, there's a horse v man race that takes place in Wales every year over twenty-four miles. One year, a few years back, a man won it, although he was one of the fastest runners in the country. Presumably, a team of horses harnessed to a coach would be much slower. When I cycled from Lands End to John O' Groats (SW tip of England to NE tip of Scotland) a few years ago, it took me ten days to cover about a thousand miles. I would travel about ten hours a day, including stops to read the map and to eat. That averages about 10mph, but would a horse-drawn coach go as fast.

In the books, they often referred to 'turnpikes'. This confused me a bit, but I gather turnpikes were toll roads. I suppose you had to turn a pike (a gate of some sort) to get on them.

In Jane Eyre Volume 3, Chapter 1, Jane spends all she has, twenty shillings, on coach fare away from Thornfield. Two days later she is dropped off at Whitcross, probably some miles west of Sheffield. Thornfield is near Millcote (probably Leeds). This is only about fifty miles, so I don't know why it took so long. The fact the journey cost twenty shillings is astounding, especially as the coachman originally said thirty. Jane was only paid 30 a year at Thornfield Hall. 50 a year seems to have been the bare minimum you would need if you had to pay for your own food and accommodation. At a strict 80x inflation indexed equivalent, that journey would have cost 80, but at a more realistic 250x equivalent, it's 250 for a relatively short journey. These days, you could easily buy an airline ticket somewhere nice for that money.

Going back to volume 1, chapter 5, Jane is picked up by the coach at 6am for the fifty mile journey to Lowood. She says the journey seemed to be of a preternatural length over hundreds of miles of roads. It was dark when she arrived at Lowood, but it was January she maybe got there about 6pm. They had a long stop at a coaching inn, so I suppose that is an average speed of about 5mph. Sounds plausible.

08-16-2012, 08:45 AM
So, after a marvellous week in London, I'm here again :).

Interesting things you mention there.

Lucy Worsely (the woman historian who did a series about the Regency and about the rooms of the house for the BBC) said once that travelling by coach was a revolution. Before, if you didn't have your own carriage (I suppose if you were at least a Gardiner like Lizzie Bennet's uncle), you travelled on foot, rented a gig/horse and cart for short distances or got a lift from someone. Postal coaches were a godsent. They could travel at an excess speed of 10mph! A single man on a horse would travel faster, I suppose maybe 15 to 20 mph? Mr Churchill in Emma travels one day to London and back from somewhere in Berkshire I guess (please help me here ;)) 'to get his hair cut'. Alone, on horseback. But he took off early.

Turnpikes were indeed toll roads adn they had barriers I think with someone operating them, who also earnt his income from the toll he received. There are still houses like that left and people live in them nowadays. I believe there could even still be turnpikes left (receiving toll) but they are not used very much anymore.

You have to take one thing more into account though, when it comes to coach travel. I had never thought about it until I read Persuasion where an admiral (has evidently spent a long time at sea :rolleyes:) and his wife like to drive their gig to the horror of their more genteel neighbours. He can manage a horse, that's not the problem, but sometimes they go so fast that the gig jumps up and dow (over obstancles like BMX) and that is quite dangerous :lol:.
Before the sprung carriage (with a kind of shock absorbing mechanism like cars have now), it was also important not to travel too fast, even if your horse could gallop its way across the country. You just couldn't if you didn't want to be shaken about too much or just wanted to make your carriage tilt over on its side. The roads weren't good enough to allow a carriage to go as fast as it really could.

One way rich people (who never travelled by post coach, only by their own) tried to cut time travelling was to send horses ahead to inns at regular intervals so they could get fresh horses. I believe, later, there were maybe schemes you could enter into (or you could pay for inn horses ad then deliver them at the next stop) although I don't think they can have existed very long and widely as more comfortable train travel took over from about the 1830s. But you can see that posting horses ahead required organisation and time as the horses have to walk there first and then have to be allowed some rest before they can take you somewhere else. So you had to send them away for quite a while or otherwise they had to be lodged there permanently.

I know in France they used to sell horses based on how many kilometres (lieues (?)) they could do in a day. I've never seen a reference to that in Engish, but I expect that was also a factor. For a man at least. Women never travelled on horseback.

The weather was also a factor: in te autumn, when it is very uddy, the speed of a carriage could go down to 5 mph, assuming that no problems occurred like wheel getting stuck in the mud. Wheels could also break, which was another factor in turning down the speed (a wheel has to incur a bigger impact of obstacles like tree roots as it goes faster). The roads weren't kept either (apart from turnpikes that's why they were popular) so most of them had cart tracks in them. When it had rained a lot, your wheels would sink in and when they then froze over they became hard as stone. Treacherous indeed.

08-16-2012, 04:18 PM
Apparently Mr Churchill rode sixteen miles (twenty-six kilometers) to London to have his hair cut, then rode the same distance back. It sounds do-able. Poor Tess walked almost that distance on her fruitless journey to Reverend Clare's vicarage in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.