Travel times, the growth of London, and other random thoughts

regency horsemenWe live in a shrinking world. When we enter the past as writers and readers, we need to remember that earlier generations did not experience such ease of travel, communication, and transport of goods.

This has caused me some angst, as my character Rede in Farewell to Kindness travelled across Southern England in the climax to the novel, and I somehow missed a day in my calculations. I needed to rewrite several scenes to get him to where he needed to be just too late to stop the villains in their villainy, but in time to be in for the finish.

I have heaps of notes on travel in the early 19th Century. I can tell you how long it took for the mail coach to travel from London to Bath to Bristol, how long the passenger ships took to sail from London to Margate, how many miles a post horse could cover before being replaced, and the average distance a man and a horse could travel in an hour.

Christchurch100 years later, things had changed dramatically. I have a package of letters my grandfather wrote to his siblings as the 19th Century was becoming the 20th. He and his brothers travelled for work (they were builders). In those days in New Zealand, travel beyond the local town was by horse, boat, or train. With no telephones, the men wrote home whenever they were away.

Even so, they had options for travel and communication that were way beyond those available to earlier generations. Until the eighteenth century, travel was slow, difficult, and expensive. Many people spent their entire lives within walking distance of their birthplace, and those who did travel expected to spend days or weeks on the road or possibly months at sea.

The easy mail my grandparent’s generation took for granted was relatively new at the time; the first penny stamp was used only 60 years before the start of the 20th Century. Before that, those outside the peerage had limited access to cheap mail, and often relied on friends and neighbours to carry messages.

West_India_Docks_Microcosm_editedTransport difficulties limited the size of cities. People need to be fed, and perishable food needed to be grown close enough to a city that it could be brought to the markets while it was still usable. Right through history, societies have collapsed when they grew too large for their hinterland to support them.

Shipping was one answer to the problem. The great cities of the past were built on harbours, and until very recently indeed, it was faster to sail from port to port than to travel overland. The trip by sea from London to Edinburgh took between five and nine days in the 18th Century (depending on weather), but travel by land took between 10 days and a fortnight. A seat on a coach cost more than two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, and the traveller would still have to pay for food and lodgings along the way.

canals liverpool leedsThe Georgians began a revolution in travel with the feverish canal-building of the 18th and early 19th century, which added to the much smaller network of canals built in the 1600s. Suddenly, goods could be transported from Liverpool to London by boat, without risking storms at sea. The great London population of explosion followed. In 1800, London was five miles across, and had a population of a million people. By 1815, the population was 1.4 million. By 1860, over 3 million people lived in London — a growth fuelled by easy movement of goods and people on the railways. And the urban sprawl had began, with people living in the suburbs and working in the city.

railwayIn the same 70 year period, the roads improved, with the introduction of turnpikes providing money and an incentive to apply new road building techniques that could keep up with faster carriages and a greater volume of traffic.

By the time my grandfather was a young man, people could readily travel from town to town around the country and (less readily) from country to country. And the now literate masses could send letters across town in a day and across the world several times a year. The world had grown smaller.

He would find today hard to believe, with cheap world travel within the reach of many, and near-instant around-the-world communication available on cell phones to slum dwellers in India.

It has been a fascinating quarter-millennium. I wonder what’s next?

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2 thoughts on “Travel times, the growth of London, and other random thoughts

  1. A friend who can tell me travel times in the early 19th century—what a treasure you are! Can you do London to Gibraltar? Malta? Constantinople? They’ve been plaguing me lately. When i ask I hear “it depends.” Tides. Weather. Size and configuration of ship. SIGH

    This is a marvelous post.

    • Yes, it’s frustrating. I spent some considerable time last year trying to figure out whether Alex could have returned from the assault on Alexandria in time to be in London in April for Farewell to Kindness (answer: no, not at that time of year). I read travellers diaries, ships logs… it took ages, and in the end the timing just did’t work. Wrong time of year to make that voyage at all, let alone in the timeframe.

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