Three roading heroes

In the second half of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, the main highways of England saw a revolution.

In 1754, an advertisement boasted that the trip from London to Edinburgh took only “ten days in summer and twelve in winter”. Compare that with the mail coach in 1832 which was advertised as 42 hours and 23 minutes. (The return trip was longer: 45 hours and 3 minutes.)

The difference was largely down to the construction of the roads.

John Metcalf was a blind Yorkshire man who had worked as a carrier, including a stint with the army moving guns over boggy ground. In 1765, he won a contract to build a three-mile section of road, and he applied his experience transporting heavy loads to such good effect that he built over 180 miles of road throughout his career.

He believed a good road needed good foundations and a smooth convex surface that would drain easily. He knew rain caused the most damage to roads, and focused on good drainage, with ditches both sides.

At around the same time, a French engineer was also experimenting with better road construction. Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet pioneered a two-layer construction, with large stones at the base and a thin layer of smaller stone above that would be pressed down and jammed into one another as traffic passed along the road.

Thomas Telford was a Scot raised in poverty and apprenticed to a stonemason. He went on to become a largely self-taught engineer and architect. Appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire in 1787, his successful designs for bridges and roads lead him to jobs managing the design and construction of several canals, including their aquaducts, plus 184 miles of roads and bridges in the Scottish Highlands.

EDITED to add a profile of a Roman road.

EDITED to add a profile of a modern road.

Our next road hero has given his name to the road construction we still use today. John Loudon MacAdam was born in Scotland. He purportedly showed an interest in making roads as a school child, but moved to the United States on his father’s death when he was 14. Returning 13 years later with what was left of the fortune he’d made during the War of Independence (the government of the new United States confiscated quite a bit of it), he bought an estate.

At the time, most roads were made of gravel, which turned back into ruts, ridges and potholes as soon as heavy vehicles drove over the freshly spread surface. MacAdam began experimenting to see what could be done about this.

In 1798, he was on the move again, appointed as an agent for revictualling the navy in the west of England. He settled in Falmouth, but travelled all the time for his work, over roads that were “at once loose, rough, and perishable, tedious and dangerous to travel on, and very costly to repair.”

MacAdam had worked out that roads worked best when they were raised above the surrounding land, well drained, and made from stone broken into cube shaped fragments. Despite local opposition and at his own expense, he built a number of roads that were so successful he was, in 1815, appointed surveyor-general of the Bristol roads.

And the rest is history. As Bristol’s road network was transformed from muddy dangerous rutted quagmires to even well-drained surfaces that carriages could swiftly traverse, other places started asking how to take the same engineering feat home to their places.

The website Electric Scotland says:

In 1823, on McAdam’s petition, a committee of the House of Commons was set up to inquire into the feasibility of applying this new system of road-making throughout the country. McAdam, of course, attended, and gave evidence at length. Only then did it appear what immense labours and trouble he had taken in order to bring his system to perfection. Between 1798 and 1814 he had travelled no less than 30,000 miles in order to examine the roads of Britain. He had spent 2,000 days on his travels, which had cost him £5,000. Besides this sum, he had expended large sums on private experiments. All this he had carried out from entirely disinterested motives; his only wish was that the roads should be improved for the public good. Philanthropists who work among the destitute or afflicted are generally recognized, but we should not forget that the patient, painstaking round of labour which McAdam undertook for the good of his fellow men, is also philanthropy at its highest.

My characters in my current work-in-progress are on a road trip between Cambridge and Newcastle in 1812: hence the excursion down this road-making byway.

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