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The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter III. Influence of Roads on Society


While the road communications of the country remained thus imperfect, the people of one part of England knew next to nothing of the other. When a shower of rain had the effect of rendering the highways impassable, even horsemen were cautious in venturing far from home. But only a very limited number of persons could then afford to travel on horseback. The labouring people journeyed on foot, while the middle class used the waggon or the coach. But the amount of intercourse between the people of different districts --then exceedingly limited at all times--was, in a country so wet as England, necessarily suspended for all classes during the greater part of the year.

The imperfect communication existing between districts had the effect of perpetuating numerous local dialects, local prejudices, and local customs, which survive to a certain extent to this day; though they are rapidly disappearing, to the regret of many, under the influence of improved facilities for travelling. Every village had its witches, sometimes of different sorts, and there was scarcely an old house but had its white lady or moaning old man with a long beard. There were ghosts in the fens which walked on stilts, while the sprites of the hill country rode on flashes of fire. But the village witches and local ghosts have long since disappeared, excepting perhaps in a few of the less penetrable districts, where they may still survive. It is curious to find that down even to the beginning of the seventeenth century, the inhabitants of the southern districts of the island regarded those of the north as a kind of ogres. Lancashire was supposed to be almost impenetrable-- as indeed it was to a considerable extent,--and inhabited by a half-savage race. Camden vaguely described it, previous to his visit in 1607, as that part of the country " lying beyond the mountains towards the Western Ocean." He acknowledged that he approached the Lancashire people "with a kind of dread," but determined at length "to run the hazard of the attempt," trusting in the Divine assistance. Camden was exposed to still greater risks in his survey of Cumberland. When he went into that county for the purpose of exploring the remains of antiquity it contained for the purposes of his great work, he travelled along the line of the Roman Wall as far as Thirlwall castle, near Haltwhistle; but there the limits of civilization and security ended; for such was the wildness of the country and of its lawless inhabitants beyond, that he was obliged to desist from his pilgrimage, and leave the most important and interesting objects of his journey unexplored.

About a century later, in 1700, the Rev. Mr. Brome, rector of Cheriton in Kent, entered upon a series of travels in England as if it had been a newly-discovered country. He set out in spring so soon as the roads had become passable. His friends convoyed him on the first stage of his journey, and left him, commending him to the Divine protection. He was, however, careful to employ guides to conduct him from one place to another, and in the course of his three years' travels he saw many new and wonderful things. He was under the necessity of suspending his travels when the winter or wet weather set in, and to lay up, like an arctic voyager, for several months, until the spring came round again. Mr. Brome  passed through Northumberland into Scotland, then down the western side of the island towards Devonshire, where he found the farmers gathering in their corn on horse-back, the roads being so narrow that it was impossible for them to use waggons. He desired to travel into Cornwall, the boundaries of which he reached, but was prevented proceeding farther by the rains, and accordingly he made the best of his way home.*[1] The vicar of Cheriton was considered a wonderful man in his day,-- almost as as venturous as we should now regard a traveller in Arabia. Twenty miles of slough, or an unbridged river between two parishes, were greater impediments to intercourse than the Atlantic Ocean now is between England and America. Considerable towns situated in the same county, were then more widely separated, for practical purposes, than London and Glasgow are at the present day. There were many districts which travellers never visited, and where the appearance of a stranger produced as great an excitement as the arrival of a white man in an African village.*[2]

The author of 'Adam Bede' has given us a poet's picture of the leisure of last century, which has "gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. "Old Leisure" lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree walls, and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling." But this picture has also its obverse side. Whole generations then lived a monotonous, ignorant, prejudiced, and humdrum life. They had no enterprize, no energy, little industry, and were content to die where they were born. The seclusion in which they were compelled to live, produced a picturesqueness of manners which is pleasant to look back upon, now that it is a thing of the past; but it was also accompanied with a degree of grossness and brutality much less pleasant to regard, and of which the occasional popular amusements of bull-running, cock-fighting, cock-throwing, the saturnalia of Plough-Monday, and such like, were the fitting exponents.

People then knew little except of their own narrow district. The world beyond was as good as closed against them. Almost the only intelligence of general affairs which reached them was communicated by pedlars and packmen, who were accustomed to retail to their customers the news of the day with their wares; or, at most, a newsletter from London, after it had been read nearly to pieces at the great house of the district, would find its way to the village, and its driblets of information would thus become diffused among the little community. Matters of public interest were long in becoming known in the remoter districts of the country. Macaulay relates that the death of Queen Elizabeth was not heard of in some parts of Devon until the courtiers of her successor had ceased to wear mourning for her. The news of Cromwell's being made Protector only reached Bridgewater nineteen days after the event, when the bells were set a-ringing; and the churches in the Orkneys continued to put up the usual prayers for James II. three months after he had taken up his abode at St. Germains. There were then no shops in the smaller towns or villages, and comparatively few in the larger; and these were badly furnished with articles for general use. The country people were irregularly supplied by hawkers, who sometimes bore their whole stook upon their back, or occasionally on that of their pack-horses. Pots, pans, and household utensils were sold from door to door. Until a comparatively recent period, the whole of the pottery-ware manufactured in Staffordshire was hawked about and disposed of in this way. The pedlars carried frames resembling camp-stools, on which they were accustomed to display their wares when the opportunity occurred for showing them to advantage. The articles which they sold were chiefly of a fanciful kind--ribbons, laces, and female finery; the housewives' great reliance for the supply of general clothing in those days being on domestic industry.

Every autumn, the mistress of the household was accustomed to lay in a store of articles sufficient to serve for the entire winter. It was like laying in a stock of provisions and clothing for a siege during the time that the roads were closed. The greater part of the meat required for winter's use was killed and salted down at Martinmas, while stockfish and baconed herrings were provided for Lent. Scatcherd says that in his district the clothiers united in groups of three or four, and at the Leeds winter fair they would purchase an ox, which, having divided, they salted and hung the pieces for their winter's food.*[3] There was also the winter's stock of firewood to be provided, and the rushes with which to strew the floors--carpets being a comparatively modern invention; besides, there was the store of wheat and barley for bread, the malt for ale, the honey for sweetening (then used for sugar), the salt, the spiceries, and the savoury herbs so much employed in the ancient cookery. When the stores were laid in, the housewife was in a position to bid defiance to bad roads for six months to come. This was the case of the well-to-do; but the poorer classes, who could not lay in a store for winter, were often very badly off both for food and firing, and in many hard seasons they literally starved. But charity was active in those days, and many a poor man's store was eked out by his wealthier neighbour.

When the household supply was thus laid in, the mistress, with her daughters and servants, sat down to their distaffs and spinning-wheels; for the manufacture of the family clothing was usually the work of the winter months. The fabrics then worn were almost entirely of wool, silk and cotton being scarcely known. The wool, when not grown on the farm, was purchased in a raw state, and was carded, spun, dyed, and in many cases woven at home: so also with the linen clothing, which, until quite a recent date, was entirely the produce of female fingers and household spinning-wheels. This kind of work occupied the winter months, occasionally alternated with knitting, embroidery, and tapestry work. Many of our country houses continue to bear witness to the steady industry of the ladies of even the highest ranks in those times, in the fine tapestry hangings with which the walls of many of the older rooms in such mansions are covered.

Among the humbler classes, the same winter's work went on. The women sat round log fires knitting, plaiting, and spinning by fire-light, even in the daytime. Glass had not yet come into general use, and the openings in the wall which in summer-time served for windows, had necessarily to be shut close with boards to keep out the cold, though at the same time they shut out the light. The chimney, usually of lath and plaster, ending overhead in a cone and funnel for the smoke, was so roomy in old cottages as to accommodate almost the whole family sitting around the fire of logs piled in the reredosse in the middle, and there they carried on their winter's work.

Such was the domestic occupation of women in the rural districts in olden times; and it may perhaps be questioned whether the revolution in our social system, which has taken out of their hands so many branches of household manufacture and useful domestic employment, be an altogether unmixed blessing.

Winter at an end, and the roads once more available for travelling, the Fair of the locality was looked forward to with interest. Fairs were among the most important institutions of past times, and were rendered necessary by the imperfect road communications. The right of holding them was regarded as a valuable privilege, conceded by the sovereign to the lords of the manors, who adopted all manner of devices to draw crowds to their markets. They were usually held at the entrances to valleys closed against locomotion during winter, or in the middle of rich grazing districts, or, more frequently, in the neighbourhood of famous cathedrals or churches frequented by flocks of pilgrims. The devotion of the people being turned to account, many of the fairs were held on Sundays in the churchyards; and almost in every parish a market was instituted on the day on which the parishioners were called together to do honour to their patron saint.

The local fair, which was usually held at the beginning or end of winter, often at both times, became the great festival as well as market of the district; and the business as well as the gaiety of the neighbourhood usually centred on such occasions. High courts were held by the Bishop or Lord of the Manor, to accommodate which special buildings were erected, used only at fair time. Among the fairs of the first class in England were Winchester, St. Botolph's Town (Boston), and St. Ives. We find the great London merchants travelling thither in caravans, bearing with them all manner of goods, and bringing back the wool purchased by them in exchange.

Winchester Great Fair attracted merchants from all parts of Europe. It was held on the hill of St. Giles, and was divided into streets of booths, named after the merchants of the different countries who exposed their wares in them. "The passes through the great woody districts, which English merchants coming from London and the West would be compelled to traverse, were on this occasion carefully guarded by mounted 'serjeants-at-arms,' since the wealth which was being conveyed to St. Giles's-hill attracted bands of outlaws from all parts of the country."*[4] Weyhill Fair, near Andover, was another of the great fairs in the same district, which was to the West country agriculturists and clothiers what Winchester St. Giles's Fair was to the general merchants.

The principal fair in the northern districts was that of St. Botolph's Town (Boston), which was resorted to by people from great distances to buy and sell commodities of various kinds. Thus we find, from the 'Compotus' of Bolton Priory,*[5] that the monks of that house sent their wool to St. Botolph's Fair to be sold, though it was a good hundred miles distant; buying in return their winter supply of groceries, spiceries, and other necessary articles. That fair, too, was often beset by robbers, and on one occasion a strong party of them, under the disguise of monks, attacked and robbed certain booths, setting fire to the rest; and such was the amount of destroyed wealth, that it is said the veins of molten gold and silver ran along the streets.

The concourse of persons attending these fairs was immense. The nobility and gentry, the heads of the religions houses, the yeomanry and the commons, resorted to them to buy and sell all manner of agricultural produce. The farmers there sold their wool and cattle, and hired their servants; while their wives disposed of the surplus produce of their winter's industry, and bought their cutlery, bijouterie, and more tasteful articles of apparel. There were caterers there for all customers; and stuffs and wares were offered for sale from all countries. And in the wake of this business part of the fair there invariably followed a crowd of ministers to the popular tastes-- quack doctors and merry andrews, jugglers and minstrels, singlestick players, grinners through horse-collars, and sportmakers of every kind.

Smaller fairs were held in most districts for similar purposes of exchange. At these the staples of the locality were sold and servants usually hired. Many were for special purposes--cattle fairs, leather fairs, cloth fairs, bonnet fairs, fruit fairs. Scatcherd says that less than a century ago a large fair was held between Huddersfield and Leeds, in a field still called Fairstead, near Birstal, which used to be a great mart for fruit, onions, and such like; and that the clothiers resorted thither from all the country round to purchase the articles, which were stowed away in barns, and sold at booths by lamplight in the morning.*[6] Even Dartmoor had its fair, on the site of an ancient British village or temple near Merivale Bridge, testifying to its great antiquity; for it is surprising how an ancient fair lingers about the place on which it has been accustomed to be held, long after the necessity for it has ceased. The site of this old fair at Merivale Bridge is the more curious, as in its immediate neighbourhood, on the road between Two Bridges and Tavistock, is found the singular-looking granite rock, bearing so remarkable a resemblance to the Egyptian sphynx, in a mutilated state. It is of similarly colossal proportions, and stands in a district almost as lonely as that in which the Egyptian sphynx looks forth over the sands of the Memphean Desert.*[7]


Site of an ancient British village and fair on Dartmoor.

The last occasion on which the fair was held in this secluded spot was in the year 1625, when the plague raged at Tavistock; and there is a part of the ground, situated amidst a line of pillars marking a stone avenue--a characteristic feature of the ancient aboriginal worship--which is to this day pointed out and called by the name of the "Potatoe market."

But the glory of the great fairs has long since departed. They declined with the extension of turnpikes, and railroads gave them their death-blow. Shops now exist in every little town and village, drawing their supplies regularly by road and canal from the most distant parts. St. Bartholomew, the great fair of London,*[8] and Donnybrook, the great fair of Dublin, have been suppressed as nuisances; and nearly all that remains of the dead but long potent institution of the Fair, is the occasional exhibition at periodic times in country places, of pig-faced ladies, dwarfs, giants, double-bodied calves, and such-like wonders, amidst a blatant clangour of drums, gongs, and cymbals. Like the sign of the Pack-Horse over the village inn door, the modern village fair, of which the principal article of merchandise is gingerbread-nuts, is but the vestige of a state of things that has long since passed away.

There were, however, remote and almost impenetrable districts which long resisted modern inroads. Of such was Dartmoor, which we have already more than once referred to. The difficulties of road-engineering in that quarter, as well as the sterility of a large proportion of the moor, had the effect of preventing its becoming opened up to modern traffic; and it is accordingly curious to find how much of its old manners, customs, traditions, and language has been preserved. It looks like a piece of England of the Middle Ages, left behind on the march. Witches still hold their sway on Dartmoor, where there exist no less than three distinct kinds-- white, black, and grey,*[9]--and there are still professors of witchcraft, male as well as female, in most of the villages.

As might be expected, the pack-horses held their ground in Dartmoor the longest, and in some parts of North Devon they are not yet extinct. When our artist was in the neighbourhood, sketching the ancient bridge on the moor and the site of the old fair, a farmer said to him, "I well remember the train of pack-horses and the effect of their jingling bells on the silence of Dartmoor. My grandfather, a respectable farmer in the north of Devon, was the first to use a 'butt' (a square box without wheels, dragged by a horse) to carry manure to field; he was also the first man in the district to use an umbrella, which on Sundays he hung in the church-porch, an object of curiosity to the villagers." We are also informed by a gentleman who resided for some time at South Brent', on the borders of the Moor, that the introduction of the first cart in that district is remembered by many now living, the bridges having been shortly afterwards widened to accommodate the wheeled vehicles.

The primitive features of this secluded district are perhaps best represented by the interesting little town of Chagford, situated in the valley of the North Teign, an ancient stannary and market town backed by a wide stretch of moor. The houses of the place are built of moor stone--grey, venerable-looking, and substantial--some with projecting porch and parvise room over, and granite-mullioned windows; the ancient church, built of granite, with a stout old steeple of the same material, its embattled porch and granite-groined vault springing from low columns with Norman-looking capitals, forming the sturdy centre of this ancient town clump.

A post-chaise is still a phenomenon in Chagford, the roads and lanes leading to it being so steep and rugged as to be ill adapted for springed vehicles of any sort. The upland road or track to Tavistock scales an almost precipitous hill, and though well enough adapted for the pack-horse of the last century, it is quite unfitted for the cart and waggon traffic of this. Hence the horse with panniers maintains its ground in the Chagford district; and the double-horse, furnished with a pillion for the lady riding behind, is still to be met with in the country roads.

Among the patriarchs of the hills, the straight-breasted blue coat may yet be seen, with the shoe fastened with buckle and strap as in the days when George III. was king; and old women are still found retaining the cloak and hood of their youth. Old agricultural implements continue in use. The slide or sledge is seen in the fields; the flail, with its monotonous strokes, resounds from the barn-floors; the corn is sifted by the windstow--the wind merely blowing away the chaff from the grain when shaken out of sieves by the motion of the hand on some elevated spot; the old wooden plough is still at work, and the goad is still used to urge the yoke of oxen in dragging it along.


The Devonshire Crooks

"In such a place as Chagford," says Mr. Rowe, "the cooper or rough carpenter will still find a demand for the pack-saddle, with its accompanying furniture of crooks, crubs, or dung-pots. Before the general introduction of carts, these rough and ready contrivances were found of great utility in the various operations of husbandry, and still prove exceedingly convenient in situations almost, or altogether, inaccessible to wheel-carriages. The long crooks are used for the carriage of corn in sheaf from the harvest-field to the mowstead or barn, for the removal of furze, browse, faggot-wood, and other light materials. The writer of one of the happiest effusions of the local muse,*[10] with fidelity to nature equal to Cowper or Crabbe, has introduced the figure of a Devonshire pack-horse bending under the 'swagging load' of the high-piled crooks as an emblem of care toiling along the narrow and rugged path of life. The force and point of the imagery must be lost to those who have never seen (and, as in an instance which came under my own knowledge, never heard of) this unique specimen of provincial agricultural machinery. The crooks are formed of two poles,*[11] about ten feet long, bent, when green, into the required curve, and when dried in that shape are connected by horizontal bars. A pair of crooks, thus completed, is slung over the pack-saddle--one 'swinging on each side to make the balance true.' The short crooks, or crubs, are slung in a similar manner. These are of stouter fabric, and angular shape, and are used for carrying logs of wood and other heavy materials. The dung-pots, as the name implies, were also much in use in past times, for the removal of dung and other manure from the farmyard to the fallow or plough lands. The slide, or sledge, may also still occasionally be seen in the hay or corn fields, sometimes without, and in other cases mounted on low wheels, rudely but substantially formed of thick plank, such as might have brought the ancient Roman's harvest load to the barn some twenty centuries ago."

Mrs. Bray says the crooks are called by the country people "Devil's tooth-picks." A correspondent informs us that the queer old crook-packs represented in our illustration are still in use in North Devon. He adds: "The pack-horses were so accustomed to their position when travelling in line (going in double file) and so jealous of their respective places, that if one got wrong and took another's place, the animal interfered with would strike at the offender with his crooks."

Footnotes for Chapter III.

*[1] 'Three Years' Travels in England, Scotland, and Wales.' By James Brome, M.A., Rector of Cheriton, Kent. London, 1726.

*[2] The treatment the stranger received was often very rude. When William Hutton, of Birmingham, accompanied by another gentleman, went to view the field of Bosworth, in 1770, "the inhabitants," he says, "set their dogs at us in the street, merely because we were strangers. Human figures not their own are seldom seen in these inhospitable regions. Surrounded with impassable roads, no intercourse with man to humanise the mind. nor commerce to smooth their rugged manners, they continue the boors of Nature." In certain villages in Lancashire and Yorkshire, not very remote from large towns, the appearance of a stranger, down to a comparatively recent period, excited a similar commotion amongst the villagers, and the word would pass from door to door, "Dost knaw'im?" "Naya." "Is 'e straunger?" "Ey, for sewer." "Then paus' 'im-- 'Eave a duck [stone] at 'im-- Fettle 'im!" And the "straunger" would straightway find the "ducks" flying about his head, and be glad to make his escape from the village with his life.

*[3] Scatcherd, 'History of Morley.'

*[4] Murray's ' Handbook of Surrey, Hants, and Isle of Wight,' 168.

*[5] Whitaker's 'History of Craven.'

*[6] Scatcherd's 'History of Morley,' 226.

*[7] Vixen Tor is the name of this singular-looking rock. But it is proper to add, that its appearance is probably accidental, the head of the Sphynx being produced by the three angular blocks of rock seen in profile. Mr. Borlase, however, in his ' Antiquities of Cornwall,' expresses the opinion that the rock-basins on the summit of the rock were used by the Druids for purposes connected with their religious ceremonies.

*[8] The provisioning of London, now grown so populous, would be almost impossible but for the perfect system of roads now converging on it from all parts. In early times, London, like country places, had to lay in its stock of salt-provisions against winter, drawing its supplies of vegetables from the country within easy reach of the capital. Hence the London market-gardeners petitioned against the extension of tumpike-roads about a century ago, as they afterwards petitioned against the extension of railways, fearing lest their trade should be destroyed by the competition of country-grown cabbages. But the extension of the roads had become a matter of absolute necessity, in order to feed the huge and ever-increasing mouth of the Great Metropolis, the population of which has grown in about two centuries from four hundred thousand to three millions. This enormous population has, perhaps, never at any time more than a fortnight's supply of food in stock, and most families not more than a few days; yet no one ever entertains the slightest apprehension of a failure in the supply, or even of a variation in the price from day to day in consequence of any possible shortcoming. That this should be so, would be one of the most surprising things in the history of modern London, but that it is sufficiently accounted for by the magnificent system of roads, canals, and railways, which connect it with the remotest corners of the kingdom. Modern London is mainly fed by steam. The Express Meat-Train, which runs nightly from Aberdeen to London, drawn by two engines and makes the journey in twenty-four hours, is but a single illustration of the rapid and certain method by which modem London is fed. The north Highlands of Scotland have thus, by means of railways, become grazing-grounds for the metropolis. Express fish trains from Dunbar and Eyemouth (Smeaton's harbours), augmented by fish-trucks from Cullercoats and Tynemouth on the Northumberland coast, and from Redcar, Whitby, and Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, also arrive in London every morning. And what with steam-vessels bearing cattle, and meat and fish arriving by sea, and canal-boats laden with potatoes from inland, and railway-vans laden with butter and milk drawn from a wide circuit of country, and road-vans piled high with vegetables within easy drive of Covent Garden, the Great Mouth is thus from day to day regularly, satisfactorily, and expeditiously filled.

*[9] The white witches are kindly disposed, the black cast the "evil eye," and the grey are consulted for the discovery of theft, &c.

*[10] See 'The Devonshire Lane', above quoted

*[11] Willow saplings, crooked and dried in the required form.


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