Politics, Politicians and People – Part Five

All this activity, political and otherwise, required communications, which in the seventeenth century meant letters carried by foot, by horse, by wagon or by coach along roads of uncertain quality. There were three major thoroughfares running from London through Kent: to Dover on Watling Street via Canterbury; to Rye through Bromley & Tonbridge and to Hythe via New Cross, Maidstone, Ashford, and Tonbridge.  The Hythe road was reported to be ‘a reasonable road to Farningham, but less commendable to Hythe, being generally rough, hard and narrow and not much frequented’. A seventeenth century map of Kent also shows side roads, which suggests that these were passable, in dry weather at least, but it some circumstances, especially in winter, it may have been easier to travel to London by sea and heavy goods – grain, coal, bricks, sand, timber or iron wares –  were always transported by water when possible.

It was the responsibility of landowners to maintain any section of road which ran through their property, and as with all such responsibilities, it was not always fulfilled to the letter. In the case of minor roads, they were likely to be thought of merely as a piece of land where no-one had the right to sow peas or stack manure, though some ignored even this requirement.  But if roads were blocked, people could and did, ride across fields full of crops, which provided some incentive for their upkeep.

Repairs were effected by ploughing up the two edges of the track, throwing the earth inward and then levelling the surface. The ruts were filled with stones or brushwood. Sometimes the whole surface would be covered with stones or gravel. Drainage ditches on either side of the road had to be cleared out regularly, to keep them effective. Clement Beale of Saltwood fell out with Hythe corporation in the early years of the seventeenth century because he failed to repair the highway between Hythe and Newington and then for three months did not clear out the ditches either, so that the whole road became impassable.

It was not until the late seventeenth century that parliament started to take responsibility for repairing and maintaining roads. The Turnpike Acts authorised a trust to levy tolls on those using the road and to use that income to repair and improve the road. They could also purchase property to widen or divert existing roads. The ‘turnpike’ was the gate which blocked the road until the toll was paid. The first such Act, of 1663, turnpiked the Great North Road between Wadesmill in Hertfordshire and Stilton in Huntingdonshire. The next was not until 1695 (Shenfield to Harwich), but after that there were several a year, and by 1750 most of the main roads from London were turnpiked.

But until that happened the people of Hythe coped with rough roads as best they could. If you could afford nothing else, you walked. You might be able to hitch a lift on a passing wagon or cart. If you had a horse, or could afford horsehire, you rode – women usually rode pillion behind a man, and most horse owners owned a pillion saddle. If you were very rich, you might own your own coach, but this was beyond the means of most.

From the early seventeenth century, public conveyances for the fare paying public began to be introduced:  the long or stage wagon, hooded with cloth, drawn by seven or eight horses in single file, could carry twenty to thirty people. It only did about ten to fifteen miles a day, but was especially convenient for women with children.

By the 1630s public coaches were working from London to several provincial towns. A network grew up during the 1650s, and passengers could expect to cover thirty to forty miles a day. Regular coach services left from London inns at advertised times and stopped at others on the way. Those who could afford it sat inside, those who could not on top. Inns became the passenger and goods stations of their day, where passengers could be met, goods collected and both transferred to feeder services.  Kent had ten services a week in 1637, and twenty-two a week in 1681. There was no direct service from Hythe to London, but there was a weekly service from Dover to the White Hart in Southwark, leaving on Thursdays, and a weekly boat service as well.

For most of the century, people moving relatively small amounts of goods, such as chapmen, used pack horses. The smaller horses were better than wagons in bad weather, were faster and ate less than wagon horses.  Recognising this, in 1615, Hythe corporation ordered the west bridge to be made six feet wide with stone and timber specifically for pack horses to use.

If you had more goods to shift, a wagon could be used, and the temptation was often to cart as many goods as possible on one vehicle. Unfortunately, heavy wagons broke down the roads quickly and made them impassable to packhorses.  Various attempts made throughout the seventeenth century to limit the size of carriers’ wagons and the number of horses used to pull them.  A royal proclamation of 1621 forbade the use of four- wheeled wagons altogether, but it was ignored.  In 1662 it was decreed that wheels should be at least four inches wide inches wide to stop them rutting the road. Another of 1670 forbade the use of more than five horses. All of this was an attempt to fit the traffic to the road. Matters did not improve until the problems were addressed the other way round.