Devon is distinguished for having more roads than any county apart from Yorkshire. Until well into the eighteenth century when the Turnpike Trusts were formed, these roads were notorious for their appalling state. Writer after writer details the dangers and horrors of their rutted and muddy conditions. Because of the naturally hilly lie of the land in Devon, roads were also often dangerously steep. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge expresses the feelings of the exasperated traveller in his poem, Devonshire roads, written in 1791.
The indignant Bard composed this furious ode,
What time the Bloodhound lur'd by Human scent
Individuals usually walked, or travelled on horseback if they could afford it. Goods were moved by packhorse. It wasn't until the mid-sixteen hundreds that wheeled traffic began gradually to be introduced, and even then restrictions had to be introduced on weight and the number of animals drawing vehicles to protect the roads further. Various writers attest how slow the country people were to take to this new-fangled form of transport. Often this was forced on them because wheeled transport on rough roads remained impossible.
Matters improved in the eighteen-hundreds. The Exeter Turnpike Trust was formed in 1753, covering all the main roads around Exeter. The Tiverton and Barnstaple Trusts followed in 1757 and 1760 respectively. Old routes were improved, and new roads were built which avoided some of the very steepest hills. Some of the new plans provoked considerable argument. Exactly such a case is demonstrated in the text accompanying the print entitled the Long Bridge over the river Plym, SC0737.
The coming of the railway to Exeter in 1844 offered the travelling public further transport options. Successive Acts of Parliament - the Highways Act of 1835, the Highway Amendment Act of 1864 and the Local Government Act of 1888 - regularised the system for maintaining roads. By the 1880s the principal roads in Devon were generally said to be excellent, although the side-roads remained of lesser quality. High banks and steep hills continued to make journeys on these roads hazardous and uncomfortable.
The prints in the Somers Cocks collection record many methods of transport and travelling. Packhorses, wagons, carts, carriages and stagecoaches can all be glimpsed, often as minor details. Thanks to the skill of the engravers, these tiny details, when enlarged, often reveal a most accurate picture of travelling life.
|1. The Formation of the Devon Lane.
Everitt, Rev. William. Devonshire Scenery: its inspiration in the prose and song of various authors. Exeter: William Pollard, 1884. p. 20. Devon Lanes and their Associations.
Rev. M. G. Watkins, M. A.
From vol. ix. of the Cornhill Magazine.
A glance at the physical features of the country show how these picturesque lanes were formed. The aboriginal trackway over hill and dale rudely marked out by stones laid at intervals, just as the Devon coastguardsmen still guide themselves over the cliffs at night by lines of stones so deposited, sank gradually into the soil. Mud from the path was flung on either side. Violent rains cut deep furrows in the road; during winter the path became a water-course where it was not a bog, [...] while every season washes the road away, every time the farmer mends his fence, the banks above gain height. Thus each year deepens the lane. Frost often brings down one of these banks, which are topped by hedges, in some cases thirty feet above the traveller's head; and this "rougemont," as they call it in Devon, must be replaced before the lane is passable, so that their depth seldom diminishes, and perpetually increases.
The steep road out of Exeter to Oakhampton illustrates well the banked and picturesque Devon lane. For full details of the image and accompanying text, see SC0934.
|2. The poor condition of roads and lanes.
Pulman, G. R. The Book of the Axe. London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1875. p. 76.
[...]the roads everywhere seem year after year to have got worse and worse. They were not only at times impassable, but presented every facility for highway robbery and murder, which at last developed almost into one of the fine arts and contributed immensely to the moral teaching and ghastly ornamentation of the roadside gibbets.
[A roadside gibbet such as Pulman mentions can be see in the print SC1910.]
The poor road conditions are well demonstrated in the print of the road above Lynmouth - rutted, muddy and hilly. To see the full print and text with it, visit SC1494.
|3. Packhorses laden with crooks.
Pearse Chope, R. Early Tours in Devon and Cornwall. Exeter: James G. Commin, 1918 pp. 283-4. Rural Economy of the West of England.
By William Marshall 1796.
The furniture of pack horses varies with the load to be carried. Hay, corn, straw, faggots, and other comparatively light articles of burden, are loaded between "crooks"; formed of willow poles, about the thickness of scythe handles; and seven or eight feet long; bent as ox-bows; but with one end much longer than the other. These are joined in pairs, with slight cross bars, eighteen inches to two feet long; and each horse is furnished with two pairs of these crooks; slung together, so as that the shorter and stronger ends shall lie easy and firmly against the pack saddle; the longer and lighter ends rising, perhaps, fifteeen or more inches, above the horse's back, and standing four or five feet from each other. Within, and between, these crooks, the load is piled, and bound fast together, with that simplicity and dispatch, which long practice seldom fails of striking out.
Cordwood, large stones, and other heavy aricles are carried between "short crooks"; made of four natural bends or knees; both ends being nearly of the same length; and, in use, the points stand nearly level with the ridge of the pack saddle. [Continued below.]
|4. Packhorses laden with panniers.
Dung, sand, materials of buildings, roads, &., &. are carried in "pots; or strong coarse panniers; slung together, like the crooks; and as panniers are usually slung; the dung, especially if long and light, being ridged up, over the saddle. The bottom of each pot is a falling door, on a strong and simple construction. The place of delivery being reached, the trap is unlatched, and the load released.
Lime is universally carried in narrow bags; two or three of them being thrown across a pack saddle; which is of wood, and of the ordinary construction.
Packhorses carrying panniers. To see the full image, visit SC0373.
|5. Transport for the wealthy.
Pulman, G. R. The Book of the Axe. London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1875. p. 78.
Horseback was almost the universal mode of travelling by those who could afford the luxury, and ladies, seated in their pillions, rode behind their liege lords or their servants, and mounted and alighted by means of the upping-stocks which are still to be seen at the old farm-houses, in country villages, and near churches and other places of public resort.
William Stukeley travelled round England on horseback, pausing to sketch views that interested to him. For full details of this print, see SC2428.
|6. Carts and wagons.
Vancouver, Charles. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon. London: Richard Phillips, 1808. p. 125.
[...] it is only in the less broken parts of the country that one and two-horse carts are found to supply the labour, and to carry in common from 8 to 12 cwt.
A few waggons were noticed on the particular farms of some agricultural gentlemen; in the neighbourhood of Axminster, they are however in very general use. There are a number of two-horse carts, carrying from 15 to 18 cwt. each, in very general use, wherever they can with convenience be substituted for the long or short crooks or dung-pots.
One-horse carts, or butts, are also generally made use of; they are made to tip like tumbrils, and will hold about five seams, or from 10 to 12 bushels each. Being placed on low wheels, they are rendered very convenient for loading large stones, or any heavy article. The three-wheel butts, with barrow handles, drawn by one horse, and holding, level-full, from five to six bushels, are also much used, and found very suitable for removing stones or any heavy load to a short distance.
Horse and cart loading up on the beach. For the full image and further details, see SC3291.
Two horses are struggling to pull this load up the hill. For the full image and further details, see SC1625.
|7. The wealthy on wheels.
Thrupp, G. A. The History of Coaches. London: Kerby & Endean; New York: The "Hub" Publishing Company, 1877. pp. 72-73.
The Landaus [...] were like coaches in shape but made so as to open in the centre of the roof, the framework of which fell back at an angle of 45 degreees only, to allow the admission of air and the sight of the country more freely than in a coach; but for nearly fifty years there was no improvement in the method of opening and closing the roof, technically termed the "hood " of the Landau.
Laundaulets were chariots made to open. The hoods of both Landaus and Landaulets, and other carriages, were then made of greasy harness leather, disagreeable to touch or smell, and continuallly needing oil and blacking rubbed into them to keep them supple and black. [...]
Besides these vehicles there were phaetons, barouches, sociables, curricles, gigs and whiskies. Of these phaetons there were several sorts but all for self-driving by the owners.
The very rich and important travelling round Plymouth. For full details of this print, see SC2159.
|8. Public transport: the stagecoach.
Pulman, G. R. The Book of the Axe. London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1875. pp. 78-9.
My relative [...] was in the habit of occasionally visiting London about the close of the last century, and although he invariably booked himself by the "flying coach," so as to have protection, if need arose, yet he generally walked the one hundred and fifty miles in preference to the purgatory of being for three days sealed up in the jolting and rumbling machine. His custom was to carry his gun, walk on ahead, shoot by the roadside, and hasten on and have the game cooked by the time the "flyer" arrived at its halting-place for the night - the passengers sharing the feast, and the whole party spending the evening in accordance with the custom of the time.
Hazardous and very uncomfortable stagecoach journeys are demonstrated in this print SC0953.
|9. Maps and directions.
Pearse Chope, R. Early Tours in Devon and Cornwall. Exeter: James G. Commin, 1918 p. 308. Letters from England.
By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella (Robert Southey) 1802.
I bought here a map of England, folded for the pocket, with the roads and distances all marked upon it. I purchased also a book of the roads, in which not only the distance of every place in the kingdom from London, and from each other, is set down, but also the best inn at each place is pointed out, the name mentioned of every gentleman's seat near the road, and the objects which are most worthy a traveller's notice. Every thing that can possibly facilitate travelling seems to have been produced by the commercial spirit of this people.
[An early direction pillar near Bicton giving spiritual as well as actual directions can be seen in print SC0179).]
In 1675 John Ogilby produced his strip maps.
|10. Improved and regular public
Pulman, G. R. The Book of the Axe. London: Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1875. pp. 80-1.
In time [...] The country became covered with excellent roads, and the coach-system attained extraordinary perfection. Sixteen four-horse coaches passed daily through Axminster in various directions, but chiefly from Exeter to London, until at length the journey between those places, through Honiton, Bridport, Dorchester, and Salisbury, - some through Chard and Crewkerne, and others through Ilminster and Yeovil, - to London, a distance of about one hundred and seventy miles, was regularly performed in sixteen hours. This was effected by means of excellent cattle and short stages. All the "appointments" were in keeping, from the polished and brass-mounted harness up to the "swell" coach-man and the scarlet-coated mail-guard, with "cheery horn" and formidable blunderbus. People now advancing in life cherish "pleasant memories" of the old coaching-days and the agreeable associations therewith.
The stagecoach approaches the Crown Hotel in Lynton. To see the entire print and further details, visit SC1638.
|11. Town development.
The Route Book of Devon. Second Edition. Exeter: Henry Besley, 1846. pp. 268-9.
The town of Plymouth, as it existed up to the first ten years of the present century, consisted principally of mean and very narrow streets. From the conclusion of the late war up to the present time, great improvements have been made in enlarging the principal public thoroughfares; erecting new lines of streets and public buildings; and in fact, forming on the western side of the town, an entirely new portion; consisting with the noble Ionic pile of buildings, the Royal Hotel, Theatre, &., of handsome terraces, streets, a square, and crescent. The recent alteration of widening Whimple-street has produced a marked improvement in the trading and more crowded part of the town. When this is completed, and properly carried out by the removal of the Guildhall, Plymouth will then have her principal streets no longer subject to the reproach of being narrow and contracted, but open and of good width.
Union Street, Plymouth. To see further details and text on the print, visit SC2182.
This thematic guide started with a poem lamenting the condition of Devon's roads, so it seems appropriate to end with an anonymous poem, quoted by Edmund Pearse Burd in 1936, but written in 1825, bemoaning the green lands of Devon lost to the road-makers.
Ye Road-makers of Devon,
Our music's sole provider
Hoskins, W. G. Devon. (Collins, 1954).
Sheldon, Gilbert. From Trackway to Turnpike. (Oxford University Press, 1928).
George, A. Brian. "The Development of Devon's Road System". The Devon Historian, vol. 65. (October, 2002), pp. 3 - 8.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Poetical Works. (OUP, 1912).
Burd, E. P. Okehampton Turnpikes. (Reprinted from the Transactions of the Devonshire Association together with Correspondence, Acts of Parliament and Maps relating thereto, 1937).