Sunday, 2 February 2014

There And Back Again or, Would Hackney Coach Be A Better Way to Travel?

This blog post should be entitled “there and back again the unexpected and annoying journey” but I thought it would be too long.  As some of you know, my teaching gig is a 4ish hour commute away.  Each Wednesday I leave home at 7am, get to campus by 11:30ish, hold office hours and teach for roughly 5 hours, then begin the 4 hour trek back.[1] 

This [past] Wednesday, however, the trek took a little bit longer than usual and I didn’t make it in to teach my classes.  In fact, as I write this, I should be teaching Burke and Herder and Pushkin!  I should be watching my undergrads act out scenes from Onegin!  Instead, due to a car accident and subsequent highway closure, I’m somewhere on the back roads of Deseronto, Ontario staring at the very long line of trucks ahead. 

In *knew* this was going to be a less than stellar trip when I heard “Mummy! Mummy!  Mummy! I pooped!” from the toddler sitting a few rows back.

In any case, all this (and my lack of internet access plus the herd of horses I can see frolicking in the snow) inspired me to reflect on travel and journeys in the early modern period.  Okay, they probably traveled a lot faster than this bus’ current speed, but it was far slower and less comfortable than the level to which we’re accustomed.  Would a hackney coach be more comfortable?  Would an early modern person have made better time on horseback than my bus?  Would I die if I appropriated one of these horses and made a dash for it?[2]

These burning questions led me to some interesting finds on travel by coach, by horseback, and on foot.

By Hackney

Hackney coaches and carriages were, essentially, horse-drawn vehicles for hire.  They first appeared in London in the early seventeenth century and had, by 1623, gained no small number of customers.  John Taylor’s 1623 work The World Runnes on Wheeles castigated these coaches for hire as encroaching on the monopoly of his guild – the Company of Watermen.  For Taylor, the hackney ushered in all the world’s ills.  He was very careful, however, to assure readers that “I doe not enveigh against any Coaches that belong to Persons of worth or qualitie,  but onely against the Catterpiller swarme of hyrelings; they have undone my poore Trade.” 

Title page of Taylor's The World Runnes on Wheeles.  Note the not-so-subtle use of the devil.
Coaches “who like the Grashoppers or Caterpillers of Egipt have so over-runne the land, that we can get no living  upon the water; for I dare truly affirme that every day in any Tearme (especially if the Court be at Whitehall) they do rob us of our livings, and carry 560 fares daily from us.”

Taylor also saw the coach as encouraging poor health in England’s gentry and nobility.  These, he wrote, “would ride well mounted (and sometimes walke on foot)…Then men preserv’d their bodes strong and able by walking, riding and other manly exercises.”  Hackney coaches, then, were a detriment to not only his trade, but to the very health of the people!

Samuel Pepys had much to say about his travels by hackney coach.  By 1660, hackney coaches were so numerous, that it took a royal proclamation to lower their numbers from over 2000 to 400.  Despite this, Pepys noted that it was still quite easy to hire a coach to return home.

Pepys was of two minds with regard to the coaches.  They were pretty much a cheap, convenient option that came at the price of his dignity.  On Friday, 15 November 1661 he noted that the coach horses were “so tired, that they could not be got to up the hill, though al the street boys and men did beat and whip them.”[3]  Not only that, he sometimes had to share his hackney with common people![4] 

Nevertheless, the coach was convenient when the weather was poor and allowed him to read during the journey. 

By the mid-1660s, Pepys saw increasingly the hackneys as inconvenient, lower class, and a vehicle for disease.  The plague, it was thought, could be spread by sick passengers and  when hackneys were hired as funeral coaches.  As Pepys wrote in 1665, the hackney “is become a very dangerous passage now-a-days, the sickness increasing mightily.” 

By 1667, despite forming a relationship with a hackney coachman who he hired frequently, Pepys was ready to build his own stable, coach-house, and own his very own coach.

“I have a mind to buy enough to build a coach-house and stable; for I have had it much in my thoughts lately that it is not too much for me now, in degree or cost, to keep a coach, but contrarily, that I am almost ashamed to be seen in a hackney, and therefore if I can have the conveniency, I will secure the ground at least till peace comes, that I do receive encouragement to keep a coach, or else that I may part with the ground again.”

By Horse

Pepys’s diary is wonderful resource.  In 1659/60 he recorded riding with Mr. Pierce “set forth about seven of the clock, the day and the way very foul.”  The two men rode from Scotland  Yard to Foulmer (which he claims is 6 miles from Cambridge) in terrible weather.  At this point, Pepys noted that they stopped for the night as his “mare being almost tired.”  The next morning they continued their journey via horse back, arriving in Cambridge by 8am.  

This journey, of just over 95 kilometres or 60 miles, according to Google Maps, should be roughly an hour and a half drive – perhaps 2 hours and 15 minutes in the poor weather conditions Pepys mentioned.  Yet, for comparison, it took Pepys and his companion a whole day’s journey, plus an overnight rest, and a brief ride the next morning.  A dear friend looked at me in horror when I asked what that would be like.  Her response was a single word – “chafing.”

So, it seems, my decision to not abscond with a horse and ride from Deseronto to Kingston was a good one.  At roughly 60 kilometres or 40 miles away in -25 Celsius (-13 F) with high winds, blowing and falling snow, I would likely never have arrived!

Riding, as John Taylor had noted, was a good exercise.  By the end of his journey, both Pepys and his horse were likely exhausted.  Luckily the early moderns had recipes for that!  Nicolas Culpeper recorded that “A good handfull of the hot biting Arsmart put under a Horses Saddle will make him travel the better, although he were half tired before.”  

Arsmart or Water Pepper from Elizabeth Blackwell c1739.
Culpeper, it seemed, was not particularly interested in the welfare of the horse.  Arsmart or water pepper (persicaria hydropiper) is an irritant that burns skin upon contact.  A handful of the herb under a horse’s saddle would likely annoy the horse rather than refresh it.

Lodwick Rowzee, a doctor in Kent, also believed that horseback riding was healthy.  In 1632, he wrote that after taking the water at Tunbridge, it was best to ride, rather than walk, home.  “Sitting upon your horse, the inward parts, as the muskles of the belly, the guttes, and the stomacke it selfe are thereby borne vp and ontracted, and by the jogging of the horse moderately stirred, and so consequently your water will be the better digested.”

The century previous, Andrew Boorde warned that horseback riding could be too much exercise:

“Werynes doth come many waies…it may come thorowe ridinge vpon an euyll horse, or syttynge in an euyll sadle and specially whan the horse is galled on the backe, or spore galled, than the horse is as wery of his maistrr, as his maister is wery of him.”

Luckily, there was a remedy:

“Fyrst after labour and werynes, ease & rest is the best medicine…and if it do come thorowe ridinge vpon an euyl horse or sadle, lette him neuer ryde in no sadle nor vpon no horse, geldynge nor mare, nor other beest, and he shall neuer be wery nor galled for suche matters.”

Such excellent common sense!
On Foot

With horseback and hackney coach out of the question, walking, perhaps, would be safer.  Alas, walking had its own dangers as Pepys related on 26 October 1664:

“Going out to find my coach, I could not find it, for it was gone with the rest; so I fair to go through the darke and dirt over the bridge, and my leg fell in a hole broke on the bridge, but, the constable standing there to keep people from it, I was catched up, otherwise I had broke my leg; for which mercy the Lord be praised!”

Thankfully, it seems, this was a colder sort of day or Pepys would have been at risk for gout!

As an anonymous medical treatise stated “And some by much travell on foot in hot eather may have the Gout by reason of a hot distemperature procured unto the feet by overmuch travell and heat.”  The explanation was that “much walking and travell on foot…draweth a deflux to the feet.”

Culpeper and John Pechey both recommended the leaves and bark of the alder tree (much better than the water pepper plant!) for weary walkers.  Culpeper wrote that “the Leaves put under the bare feet gauled with travelling are a great refreshing to them.”  While Pechey recommended that the leaves be put into shoes to ease pain and weariness.

Alder via Wikipedia Commons
A last travel refreshment tale recorded by John Josselyn:

“The Rattle Snake, who poysons with a Vapour that comes thorough two crooked Fangs in their Mouth; the hollow of these Fangs are as black as Ink: The Indians, when weary with travelling, will take them up with their bare hands, laying hold with one hand behind their Head, with the other taking hold of their Tail, and with their teeth tear off the Skin of their Backs, and feed upon them alive; which they say refresheth them.”

Wednesday was a long, long travel day.  Alas, the bus – regardless of how long it took – was still superior to the early modern options! 

Any tricks to make your travel days more comfortable?  If so, let me know here or on twitter!  I’m @medhistorian.

[1] Said trek back always involves a pit stop at some terrible fast food restaurant.  I deserve it after 8+ hours of travel. 8 hours on a plane could get me to London, UK - this is 8 hours on a combo of bus and subway.
[2] Research unnecessary to answer this latter question.  The answer is obviously yes.
[3] Pepys did not seem much affected by the abuse of said horses.
[4] He proudly noted that he did not speak to an “ordinary woman” the whole way to London, but rather read his book as long as he could.  Not making eye contact and staring at a book/newspaper/e-reader/phone long before subway travel.


Andrew Boorde, The Breviary of Helthe, London, 1547.

Nicolas Culpeper, The English Physician, London: 1652.

John Josselyn, New-Englands Rarities, London: printed for G. Widdowes, 1672.

P.D.H, Gutta Podagrica: A Treatise of the Gout, London: printed by Thomas Harper, 1633.

John Pechey, The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants, London: printed for Henry Bonwicke, 1694.

Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys.  (I especially recommend the online version run by Phil Gyford at

Lodwick Rowzee, The Queenes Welles, London: printed by John Dawson, 1632.

John Taylor, The World Runnes on Wheeles: Or Oddes, Betwixt Cards and Coaches, London: printed by Elizabeth Allde for Henry Gosson, 1623.

1 comment: