The transport revolution which transformed Great Britain

Posted in British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, Communications, Historical articles, History, Industry, Trade, Transport, Travel on Friday, 10 February 2012

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This edited article about the Industrial Revolution originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 636 published on 23 March 1974.

Roads, picture, image, illustration

Hazardous neglected roads (left); road making (centre) and Toll Road and House (right). Pictures by Peter Jackson

If at the beginning of the 18th century, you had wanted to travel along a certain road in the north of England, you would have done well to take the advice of the famous agriculturalist, Arthur Young.

He warned travellers of that time to avoid this road, “as they would the Devil; for a thousand to one they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breakings down. They will here meet with ruts, which I actually measured four feet deep, and floating with mud. . . .”

And the north of England was not the only area to suffer from such bad roads. Daniel Defoe, writing in 1726, uttered a similar warning about a stretch of main road in the Midlands: “This road is not passable but just in the middle of summer after the Coal Carriages have beaten the way; for as the ground is a stiff clay, so, after the rain, the water stands as in a dish, and horses sink in it up to their bellies.”

Everywhere in Britain the story was the same. A journey along any of the country’s roads was an extremely dangerous – and uncomfortable – mission, and one that required both courage and determination to undertake. Even if you did not mind the painful discomfort of the bumpy, jolting motion of the vehicle staggering over the uneven road, or the danger of overturning, forcing you to wade through deep slushy mud, you would still have to suffer the fear of being robbed or attacked by one of the many ruffian highwaymen at large in those days.

How, one wonders, did the roads of Britain manage to get into such an appalling state? Sadly, it was the result of 1,400 years of shameful neglect. During the Roman occupation of Britain, a fine network of roads had been built throughout the country, but even the work of the brilliant Roman engineers could not have possibly endured so many years of neglect.

Even when road construction was undertaken, the method used was an extremely primitive and inadequate one. A ditch was dug on each side of the road, and soil from the ditch was thrown into the middle in the hope that the traffic would flatten it into a smooth surface. But all that the traffic managed to do was to break the road up into ruts and mud, as many an 18th century traveller found to his discomfort and dismay!

It was obvious then that, by the beginning of the 18th century, Britain’s transport problem had become desperate. Her roads could not even cope with the traffic of a pre-industrial society, so it was fortunate for the future of the country’s industry that improvements to transport were being carried out while the Industrial Revolution was taking place.

By 1700, the government had finally realised that the country’s system of road maintenance was not very adequate, so it set up Turnpike Trusts which were responsible for repairing roads with money received from tolls on road users. But these Trusts did little to improve the state of the roads, and the toll commissioners were often accused of neglecting their work. “They seldom execute what they undertake,” wrote Lord Hervey in 1743. “They only put the toll of the poor cheated passenger into their pockets and leave every jolt as bad as they find it, if not worse.”

But Defoe, despite his angry attacks on the state of Britain’s roads, seemed more than optimistic about its future when he wrote: ” ‘Tis more than probable that our posterity may see the roads all over England restored in their time to . . . perfection. . . .”

And much of this prophecy was to be accomplished by the early 19th century thanks to the brilliant engineering achievements of Britain’s road and canal builders. The revolution that was to take place in Britain’s transport system was the work of a mere handful of men. Most of them, like so many pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, had to fight their way through unpromising childhoods and to overcome seemingly insuperable handicaps which would have daunted lesser men.

The first of these was John Metcalf (1717-1810). When, in 1765, he engineered the first of Britain’s really good roads, Metcalf had not seen a road since he was six years old. Blinded by smallpox in early childhood, “Blind Jack” of Knaresborough never allowed this handicap to prevent him from achieving his aims. He was an accomplished violinist, a fine athlete, and a great walker. Metcalf began his road-building career by improving three miles of road on the new Harrogate to Boroughbridge Turnpike, and went on to construct 180 miles of turnpike in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Across the hills and valleys of the backbone of England he would march, planning in his head the foundations of a road system that would serve the new home of the booming textile industry.

A very important contribution to Metcalf’s new roads was made by John McAdam (1756-1836). He gave them a new surface. “The first operation in making a road,” he declared, “should be the reverse of digging a trench.” McAdam devised a method by which a raised roadway could be built up by means of thin layers of hard, dry stone which would then be packed down into a hard surface by the passing traffic. This very simple solution was to revolutionise road-building not only in England but throughout the world.

Metcalf and McAdam had provided two very important solutions to Britain’s road problem. It was, however, left to the brilliant son of a Dumfriesshire shepherd to make the most important single contribution to the improvement in Britain’s transport. He was Thomas Telford (1757-1834) who, like Metcalf, came from a very poor and humble home. He trained first as a mason and then developed a deep interest in all forms of transport. His first roads were built in Scotland in 1801. Fifteen years later, he had built 900 miles of good road including the construction of 120 bridges to span Scotland’s many fast-flowing rivers. Telford’s bridges are masterpieces, both in engineering and in art.

The road improvements made by Metcalf, McAdam and Telford were invaluable in the speeding up of traffic which became so essential to the efficiency of Britain’s new industrial society, but the crucial change in transport, before the birth of railways, was the opening up of a national system of water transport – the construction of artificial rivers.

This remarkable achievement came as a result of the combined efforts of an English aristocrat and a semi-literate genius from Derbyshire – the Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley.

Against two very different backgrounds, both these men had had to overcome family problems early in life. Brindley had once been accused of idleness when he was an apprentice, and had very nearly been sent home as a failure. Bridgewater’s family had thought their son a feeble-minded failure and even considered depriving him of his inheritance. Brindley soon proved his engineering ability and spent fifteen years in the repairing business and in experimenting with steam engines until he was called, in 1759, by Bridgewater to help plan a canal.

After failing to make his mark in London, Bridgewater had returned to his home in Worsley to make a success of his coalmining business. But with the staggering costs of transporting coal by horseback at nine shillings a ton, it seemed improbable that the Duke could make his business a highly profitable one.

It was to solve this problem that he asked Brindley to build a canal from his coalmines in Worsley to Manchester. From the start, Brindley was never less than confident that his ambitious plan would succeed. He found the biggest obstacle to cross was the valley of the River Irwell.

The Duke took it for granted that the canal would go down one side of the valley, and up the other in a series of locks, but Brindley had other ideas. He wanted to carry the canal over the river by means of a bridge.

Quite unable to commit his plans to paper, Brindley had only a very general plan for the construction of the canal. If a problem arose, he simply went to bed to think it over until he had solved it. And he always did manage to solve all the problems that stood in his way. The great aqueduct over the River Irwell was successfully built, and in 1761 the canal was filled with water. At once, Bridgewater’s coal transport costs were cut by half.

This was only the beginning of Brindley’s work. By the end of his career he had constructed over 365 miles of canals, and as other businessmen began to follow Bridgewater’s lead by investing in canals, a series of locks, tunnels and aqueducts soon linked together the industrial towns of Britain. And without these canals Britain’s revolution in industry would not have continued.

Most of the changes which had brought about this revolution had taken place by 1830 and yet one very important feature had hardly begun to develop by that date. This was the birth of the railways. Richard Trevithick had built the first engine to run on rails in 1804, but it was not until 1825 that the first public railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was opened to move coal from Durham.

It was only after the success of George Stephenson’s “Rocket” locomotive in 1829, that railways began to develop rapidly. The speed of railways and the vast amount of goods they could carry encouraged a mania for investment so that by 1850, no less than 6,084 miles of track had been opened. The railways had taken over the service which the canals had so successfully begun.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, then, Britain was leading the world in industry and commerce. But such rapid economic and technological advances were bound to bring radical changes to the whole structure of society, and these changes were to have the most appalling consequences for the majority of Britain’s population.

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