Getting around in the 1880s

by Antoine Vanner, my Tuesday Talk Guest


I was in London last week and walked along the Strand. For those who don’t know London, it’s one of the major thoroughfares that links Whitehall – which from medieval times has the centre of royal and political power – to the City of London, which was, and still is, the centre of banking and commerce. It starts at the west at Trafalgar Square and leads on through a straight succession of variously-named streets, past beautiful Wren-designed churches, to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I know the Strand well since my secretary’s first-floor office looked on to it when I worked in London in the mid-1980s. It was busy then, but traffic flowed easily.

Last week however, just before midday, all traffic along the Strand was at a standstill – as it so often is nowadays. Walking from Lancaster Place to Trafalgar Square, a distance of 700 yards, I passed at one point nineteen red double-decker ‘busses nose to tail, without a single other vehicle between them. They were virtually stationary, edging forward intermittently one length at a time. A traffic light half-way, at the entrance to the Savoy Hotel, allowed one ‘bus past each time the light turned green. Not only was I faster on foot – so too could have been a toddler barely able to walk. The Strand is an extreme case, but many other London streets are little better. I’ve been in some 55 countries worldwide, and only in Lagos, Nigeria, have I seen a transport system loaded to, and beyond, breaking point in a way that’s comparable to London.

What struck me most as I walked was the contrast between the present gridlock and the greater ease with which one could move about in some cases, but not all, in the 1880s. This is the period in which my latest novel, Britannia’s Amazon, is set and its heroine needs to undertake extensive travel not only around Southern England, but within London itself. A concern for me during the writing was building in realistic durations for this.

Piccadilly Circus, London 1896
The first point to note was that travel between urban centres was rapid and efficient in the 1880s. The railway network was in place and improved steam-locomotive design ensured speeds of travel comparable with that of today – and in some cases perhaps better. The vast number of branch lines – which would be scrapped in the 1960s – connected even very small towns into the system. Outside major towns, where cab services were available if one could pay for them, the problem arose of getting to and from the station. For the affluent middle classes, a privately-owned light vehicle and a horse to pull it, was a cumbersome and expensive solution. If care of the animal was not to absorb a major portion of the owner’s time, and if it was to be available at short notice, then it was essential to employ a groom to look after it and to have it ready when needed. Accustomed as we now are to going out to our cars, turning the key and driving off, it is hard to imagine just how much time was taken up by harnessing and unharnessing horses. When I was a boy in the 1950s my grandmother had her own pony, Charley, and a trap – a splendid two-wheeled vehicle. Going with her to a town ten miles away was a splendid treat for me but catching Charley and getting him harnessed was a lengthy business. Once in town – where my grandmother would spend the day – Charley would be unharnessed and lodged at livery stables (all a bit like in a Western movie!). Getting home again involved the same processes in reverse. The actual travel time was probably 50% of the total duration of the journey. [Helen: and that is not factoring in the possibility that Charley - or any pony - might not want to be caught from a leisurely afternoon grazing in the field. Ponies are notorious little so-and-sos for not wanting to be caught!]

A cab stand – misery for man and horse alike
Vast numbers of horses (and donkeys) lived in major towns and cities in the late nineteenth century and, apart from cab-drivers, large numbers of people were employed to care for them. Grooms were well-paid and valued employees (Sherlock Holmes an expert at disguising himself as one when he wanted to gather information). Working conditions for both cab drivers and for their animals were grim however, especially in winter – a situation so heart-breakingly described in that most poignant of Victorian classics, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Yet lower down the scale the homeless and unemployed picked up meagre tips by holding horses’ heads while the owner had gone in somewhere on business. (The poet Francis Thompson was reduced to this extremity). Other wretches often ran after cabs to as to earn a pittance by offloading baggage at their destinations.

Typical trap (at the service of Holmes and Watson)
Horse-drawn trams and ‘busses had made their appearance by the 1880s, offering a cheaper alternative to cabs. As in so much to do with Victorian Britain class awareness played a role – affluent boroughs grudgingly tolerated ‘busses passing through but not trams. The latter demanded laying of track, which could not be easily removed, whereas ‘bus routes could be stopped with immediate effect should the transportation system bring “undesirable people” – typically the poor on their way to and from work – through the area. Motor and electrically-powered ‘busses and trams were still some two decades away in the 1880s and the vast numbers of animals used for traction created a massive problem of droppings on the streets – hence the occupation of the crossing-sweeper who would clear a path for ladies in long dresses. Some futurologists of the period theorised that the limiting factor in further urban growth would be ability to cope with this very unpleasant problem.

Horse tram, 1880s
By the 1880s London possessed an added advantage – a growing underground railway network. By the middle of the decade most of the main railway terminuses had been linked. Its drawback – especially for ladies – was that it was still steam-locomotive hauled. The atmosphere in the tunnels and stations was generally stifling, smuts and sparks were common, and even a short journey could result in hair retaining the smell of smoke. Ladies who could afford it avoided the underground and trusted themselves to cabs instead. Today, if one can at all manage it, it is also better to stay out of this system, but for other reasons. The degree of overcrowding is now comparable to that for which Tokyo alone was once notorious and is often bad not only at rush-hour but at most times of the day.

London Underground 1880s – note the steam engine
One is struck, when looking at old photographs, by just how uncongested streets in large cities were in the Late Victorian era. This is not however surprising in the case of Greater London when one learns that the population was 4.7 million in 1881 compared with 8.17 million in 2011.

And the price of this growth has been a return to speed of movement that is little better – and maybe worse – than in the late Victorian era.


Have we indeed progressed?

Discovering Diamonds Review click here 

Antoine's Brief Bio: 
"My Dawlish Chronicles novels are set in the late 19th Century and reflect my deep interest in the politics, attitudes and technology of the period. I've been lucky to have had an adventurous life in every continent except Antarctica and this had fed my interest. History is a driving passion for me and a major concern in my writing is to make my characters people of their time rather than 21st Century people in re-enactor costume. This is especially true of my latest novel, Britannia's Amazon, in which the constraints that Late Victorian society laid on intelligent women is a major theme." 

Links to website & blog are:  www.dawlishchronicles.com and http://dawlishchronicles.blogspot.co.uk/


Link for Britannia's Amazon is: http://amzn.to/2k4JI7a

17 comments:

  1. While we so often bemoan "if only we could get things back the way they were then," it is good to be reminded that so often "you can't go home again."
    Thanks for a great description, Antoine, of bustling London, then and now.
    I am certain you'll nail it all perfectly in your upcoming "Britannia's Amazon."

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    1. I agree fully Inge - my grandparents ran their farm with horses and donkeys only, and no electricity. Cooking and baking was done over a fire. Nothing romantic about it!

      And as regards Victorian London - there was as much (or even more) wrong with society then, as now, as regards exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Britannia's Amazon hinges on two of the worst scandals of teh 1880s. I hope you'll like the novel.

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  2. As a horse person its occasionally bad enough walking up the lane avoiding various 'piles' - OK good for the roses but not the boots. And our muck heap is enormous, even with only 5 horses and a donkey!

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    1. This hits home Helen - my wife has two of the critters! But five and a donkey!

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    2. well, strictly speaking, two horses, three Exmoor ponies & the Wonkey Donk (plus geese, hens, ducks, dogs, cats...)

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  3. Great post Antoine. Victorian times were brutal for most but just think or the roses 🌹. They must have been magnificent.

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    1. we have horses Graham - and yes the roses are!

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    2. There had to be some upside!

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  4. And of course we had a city full of birds because of all the insects the diesel killed off - and we won't be far behind. Barely a sparrow left where there were 100s about you...Jeffrey Manton

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    1. Jeffrey, I hadn't even thought of that aspect! You are so right! We had a lovely colony of sparrows where I used to live in Walthamstow. I phoned RSPB to ask advice about assisting these lovely little birds to survive - I couldn't believe it when they weren't interested! Still, loads of sparrows here in Devon: house sparrows, tree sparrows, hedge sparrows Jack Sparrow in my study.... *laugh*

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  5. Antoine, your description of 21st century London chimes perfectly with my own experiences of visiting the Capital. I have sat in the back of a stationary cab watching the meter tick, tick, tick and have concluded that it is indeed often quicker to walk in London! Re previous eras, I remember reading how in the early 20th century, ladies would alight from a horse drawn carriage and rush into Selfridges straight to the perfume counter on the ground floor just to get the smell of horse manure out of their nostrils. Does it work for diesel fumes?

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    1. I think it would work even more for diesel - but then I'm well used to the pong of horse poo!

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    2. I've known and loved London for well over 50 years but I never thought that it would deteriorate so badly as regards atmosphere (in both senses of the word). The sight of so many rough-sleepers, many of them little more than children, would take tears from a stone. 50 years ago the average street person was some poor old man addicted to drinking methelyated spirits - and today it may be a young man or woman hooked on drugs. I find the glaring differences between insane wealth, conspicuous consumption and abject poverty - often on the same street - as offensive in London today as I do in cities such as Lagos.

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  6. The 1880s were a dream compared to the 1860s. The whole of London was like one ginormous building site, as the Thames Embankment, the railways and underground lines were being built. Plus in them days, there was no left/right rules..you just headed your horse for a space and devil take the hindmost! The 'locks' at Regent Circus were notorious!!

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    1. Carol, I have no liking for the Victorian era - absolutely no idea why, except perhaps I have some sort of DNA memory for the London streets and horrendous upheaval you mention! Enough to put anyone off for several generations I'd say!

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    2. Haha...on the other hand, I LOVE them! But I'm ambivalent about the Regency period..so there you are!!

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    3. I don't like the Tudor period either - but Post-Roman, 1066 era and the early 1700s - entirely different matter!

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