Road and River Transport

Road and River Transport

Lambarde, it will be remembered, referred to the ease of communication between Kent and London. Nevertheless, the roads of Kent were notorious for their deficiencies, and were unfavourably commented upon by numerous travellers in the county. One of the earliest Acts of Parliament to deal with roads, passed in the year 1523, describes a road in Cranbrook Hundred as ‘right deep and noyous’, and Celia Fiennes says of a road near Tunbridge Wells that it was ‘but a sad deep unpassable road when much raine has fallen’. These statements can be quite easily reconciled with Lambarde’s; until Macadam and Telford at end of the 18th century showed how roads should be constructed with a proper foundation and with a hard surface, they were simply unsurfaced tracks. Whether they were good or bad depended almost entirely upon the nature of the soil, and upon the weather. So the roads on the Wealden clay were impass­ible for wheeled traffic during much of the winter, although they were toler­able during the summer and autumn, whereas the roads on chalk and gravel could be used thoroughout the year. Watling Street could thus be reckoned a good road throughout much of its length, running as it mainly does along the foot of the dip slope of the chalk of the North Downs.

Until only 150 years ago, the villages of the Weald were sometimes almost cut off from contact with the outside world for several months in the year. Most of the roads were originally drove-ways, for moving cattle to and from the upland manors to the Wealden pastures and feeding-grounds. In consequ­ence, most of the more important roads in the Weald still run roughly north and south. The ‘repair’ of the Wealden roads at the end of the 18th century is described by Hasted, who says that the highway from Tenterden to Ashford was scarcely passable after rain, the horses plunging into the mud up to the girth of the saddle, and the waggons sliding along on their hubs; he adds ‘the roads were of fifty to sixty feet wide with a breadth of green sward on each side; hedges filled with oak trees overhanging the road with stone causeways for foot passengers. When they became dry in the summer they were ploughed up and laid in a half circle to dry, the only amendment they ever bad’. Oxen with their cloven hooves, were better fitted than horses to the pulling of carts and carriages on roads like this, and it is not surprising that pack-horses, which could use the narrow stone causeway at the side of the road, were generally emploved to move merchandise in the Weald.

Conditions were made even worse by the dragging of timber from the Wealden forest down to the river at Yalding where it could be sent off to Chatham and London, and by the carrying of heavy loads of iron from the furnaces at Lamberhurst, Brenchley, Cowden and elsewhere. A statute of Queen Elizabeth’s reign required that any iron-master carrying charcoal, ore or iron for a mile on any highway between 12 October and 1 May should likewise carry a cartload of cinder, gravel, stone, sand or chalk for the repair of the road. It is unlikely that any great effort was made to enforce the Act, or that, in any case, this method of repair would have been effective.

The lack of any adequate system of maintaining the roads was the root of the trouble. The main bridges (except Rochester Bridge) were the responsibility of the county, the procedure being for the Justices of the Peace to arrange with a contractor for necessary repairs to be done and for a rate to be raised to meet the cost of the work. Maidstone, Farleigh, Yalding, Tonbridge, Lamberhurst and Wye bridges were amongst the seventeen or so maintained in this way (Wye Bridge still bears an inscription that it was built in 1638 at the charge of the county of Kent and repaired at the same charge in 1684). Rochester Bridge is exceptional, in that it has been maintained, for at least the last 600 years, out of the income from extensive estates owned by the Bridge Wardens. All the more important bridges were therefore effectively looked after.

The roads, on the other hand, were the responsibility not of the county but of each parish through which they ran—and Kent has over 400 parishes. Every parishioner was obliged to work on the roads for a certain number of days in each year, or to provide materials for mending them, or to lend a cart and horses. The work was supposed to be supervised by a Highway Surveyor, chosen each year from amongst the parishioners. The Surveyor did not stay on the job long enough to learn much about the technicalities of road-repairing, the unpaid labour was unwillingly given, and no parish was likely to bother about maintaining its roads at a higher standard than its own parochial needs demanded; if one of the roads which crossed the parish happened to be the main road from London to Rye or from Rochester to Canterbury, why should the unfortunate parishioners be expected to go out of their way to keep it up better, and at greater cost, than the rest of their roads?

The parochial system obviously would not serve for the main roads especially with the increase in traffic towards the end of the 17th and during the 18th century. This increase was due to the rising standard of living, to the increase of population, and to the growth of towns, especially London, which gave a stimulus to commerce. Under Cromwell, an attempt was made to appoint a ‘Minister of Roads’ and to institute a system of road maintenance for the whole country, but it was two or three hundred years before its time, and it failed. The device which Parliament hit upon, towards the end of the 17th century, was to empower a body of men to undertake the maintenance of a length of road, and to charge a toll for its use—the turnpike system. The first two Kentish Turnpike Acts were passed in 1709 amd 1711, one for ‘repairing and amending the highways leading from Seven Oaks to Woods Gate [Pembury], and Tunbridge Wells’, and the other for ‘Amending and Maintaining the Road between North-fleet, Gravesend and Rochester’. Both of these roads were extensively used, the Gravesend to Rochester road by travellers who came by the long ferry from London to Gravesend as the first stage of their journey, and the Sevenoaks to Tunbridge Wells road because it was part of the main road from London to Hastings and Rye, and also because of the traffic going to the ‘Wells’, which by the end of the 17th century had become a highly fashionable resort. Another reason for taking this road in hand was that between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge it ran across the Wealden clay, and was undoubtedly ‘a sad deep unpassable road’ after heavy rain.

By the middle of the 18th century many other stretches of road had been tumpiked, including those from Rochester to Canterbury, from Rochester to Maidstone, from Canterbury to Whitstable, from Dartford to Northfleet, from Pembury to Flimwell, from Farnborough to Sevenoaks, from Footscray to Wrotham Heath and from Maidstone to Cranbrook. Many of these are quite short stretches of road; there was no idea of treating, for example, the London to Canterbury, the London to Hastings or the London to Folkestone road as a whole, and tumpiking it from end to end. The turnpike trustees were usually local gentlemen who put up the money for their local roads mainly from a sense of public duty; few of them expected to get a good return on their money, and sometimes they were lucky, to get any at all. The turnpike trusts performed a public service, often clumsily, sometimes inefficiently, occasionally corruptly, no doubt, at a time when there was no public authority able to undertake the proper upkeep of the roads.

Map showing the development of the Turnpike system in Kent
Map showing the development of the Turnpike system in Kent

By the year 1800 almost all the principal roads in Kent had been turnpiked although those from Canterbury to Sandwich and Deal, and from Sandwich to Dover were not dealt with until just after the turn of the century, and a few others were later still; the Gravesend to Wrotham road was turnpiked under an Act passed as late as 1825. Even so some of the cross turnpike roads in the Weald were still ‘as bad as can be imagined; being even impassable for coaches or chaises very frequently in winter’. Apart from the fundamental difficulty that these roads ran over clay, the tolls collected were insufficient to enable the trustees to purchase, and bring from a considerable distance, the stone and other materials required for the constant repairs. The tumpiking of a road did not relieve the parishioners of their duty to give a certain number of days maintenance work each year, but in the Weald it was materials rather than labour that presented the difficulty.

In a century, the roads of Kent had undergone a reformation. However, it was not until the 1820s and 1830s that Macadam’s ideas about roadmaking became generally accepted and that roads were constructed with a hard, rolled, stone surface (not of course, tar macadamised at that time), although almost to the end of the 19th century a few of the by-ways were still ‘soft’ unmetalled roads, that lay inches deep in dust during the summer, and even deeper in mud during the winter. In many parts of the county there was a sudden improvement in the condition of the roads during the years immediately following the Napoleonic war. A large number of men were unemployed, and the Overseers of the Poor turned them to work on the roads. It was even said that you could judge the proportion of unemployed in a parish by the condition of its roads.

The farmers of Kent were by no means pleased to see road improvements being carried out in other parts of the country. They feared, and rightly, that an efficient highway system would give the more distant counties access to the London markets, and that the near-monopoly of the Home Counties would be broken down. According to Adam Smith it was this fear of competition that caused Kent and other neighbouring counties actually to petition Parliament against the extension of turnpike roads to the remoter counties. This attempt at protectionism came to nothing, but it shows that the farmers of Kent had a clear understanding of the commercial importance of the new turnpike roads.

Water-borne transport played an extensive part in the commerce of the 18th century, the great era of canal construction. Canals are most numerous in the Midlands, and South Lancashire and Yorkshire, the districts which were becoming rapidly industrialised. Only one canal was built in Kent (apart from the Royal Military Canal, which was part of the Napoleonic war defences), linking the Thames at Gravesend with the Medway at Rochester. Its construction was expensive, because it involved building a two-mile-long tunnel between Higham and Strood, through the spur of chalk that runs out into the Hundred of Hoo. The distance from Gravesend to Strood is seven miles, and as the alternative route round by the Nore is about fifty miles, the canal might have been expected to prove a paying proposition. In fact, it did not. The canal, although it was begun in the early 1800s, was not opened until 1824. It was soon seen to be a failure, and twenty years later was bought by the Railway Company who ran their line from Gravesend to Strood through the tunnel. Although it has nothing to do with canals, we might mention here another unsuccessful venture, to construct a road tunnel under the Thames from Graves­end to Tilbury. It was originally estimated to cost £12,853 8s. Work was begun in 1800, and when it came to an end three years later all that had been achieved was a shaft at Gravesend, 85 ft. deep and full of water, which had cost £15,242 lOs. 41/2d. The 19th century was full of examples of enthusiasm outstripping engineering skill and financial prudence.

One of the engineers who was consulted, late in the day and inconclusively, about the Gravesend tunnel project was John Rennie, the celebrated builder of London, Waterloo and Southwark Bridges and of the London Docks. At about the same time he was preparing a scheme for a canal in the Weald to link the Medway with the Rother, with branches running to Lamberhurst, to Hever, and to Wye. Such a scheme was too ambitious to gain support, but in 1812 an Act of Parliament was passed for constructing a canal from the Medway, at Brandbridges, to join the Royal Military Canal at Appledore. However, in this case financial discretion prevailed, and the project was never attempted.

But although the canal schemes failed, Kent was certainly not without water-transport. Dartford and Gravesend on the Thames, Milton Regis and Faversham on the Swale, and Rochester and Maidstone on the Medway, all did a considerable amount of trade, especially with London. Smaller places on the Medway, like Snodland, New Hytbe, Mill Hall, Aylesford and Yalding also had their wharfs where barges could be loaded and unloaded, and some boats even got as far up as Tonbridge. The Stour was navigable by barges as far as Fordwich, and from there to Canterbury the road was good. For coastwise shipping there was Ramsgate Harbour, completed in the 1760s, Sandwich Haven, navigable by small ships, Dover Harbour, reconstructed about 1750, and Folkestone Harbour, built about 1810. With these coastal harbours, the county was fairly well served for water-borne transport.

The busiest riverside town was undoubtedly Gravesend. it was closely con­nected with the East India trade, and it was the usual practice for ships to take on board their final provisions there, before starting on a long voyage. With the construction of the London Docks between 1802 and 1828, this part of the town’s trade fell away. The ‘long ferry’ traffic, however, continued undimin­ished up to the middle of the century. In 1816 there were 26 sailing boats, of from 22 to 45 tons, plying daily between Gravesend and London.

The first steam-boat ran in 1815, but it was constantly breaking down—the longest period of continuous service that it ever gave was three weeks; the next year it was sold for use on the Seine, where one can only hope, for the reputation of the country of its manufacture, that it proved less temperamental. However, other and more reliable steam-boats became available, and the traffic steadily increased. By 1833, 290,000 passengers were being carried annually, and ten years later the number of passengers embarking or landing at Gravesend ex­ceeded 1,000,000 a year, a volume of traffic that must have taxed the two piers to their capacity. Forty-four omnibuses met the boats, running regularly to Rochester, Chatham, Maidstone, and elsewhere. But the coming of the railway in the middle of the century saw the end of Gravesend’s busyness.