Back in Jane Austen’s day travel was so difficult and laborious over poorly constructed roads that the majority of the people who lived in that century traveled no farther than 14 miles from where they lived. Most walked, and even so they had to contend with muddy roads that were almost impassible after heavy rains or breathe in choking dust during times of drought. (In cities, dusty streets would be watered down by merchants early in the morning.)
Travel at night was dangerous. Without a widespread means of lighting roads or an organized police force, night travelers were at the mercy of highwaymen. In cities, link boys were paid a half pence to carry a light in front of pedestrians, or for those on horseback and in carriages.
Lanterns hung in front of city doors or were carried. In the country, torches hung from trees lining a lane that led up to a house. Balls and parties were planned during the full moon, although a rainy or cloudy night would spoil these well-laid plans.
The situation would not change until the Industrial Revolution brought about such life altering inventions as gas lights, macadam roads (whose hard surface facilitated smoother travel), the steamboat, and rail travel.
The following descriptions of poor road conditions from Old Country Life, a book published in 1892, describes a time just after Jane Austen’s death, but one that her longer lived siblings would have known. While people’s memories of distant events are often faulty, the emotions they felt tend to stay with them. Here then are some eye witness accounts retold many decades later:
What a time people took formerly in travelling over old roads! There is a house just two miles distant from mine, by the new unmapped road. Before 1837, when that road was made, it was reached in so circuitous a manner, and by such bad lanes, and across an unbridged river, that my grandfather and his family when they dined with our neighbours, two miles off, always spent the night at their house.
In 1762, a rich gentleman, who had lived in a house of business in Lisbon, and had made his fortune, returned to England, and resolved to revisit his paternal home in Norfolk. His wish was further stimulated by the circumstance that his sister and sole surviving relative dwelt beside one of the great broads, where he thought he might combine some shooting with the pleasure of renewing his friendships of childhood. From London to Norwich his way was tolerably smooth and prosperous, and by the aid of a mail coach he performed the journey in three days. But now commenced his difficulties. Between the capital and his sister’s dwelling lay twenty miles of country roads. He ordered a coach and six, and set forth on his fraternal quest. The six hired horses, although of strong Flanders breed, were soon engulfed in a black miry pool, his coach followed, and the merchant was dragged out of the window by two cowherds, and mounted on one of the wheelers; he was brought back to Norwich, and nothing could ever induce him to resume the search for his sister, and to revisit his ancestral home.
Roads were in such a poor condition that transportation over rivers and canals was preferred. If waterways were not nearby, pack horses and carrier wagons carried heavy and fragile items into areas were roads were near to impassible. Carrier wagons were sturdy wagons pulled by oxen and covered with canvas cloth.
Items had to be safely packed before they could be transported. Paper was expensive and cardboard boxes had yet to be invented. Goods were carried in cloth sacks, metal canisters, leather baskets, wood barrels, sturdy trunks, or wooden crates. Additional containers were made of cloth, woven straw, crockery, glass, and tin.
The safe preservation of foods in metal containers was finally realized in France in the early 1800s. In 1809, General Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could preserve food for his army. Nicholas Appert, a Parisian chef and confectioner, found that food sealed in tin containers and sterilized by boiling could be preserved for long periods. A year later (1810), Peter Durand of Britain received a patent for tinplate after devising the sealed cylindrical can. – A brief history of packaging
Fragile items like glass and china received extra protection and were wrapped in cloth or straw. Considering the poor road conditions, it is a wonder that any of these items survived their long journeys intact. View an image and explanation of a stage wagon in this link.
Below is a description of a carrier and his wagon. (click here to see examples):
It is a marvel to us how the old china and glass travelled in those days; but the packer was a man of infinite care and skill in the management of fragile wares.
Does the reader remember the time when all such goods were brought by carriers? How often they got broken if intrusted to the stage-coaches, how rarely if they came by the carrier. The carrier’s waggon was securely packed, and time was of no object to the driver, he went very slowly and very carefully over bad ground. – Old Country Life, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1892
As noted before, people often spent the night when they arrived as guests for dinner. Once a person made the journey to visit relatives, they tended to stay for weeks, even months. Elizabeth Bennet’s visit with Charlotte was of several weeks duration; Cassandra Austen frequently visited her brother Edward for weeks at a time, which is when Jane would write to her.
“It is of some importance,” said Sydney Smith, “at what period a man is born. A young man alive at this period hardly knows to what improvements of human life he has been introduced; and I would bring before his notice the changes that have taken place in England since I began to breathe the breath of life—a period of seventy years. I have been nine hours sailing from Dover to Calais before the invention of steam. It took me nine hours to go from Taunton to Bath before the invention of railroads. In going from Taunton to Bath I suffered between ten thousand and twelve thousand severe contusions before stone-breaking MacAdam was born. I paid fifteen pounds in a single year for repair of carriage springs on the pavement of London, and I now glide without noise or fracture on wooden pavement. I can walk without molestation from one end of London to another; or, if tired, get into a cheap and active cab, instead of those cottages on wheels which the hackney coaches were at the beginning of my life. I forgot to add, that as the basket of the stagecoaches in which luggage was then carried had no springs, your clothes were rubbed all to pieces; and that even in the best society, one-third of the gentlemen were always drunk. I am now ashamed that I was not formerly more discontented, and am utterly surprised that all these changes and inventions did not occur two centuries ago.” – Old Country Life, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1892, p. 216