2 May 2014

The Perils of 18th century Travel

Figure 1: Detail of a watercolour by Thomas Sandby, c. 1760

On October 7, 1774, William Pitt wrote to his tutor George Pretyman to let him know he arrived safely back at Hayes. As Pretyman later noted in 1827, it was the first letter Mr. Pitt ever sent him [1]. Pitt made his way from his college, Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, to travel home to Hayes Place. Unfortunately, as he related to Pretyman, the journey was not entirely pleasant:

"I arrived at this Place [Hayes] to dinner on Wednesday [5th October], tho' considerably later than I intended. I had not proceeded far from Hockerill before I discover'd that one of my Horses had mistaken his Business and was harness'd to the Chaise instead of his accustom'd Plow. In this Condition I was drag'd slowly to Epping [14 miles away from Hockerill]. From Thence to London I went rapidly enough, but when I arriv'd at the Inn I was directed to, I learnt that all the Horses were gone out canvassing for Elections; however with Difficulty some were procur'd, and after another half Hour's delay from Coaches and Carts in the City, I reach'd my Journey's End about Three o'Clock. You arriv'd, I hope, at Cambridge with less delay and fewer stupid Adventures, and did not increase your Cold by giving Me the Pleasure of your Company..." [2]

From Cambridge to Hayes, Kent is about 70 miles, but travelling even the smallest distance at that time could be fraught with difficulty. Some of the dangers included ill-maintained roads, the risk of robbery or worse by the ever-present highwaymen, and the breaking down of chaises or coaches along the way. Like mentions of health, sending a letter to friends and loved ones to let them know they arrived safely after a journey was a common topic in 18th century correspondence. 

Another experience of a risky sojourn is mentioned by Pitt in a letter he wrote to his friend Edward Eliot on August 4, 1783. He had been travelling from London to Brighthelmstone [now Brighton] for a holiday and encountered some trouble along the way: "...the Time on the Road, which included the Breaking of my Horses' Knees, and pretty nearly of my own Leg..." [3]. Again, the distance between London and Brighton is about 70 miles. Pitt spent a great deal of time on horseback, so it is a wonder that he escaped any serious injury on the road.


1. William Pitt to George Pretyman, October 7, 1774. Suffolk Record Office. Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 562/659.

2. Ibid.

3. William Pitt to Edward James Eliot, August 4, 1783. Suffolk Record Office. Pretyman MSS: HA 119: T108/39, f. 243.

Image Credit:

Figure 1: Detail of a watercolour by Thomas Sandby, c. 1760. Accessed via: http://media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/originals/27/cb/e7/27cbe79666b0a71041495793a9c474e7.jpg

1 comment:

  1. It's a surprise to find him writing to Pretyman in such a jokey way. You'd have to assume Pretyman had a corresponding sense of humour, but if so, it's a pity there's no trace of it in any of his own writings! (That I know of, anyway.)