Friday, November 4, 2016

More Dirt and Foulness in 17th Century London by Katherine Pym

Later model of Coach with Seat-Box higher & safer

Riding in a coach sounds romantic. I certainly would like to climb into a 17th century ‘chariot’ as Pepys says on occasion. It would be cool. 

I’ve read a few historical fiction novels where the hero seduces the heroine in a carriage as it rolls down a neat cobblestone lane, the coach lanterns slightly swaying. The visual is pretty. It is clean. Flowers scent the air. Unfortunately, some things in these novels aren’t quite correct. 

Most of the middling sort of society did not own horses and until the latter half of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, my sources say there were no coaches (carts, yes). Everyday folk  foot-slogged wherever they wanted to go. When they finally came onto the scene, you had to be rich to own one

Coaches of the late 16th & early 17th centuries were not like what we see in movies and television. They were heavy, cumbersome boxes attached to solid frames with wheels. They made for a teeth rattling trip.  

Sometimes leather flaps covered the windows. When doors were attached, they were generally ill-fitted. Cold, rain and dirt found their way inside. Travel was uncomfortable and unwieldy. Eventually, the heavy coach was suspended by great leather straps but the swaying this produced caused terrible motion sickness.  

17th century Coachman
During most of the 17th century, the coach had no box-seat. The coachman was forced to sit or stand on a low platform attached to the coach pole. If he sat, there was no place to rest his feet. This put his head very close to the horses’ hooves where a coachman could easily be kicked or splattered with mud and waste. The coachman’s foot could snag a root or an object and be pulled under the chassis, breaking a leg.

If you think of a coachman and postilions in plush livery with lace and shiny boots as they jaunt down a country lane, don’t. They would be mud splattered, the lace, their faces, hats and clothes fouled by the time they reached their destination.

The old Roman roads were in disrepair. Other highways were mud tracks or scratched paths. In springtime, farmers plowed across roads then people, carts and horses brazenly trod over this, crushing seed and new growth. Wheel ruts were deep. Great holes pockmarked thoroughfares that could break a horse’s leg, do irreparable damage to a cart or coach. 
Coach with low, unsafe seat-box

The actual city of London resided within its walls, an area of approximately one square mile. Everything beyond was considered the Liberties or suburbs. City lanes were narrow. As years went by coaches were built taller, wider. (Seat boxes were placed higher, equipped with foot rests.)Their sides and roofs scraped along cantilever houses, destroyed the edges of jutting eaves, knocked off butchers’ displays of hanging meats, pushed over vegetable stands. In London, iron clad wheels were outlawed due to the ear splitting noise and road destruction, but for the most part, this law was ignored.

By 1636, it is suggested upwards to 6,000 coaches rumbled up and down the lanes of London, (which seems excessively over the mark). Gridlock! Another source stated 300-700, which is still pretty darn crowded.  

Coaches fought with pedestrians, merchants with loaded carts, sedan chairs and men and women on horses. They rolled down lanes that were a combination of pavers, cobblestones and dirt, piles of muck and filthy mud running down center kennels. [Men were allowed to urinate on fires and empty their bladders in the street.] Cattle and sheep were herded through town. There were no fenders on the coach wheels. This allowed mud and other foul substances to wash onto the coachman and passengers.

Waterman plying his trade on the Thames
Another mode of dirty travel:
Watermen plied their boats for hire up and down the River Thames. They had a strong guild. They were tough and ornery. You never wanted to cross a wherriman. When they were pressed into service during the 2nd Anglo/Dutch war, soldiers were sent to keep them subdued. Considering the crush of coaches in London, taking a wherry where you wanted to go probably proved to be much faster.

But there were issues. The Thames is a tidal river. When the tide was out, oftentimes you had to walk to the boat on planks of wood spread over mud that held centuries of filth.  London Bridge on the Southwark side of the river held heads of beheaded traitors on pikes. Once the flesh was eaten away, the caretaker would fling the skulls off the Bridge where they sank into river mud.  

The river was used for suicides. Men and women jumped off the Bridge to land willy-nilly on anything flowing beneath. Bodies would bloat up and float for days before the city scavengers could retrieve them. Dogs and rats had a tendency to find their way there, too, where they’d be left to rot.  

The Thames was also a dumping ground, from the Fleet River that was a sewer to anyone who wanted to get rid of something. Your wherriman guided the boat through this sludge to your destination.

Then there was the sedan chair.
Like a fly or a gnat, these little guys buzzed underfoot and added to the congestion. Cramped and closed in, it was a cleaner way to travel once you got into the chair.

Attached by two hefty poles, men at each end of the chair carried you to where you wanted to go. They were the ones who got dirty during the journey, not you, unless somehow a man tripped and the whole chair fell to the ground. I don’t want to go into all the hazards this would cause especially if it had been raining. 

Sedan Chair carried by mules. Nifty way to go.
So, no matter what you did in the 17th century, where you went in London, prepare to get dirty. If you go back in time, go with an open mind.

You’ll find yourself in a rollicking loud place, filled with all sorts of people. Your mind will stagger from the myriad of visuals and powerful scents. Just hope you can safely return to the present where you can take a bath in warm, clean water.


Many thanks to:
Wikicommons, public domain for sedan chairs
Other pictures taken from the book Travel in England, 1925

Travel in England in the 17th century by Joan Parkes, Oxford University Press, London 1925

Old and New London: Westminster and the western suburbs By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford, Vol IV, London 1891