Friday, 17 October 2008

Keepe Deathe off the Roades

The University of the West of England has carried out a comparative study of deaths on the UK's roads across the centuries. Coroners' records from Sussex covering the years 1485 to 1688 reveal that thirty percent of deaths as a result of injury were attributable to road travel. This compares with World Health Organisation figures for the year 2000, where the percentage was closer to twenty five.

In Tudor times, it seems that being knocked down by galloping horses, crushed by runaway carts or falling off the back of farm wagons was something of an occupational hazard for travellers. Roads weren't brilliant (dusty in summer, thick with mud in winter) and no-one took responsibility for their maintenance. In fact, it wasn't unusual for the peasantry to dig up bits of a nearby road to repair their houses. There are recorded instances of people falling into such holes and either breaking their necks, or drowning. Equally, horses could blunder into these "pot holes", throwing and killing their riders. There was also danger from overhanging tree branches, the carcases of butchered animals simply dumped in the road and, of course, murderous footpads, outlaws or sturdy beggars, ever-ready to bump off the unsuspecting traveller for a few coins and leave his bleeding body for the wolves to devour (well, up until 1486 anyway, when the last English wolf is said to have been killed).

What would it have been like if strict traffic regulations were in force in the days of Good Queen Bess? Would we, perhaps, be privy to the following originall notes of some zealous constable?

Constable Thuck doth reporte that, on the Sabbath past, one John Thatcher, carter of Easte-Chepe, was seene to drive his carte in a wantoun and furiouse manner in the streete called Fleete-Bridge Streete, to the common daunger of the inhabitants or passengers. The same constable doth reporte that the saide Jon did at the first faile to stoppe when soe required by the constable, and furthermore dyd calle the sayd constable Whore-Monger, Blinde-Sinke and Crinkum-Crankum and dyd aske, hast thou nought better to doe with thy office when London is fulle of bellie-dauncers, doxies, punchable nunnes and priggers of prancers. And the sayd John dyd then offer to strike the saide constable with a bille-hooke valued at fourpence. And John Thatcher is even now lying at the common Bridewell untill his matter doth come to triall, whereby he shall have leisure to contemplate the fate that doth awaite him. Constable Thuck hath an engraving, marvelously delineated by himself, of the sayde John Thatcher falyling to observe his signall for to stoppe, the near-bye Gadzooks Camera Obscura being for that tyme utterly broken-downe.

I know what you're thinking. I should get out more.


Stevyn Colgan said...

I just love the idea of the Gadzooks Camera Obscura! How long would the perpetrator need to stand still in order to register on the photographic paper?

There is a famous photograph by Daguerre of a busy, crowded Parisien street called Boulevard du Temple ... with just three people in shot. Because the exposure took so long, none of the hundreds of moving people were captured. The only person who appears clearly is a chap having his shoes shined. My brother has the photo on his blog here.

chris hale said...

I've just looked at the photograph. I find these old images fascinating; in many cases the exposure was so long that the details are pin-sharp, in fact far sharper than our digital images.

The oddest long-exposure daguerrotypes can also show passers-by as a blur, as if they were so many ghosts.

Janet said...

The hazards of travel in the past really came home to us recently. Our local parish church - 1500s, I think - has a beautiful stained-glass window with a very old etched stone next to it in the wall. The etching says that the window was donated by the family of a young man who was killed many centuries ago when his horse-drawn cart turned over on the hill coming into our village from the north. Driving in and out of our village can be a little dicey in foggy weather, because we're up on a hill - and there are some blind spots coming in and out of the village from either the north or the south. But dying in an accident because your cart overturned is something I hadn't imagined until I read about it in church.

The road and hill have taken on a different meaning to me now.


chris hale said...

That's an interesting story, Janet. We tend to think of the previous generations as "faceless" - all those millions who left no trace - but they suddenly become as real as us by virtue of a memorial window or plaque.

Farm wagons and carts were built of oak, elm and ash and were incredibly heavy. With nothing more than a forged iron "shoe" attached to a chain and placed under the back wheels to slow their descent downhill, they frequently ran away and caused some horrific crashes. The victims certainly needed more than vinegar and brown paper to aid their recovery!