Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 8 - Visits and Travelling

Jane Austen's life was very largely passed among her own relations, her visits away from home were nearly always to the houses of her brothers. In the August of 1796 she went to stay with her brother Edward, at Rowling, a little place in Kent, near Goodnestone. Edward had been married for some time to Elizabeth Bridges, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone. He had, as has been already stated, been adopted by his relative, Mr. Knight of Godmersham in Kent and Chawton in Hampshire, and had taken his name. This Mr. Knight had died two years previously, and left Edward his heir, subject to the widow's life-interest, but Mrs. Knight herself loved Edward like a son and retired from Godmersham in his favour. At this date, however, the family had not yet moved there, but continued to live at Rowling. Of the pleasant country life at Rowling we get several graphic touches. "We were at a ball on Saturday, I assure you. We dined at Goodnestone, and in the evening danced two country dances and the Boulangeries. I opened the ball with Edward Bridges; the other couples were Lewis Cage and Harriet, Frank and Louisa, Fanny and George. Elizabeth played one country dance, Lady Bridges the other, which she made Henry dance with her, and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries."

The Boulangeries seems to have been an innovation adopted from France, and occasionally formed the last figure of a quadrille, which had many variations, "either with a 'Chassecroise,' or with 'la boulang├ętre,' 'la corbeille,' 'le Moulinet,' or 'la ste Simonienne.'"

Of the couples mentioned above, Lewis Cage had married Fanny Bridges; Harriet and Louisa were two young unmarried sisters; Frank and Henry, Jane's brothers. Henry Austen seems to have been of a very unsettled disposition; in Jane's first letter she says, "Henry is still hankering after the Regulars, and as his project of purchasing the adjutancy of the Oxfordshire is now over, he has got a scheme in his head about getting a lieutenancy and adjutancy in the 86th., a new raised regiment, which he fancies will be ordered to the Cape of Good Hope."

Later on Henry became Receiver-General for Oxfordshire, afterwards he was partner in a bank, and when the bank broke in 1816, he took Orders, and on the death of his brother James he held the living of Steventon for a short time until one of his brother Edward's younger boys was ready for it.

After the impromptu evening's entertainment at Goodnestone the party walked home under the shade of two umbrellas. Another day they dined at Nackington, returning by moonlight in two carriages.

Visits were of long duration in days when getting about was so costly and difficult a process; Jane stayed on with her brother until October, and in September she records: "Edward and Fly went out yesterday very early in a couple of shooting jackets, and came home like a couple of bad shots, for they killed nothing at all. They are out again to-day, and are not yet returned. Delightful sport! They are just come home, Edward with his two brace, Frank with his two and a half. What amiable young men!" She also records: "We are very busy making Edward's shirts and I am proud to say I am the neatest worker of the party" and again, "Little Edward [her brother's eldest boy] was breeched yesterday for good and all, and was whipped into the bargain."

This is very small beer, but it suffices to give a sketch of the pleasant family life, where half the neighbours were related to each other and on cordial terms, where entertainments were simple and spontaneous, though it was an age that we are accustomed to regard as one of the most formal in social history.

Jane alludes to her difficulties of tipping. "I am in great distress. I cannot determine whether I shall give Richis half a guinea or only five shillings when I go away. Counsel me, most amiable Miss Austen, and tell me which will be the most."

We are accustomed to consider our own age as lying under the thraldom of tips, as none ever did before, but it is nothing to what the end of the eighteenth century was in this respect. When people went to dinner they were expected to tip the servants, who sometimes stood in long rows in the hall waiting the customary douceur.

As for hotels, they were worse than to-day, for it must be remembered money was of greater relative value. In a letter from a "Constant Reader" to The Times in October 1795, the vexed subject of tips is discussed--

"If a man who has a horse, puts up at an inn, besides the usual bill, he must at least give 1s, to the waiter, 6d. to the chambermaid, 6d. to the ostler, and 6d. to the jack-boot, making together 2s. 6d. At breakfast you must give at least 6d. between the waiter and Hostler. If the traveller only puts up to have a refreshment, besides paying for his horses standing he must give 3d. to the hostler, at dinner 6d. to the waiter and 3d. to the hostler; at tea 6d. between them, so that he gives away in the day 2s. 6d., which, added to the 2s. 6d. for the night, makes 5s. per day on an average to servants."

A Summer Evening

From "A Summer Evening"

Jane did not expect to be able to return to Steventon until about the middle of October, but it was necessary to lay plans long before so as to arrange if possible for the escort of one of her brothers, as it was not thought at all the proper thing for a young lady to go by herself on a journey, and considering the changes at inn-yards and many stoppages, this is not to be wondered at. Just at this time Frank Austen received a naval appointment, and had to be up in town the next day, September 21, so Jane seized the opportunity to go with him. "As to the mode of our travelling to town, I want to go in a stage coach, but rank will not let me." This means of course that they would have to travel post, a much more expensive performance. The whole subject of travelling is one of the things that bring more vividly before us than any other the difference of the then and the now.

In 1755 an Act was passed compelling districts all over the country to make turnpike roads and charge toll accordingly; before this date the state of the roads had been too terrible for description, and even after it road-making progressed but slowly, for it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that Macadam's improvements were adopted.

Up to 1755 roads had been made certainly after a fashion, and many Acts had been passed with the object of improving them, but these had not had much effect. Even the great Act of 1755 seemed to be of little practical efficacy, for between 1760 and 1764 inclusive, upwards of four hundred and fifty Acts of Parliament were passed in order to effect the formation of new, and the repair and alteration of old, highways throughout the country, so Parliament certainly cannot be accused of regarding the matter with indifference. Many are the complaints of travellers. Arthur Young in his well-known Tour mentions the roads frequently: "Much more to be condemned is the execrable muddy road from Bury to Sudbury in Suffolk, in which I was forced to move as slow as in any unmended lane in Wales. For ponds of liquid dirt and a scattering of loose flints just sufficient to lame every horse that moves near them, with the addition of cutting vile grips across the road, under pretence of letting water off, but without the effect, altogether render at least twelve of these sixteen miles as infamous a turnpike as ever was travelled. Their method of mending the last mentioned road I found excessively absurd, for in parts of it the sides are higher than the middle, and the gravel they bring in is nothing more but a yellow loam with a few stones in it, through which the wheels of a light chaise cut as easily as in sand, with the addition of such floods of watery mud as renders the road, on the whole, inferior to nothing but an unmended Welsh lane. From Chepstow to the half way house between Newport and Cardiff they continue mere rocky lanes, full of hugeous stones as big as one's horse, and abominable holes."

Though the stones as "big as one's horse" must be allowed for as the pardonable exaggeration of a traveller's tale, it is true that the method of road mending previous to Macadam was nothing more than setting down enormous stones to be crushed in by passing wheels, but as they were not set close, the wheels went bumping into the mud between, and the force of the jolt instead of setting the stones pushed them out of position ever worse and worse. "Where they are mending, as they call it, you travel over a bed of loose stones none of less size than an octave volume, and where not mended 'tis like a staircase."

As for the means of conveyance over these vile highways, before the making of turnpike-roads waggons had been the usual method, and flying coaches, as they were at first called, were considered a great improvement; however, coach fares were high, and even after the introduction of coaches many people who were unable to afford them still travelled by the slow-going waggon.

This mode of proceeding must have been inexpressibly wearisome; here is an account of a journey made by such means from London to Greenwich--

"We were twenty-four passengers within side and nine without. It was my lot to sit in the middle with a very lusty woman on one side, and a very thin man on the other. 'Open the window,' said the former and she had a child on her lap whose hands were all besmeared with gingerbread. 'It can't be opened,' said a little prim coxcomb, 'or I shall get cold.' 'But I say it shall, sir,' said a butcher who sat opposite to him, and the butcher opened it; but as he stood, or rather bent forward to do this, the caravan came into a rut and the butcher's head, by the suddenness of the jolt, came into contact with that of the woman who sat next to me, and made her nose bleed. He begged her pardon and she gave him a slap on the face that sounded through the whole caravan. Two sailors that were seated near the helm of this machine, ordered the driver to cast anchor at the next public house. He did so and the woman next to me called for a pint of ale which she offered to me, after she had emptied about a pint of it, observing, 'that as how she loved ale mightily.' I could not drink, at which she took offence. . . . A violent dispute now arose between two stout-looking men, the one a recruiting sergeant, the other a gentleman's coachman, about the Rights of Man. . . . Another dispute afterwards was about politics, which was carried on with such warmth as to draw the attention of the company to the head of the caravan, where the combatants sat wedged together like two pounds of Epping butter, whilst a child incessantly roared at the opposite side, and the mother abused the two politicians for frightening her babe. The heat was now so great that all the windows were opened, and with the fresh air entered clouds of dust, for the body of the machine is but a few inches from the surface of the road."
If one can imagine this kind of thing continuing for hour after hour, while one's bones ached with the cramp, and one was stupefied with the noise and smell, one gains some idea of the delights of waggon travelling.

We find an account of the roads actually in Hampshire, Jane Austen's own county, in the correspondence of Lady Newdigate (The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor). In giving an account of going from Arbury (Warwick) to Stanstead near Portsmouth in 1795, she says:"The sisters were decidedly for going through Reading and Farnham, but Mr. Cotton, from consultation of maps and conversation with postillions, believed it would be full as good and pleasant and a much shorter road to go by Uasingstoke and Alton. In the first of these places we found it 18 miles instead of 15, and were informed that instead of ten miles good turnpike to Alton there was not above three miles made, and the rest so cut as to be impassable for such a carriage as mine; in short that we had twelve miles across country road the consequence was that we had eight miles bad road out of 16, and was an hour in the dark. But the poneys performed wonders."

Lady Newdigate also gives the cost of this journey, which is interesting:"We paid 14d. per mile great part of the way for the chaisehorses, and 6d. all the way for the saddle horse; the whole, baits and sleepings included, comes to above £24 to this place."

Travellers arriving at 'Eagle Tavern,' Strand

Travellers arriving at 'Eagle Tavern,' Strand

On the way to Brighten, two years later, she says, "I never saw this road so rotted, so heavy, or so deep. It was with difficulty my poor poneys could drag us."

We have therefore a tolerable notion of the fatigues attendant on a journey in those days.

Another drawback was, that if one wished to travel by coach instead of going post, one could not always be sure of a place unless booked beforehand. This kind of thing frequently happened--

"I was called up early--to be ready for the coach, but judge my disappointment and chagrin, when on my approach I found it chock-full. I petitioned, reasoned, urged and entreated, but all to no effect. I could not make any impression on the obdurate souls, who, proud and sulky, kept easy and firm possession of their seats, and hardly deigned to answer, when I requested permission to squeeze in. I was hoisted on the coach box as the only alternative; but on the first movement of the vehicle, had it not been for the arm of the coachman, I should have been instantly under the wheels in the street. I was chucked into a basket as a place of more safety, though not of ease or comfort, where I suffered most severely from the jolting, particularly over the stones; it was most truly dreadful and made one suffer almost equal to sea sickness." (Tate Wilkinson, Memoirs.)

This basket was actually a basket slung on for the purpose of carrying luggage, though it was also used for passengers, and sometimes filled with people in spite of its discomfort, because seats here were charged at a low price.

Richard Thomson, in Tales of an Antiquary, gives a very good word-picture of a stage coach: "Stage coaches were constructed principally of a dull black leather, thickly studded by way of ornament with broad black head nails tracing out the panels, in the upper tier of which were four oval windows with heavy red wooden frames or leathern curtains. The roofs of the coaches in most cases rose in a swelling curve. Behind the coach was the immense basket, stretching far and wide beyond the body, to which it was attached by long iron bars or supports passing beneath it. The wheels of these old carriages were large, massive, ill-formed and usually of a red colour, and the three horses that were affixed to the whole machine were all so far parted from it by the great length of their traces that it was with no little difficulty that the poor animals dragged their unwieldly burden along the road."

The accidents attendant on coach journeys were many and various, and the badness of the roads was the principal cause. In Under England's Flag, the autobiography of Captain Charles Boothby, R.E., we have this account of what happened to him in 1805 when he first left home--

"Down to Portsmouth then I went on the outside of the mail, in the highest health and the ardent spirits of youth, spirits that made, I suppose, even my body buoyant and elastic, for the Mail overturned in the night and threw me on the road without giving me so much as a scratch or a bruise. It was about twenty miles from London when we met a team of horses standing in a slant direction on the road, the night very foggy with misting rain, and the lamps not penetrating further into the mist than the rumps of the wheelers. The coachman, to avoid the waggon, turned suddenly out of the way and ran up the bank. Finding the coach staggering, I got up, with my face to the horses, hardly daring to suppose it possible that the Mail could overturn, when the unwieldly monster was on one wheel, and then down it came with a terminal bang. During my descent I had just time to hope that I might escape with the fracture of one or two legs, and then found myself on my two shoulders, very pleased with the novelty and ease of the journey. I got up and spied the monster with his two free wheels whirling with great velocity, but quite compact and still in the body, and as soon as I had shaken my feathers and opened my senses I began to think of the one female and three males in the inside, whom I supposed to be either dead or asleep. I ran to open the door, when the guard, having thought of the same thing, did it for me, and we then took the folks out one by one, like pickled ghirkins or anything else preserved in a jar, by putting our hands to the bottom; we found that the inmates were only stupefied, though all had bruises of some kind, and one little gentleman complained that he was nipped in the loins by the mighty pressure of his neighbour, who had sat upon him some time after the door was opened to recollect himself or to give thanks for his escape."
Coaches did not as a rule run on Sundays, so passengers whose journeys were to extend over several days had to take care to start early in the week if they did not wish to pay expenses at an inn during the Sabbath.

This rule was, however, not stringently observed, as M. Grosley found when he landed in England on his tour of observation--

"The great multitude of passengers with which Dover was then crowded, formed a reason for dispensing with a law of the police, by which public carriages are in England, forbid to travel on Sundays. I therefore set out on a Sunday with seven more passengers in two carriages called flying machines. These vehicles, which are drawn by six horses, go twenty-eight leagues in a day from Dover to London for a single guinea. Servants are entitled to a place for half that money, either behind the coach or upon the coach box, which has three places. A vast repository, under this seat, which is very lofty, holds the passengers' luggage, which is paid for separately. The coachmen, whom we changed every time with our horses, were lusty, well made men, dressed in good cloth."
Among the advantages of travelling on a Sunday when coaches were not expected, he enumerates that "we should meet none of those gentry who are called collectors of the highway, and of whom there is a great number upon the road; in fact we saw none of that sort, but such as were hanging upon gibbets at the road side; there they dangle, dressed from head to foot, and with wigs upon their heads."

The Austen women do not seem at any time to have travelled by coach, but always post, a much more comfortable method, ensuring privacy, though it also had its disadvantages, as when one arrived at an inn requiring change of horses only to find the Marquess of Carabbas had passed on before with a whole retinue of attendants, taking every horse in the stable, and the second comers were therefore compelled to wait until the return of the jaded steeds, and to use them again when the poor beasts had only had half the rest they deserved. The keeping of horses was a necessary branch of the business of every inn-keeper on the high-road, a branch which is now seldom called for, so that it is only at very large establishments, or those in the most out-of-the-way districts where trains come not, that "posting in all its branches" forms part of the landlord's boast.

Though one lady could not very well go alone on a journey, for two ladies to travel together was considered quite proper. In 1798, Jane and her mother returning from Godmersham managed for themselves very well. Jane says,"You have already heard from Daniel, I conclude, in what excellent time we reached and quitted Sittingbourne and how very well my mother bore her journey thither. She was a very little fatigued on her arrival at this place, has been quite refreshed by a comfortable dinner, and now seems quite stout. It wanted five minutes of twelve when we left Sittingbourne, from whence we had a famous pair of horses, which took us to Rochester in an hour and a quarter; the postboy seemed determined to show my mother that Kentish drivers were not always tedious.

"Our next stage was not quite so expeditiously performed; the road was heavy and our horses very indifferent. However we were in such good time, and my mother bore her journey so well, that expedition was of little importance to us; and as it was, we were very little more than two hours and a half coming hither, and it was scarcely past four when we stopped at the inn. My mother took some of her bitters at Ospringe, and some more at Rochester, and she ate some bread several times. We sat down to dinner a little after five, and had some beefsteak and a boiled fowl, but no oyster sauce."

Though Jane refused to avail herself of the very present excitement of highwaymen in ally of her novels, she might legitimately have done so, for these perils were by no means imaginary; the newspapers of the latter part of the eighteenth century are full of accounts of these pests, who were seldom caught.

Mrs. Lybbe Powys says--

"The conversation was for some time on a subject you'd hardly imagine--robbery, Postchaises had been stopped from Hedges to Henley, about three miles; but though the nights were dark we had flambeaux. Miss Pratt and I thought ourselves amazingly lucky; we were in their coach, ours next, and the chaise behind that, robbed. It would have been silly to have lost one's diamonds so totally unexpected, and diamonds it seems they came after, more in number than mine indeed."
The Duke of York and one of his brothers were robbed of watches, purses, etc., when they were returning late at night in a hackney coach along Hay Hill.

In 1786, Horace Walpole mentions, "The mail from France was robbed last night in Pall Mall, at half an hour after eight, yes! in the great thoroughfare of London, and within call of the guard at the Palace. The chaise had stopped, the harness was cut, and the portmanteau was taken out of the chaise itself."

The travellers who had to give up their valuables were numberless, and many ladies took to carrying secondary purses full of false money, which, with hypocritical tears they handed out on compulsion. There was really not much risk in the business of a highwayman, if a man had a good horse and good nerve. The poor citizens he robbed were not fighting men, and though the penalty of hanging was the award if my well-mannered and gallant gentleman were caught, yet his chances of escape were many. The wonder is not that highwaymen were so numerous, but that, with the cumbersome methods of capturing and dealing with them, any of them were ever caught at all.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.