How history of transport points to the future - interesting book of last 3000 years "Muddling Through - the story of Transport in Britain" by Richard Vibart Dixon

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Winston Churchill once said:  "If you want to understand the future, study the past".  One thing is certain: transport systems built over the last 2000 years will still leave traces on the landscape or shape of cities for the next 2000 years.  Take Roman Roads in Britain, which still define Britain today. Earthworks from ancient hill forts are still visible after 3000 years.  And some earthworks from building of canals, railways or roads over the last 300 years will still be visible in 30,000 years.  Here is the full text of a really interesting book written by my Uncle, Richard Vibart Dixon:  "Muddling Through - The History of Transport in Britain".  It explains the past, and makes one think about the future:  how will people travel and why?  What traces will today's transport systems leave for future generations. 

Extract from chapter 1:

Chapter One: The Channel Tunnel

Britain has actually been an island for a relatively short time – only some 8000 years or so – and it is really only in the last 2000 years that this has been of more than local interest.  It is true that there is archaeological evidence of cross-Channel trading and other links before then.  But it was when the Romans added first Gaul and then Britain to their empire that the Channel crossing took on a new significance and the historical characteristics of that crossing – danger, discomfort, expense – made their first recorded appearance.

The 21 mile wide straights of Dover has always been a dangerous waterway, with strong tidal currents, shifting sand banks, gales, heavy sea fog and few natural harbours.  And man has added his own dangers, whether Saxon pirates, the French privateers of the Napoleonic wars or the shipping congestion of the 20th century.  The straights are one of the busiest sea crossroads of the world, as the short sea traffic between Britain and the continent crosses the path of ships sailing between the Baltic and the North Sea and the Atlantic.

Short though the crossing may be, for generations of travellers it has been notorious for sea-sickness.  Even today, with modern roll-on, roll-off ferries using the latest in stabiliser technology, the 75-minute journey can be unpleasant; in earlier days, when the ships were smaller and at the mercy of wind and tide, the crossing could take 10 hours or more and could be purgatory.

As notorious as the discomfort was the cost of the Channel crossing.  Often travellers had to wait days in Dover before they could sail, held to ransom by adverse winds and the town’s innkeepers.  That irascible 18th century traveller, Tobias Smollett, wrote that “Dover is commonly termed a den of thieves….the people are said to live by piracy in time of war; and by smuggling and fleecing strangers in time of peace”. For long periods the shipmasters of the Cinque Ports had a monopoly on the passage which they cheerfully exploited.  And whatever benefits the completion of the Channel tunnel has given to travellers today, active price competition with the ferries does not seem to have been among them.  The cost per mile remains high, leaving plenty of room for profitable discount marketing.

Not unexpectedly, the Channel crossing has usually been more important to the English than to the French or others. Although in the early Middle Ages most of England’s overseas trade was in the hands of merchants from Italy or the Low Countries, the king of England and his barons had their continental possessions, and the Church was ruled from Rome or the great monastic mother houses of Burgundy.  Before the end of the 14th century Calais was the staple for the English wool trade – and indeed there was an English governor of Calais until the middle of the 16th century.  In the last 200 years, cross-Channel travellers have been overwhelmingly British, as indeed has been the provision of cross-Channel services.  The trend in passengers has accelerated enormously with the post second world war boom in tourist traffic; in recent years this has been counterbalanced to an extent by freight traffic as Britain’s trade balance with the rest of the European Community continued to deteriorate.

The development of cross-Channel transport systems has been fascinating and complicated.  Because of the problems of winds, tides and currents, the Romans seem to have needed at least three Kentish ports (at Richborough, Dover and Lympne) connected to roads radiating from Canterbury, and an important fort at Reculver.  Along the south coast there were major Roman ports near Southampton and Chichester and several lesser harbours.  On the other side of the straights, the main Roman port was Boulogne but there was also a harbour at Sangatte near Calais.  It was, incidentally, almost certainly these transport links which influenced the re-founding of the Christian church in England, almost 200 years after the departure of the Roman legions.  Canterbury was from the first the seat of the Archbishop and three of the earliest bishoprics were Rochester (a port on the Roman road between Canterbury and London), Winchester (a short journey by road from Southampton) and Selsey near Chichester.

During the middle ages a number of new ports were created on the Kent and Sussex coasts, including the famous Cinque Ports of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings.  Others, including Winchelsea and Rye, were associated with the five and in the 13th century were given by royal charter a monopoly over the short sea crossing in return for the doubtful privilege of supplying ships for the royal fleet.  To a confusing extent ports prospered and decayed according to shifts in the Kentish coastline, often caused by build up of shingle.  For instance, Lympne, Romney and Winchelsea are now well inland.  One of the powers of the mayor of Dover used to be to summon householders by drum to dig shingle from the harbour.

Some time before the end of the 14th century – precisely when is obscure – posting stations began to be laid on the road between London and Dover so that royal messengers could get fresh horses.  With the appointment in 1511 of Brian Tuke as the first Master of the Posts the system became more formalised and postmasters were appointed, so-called standing posts in pay at the rate of 1/- a day.  They were required always to have a horse and guide ready for the royal service, even if the horse had to be requisitioned.  The London-Dover road was one of the first three permanent post roads (other roads such as London-Chester at first only had posts laid when the weight of royal business required it), and by Elizabethan times if not earlier posts were established at Dartford, Gravesend, Rochester, Sittingbourne and Canterbury.  It shouldn’t be thought that the establishment of a posting system meant that the journey was especially rapid – for many years the first part of the journey from London was often made by boat down the Thames to Gravesend.

Before the end of the 17th century the first packet boats were being used to carry mail between Dover and Calais and other ports.  The packet boat system grew with the development of the post office and postal services and the increasing popularity of continental travel and the Grand Tour.  Frequent were the tales of woe, both about the inns on the road to Dover and the expense and discomfort of the sea crossing.  To quote Tobias Smollett again on what he described as the worst road in England: “The chambers are in general cold and comfortless, the beds paultry, the cookery execrable, the wine poison, the attendance bad, the publicans insolent, and the bills extortion; there is not a drop of tolerable malt liquor to be had from London to Dover”.  At Dover he paid a guinea over the odds for a ‘Folkestone cutter’ to take him to Boulogne, only to find the master working a fiddle with the Boulogne boatmen, which involved an uncomfortable transfer to a rowing boat in a rough sea, a three mile pull to the shore and finally a mile walk to an inn which “was such a bad specimen of French accommodation, that my wife could not help regretting the inns of Rochester, Sittingbourne and Canterbury….One would imagine the French were still at war with the English, for they pillage them without mercy”.  At least improvements to the road surface and the arrival of the first paddle steamers in the early 1820s cut down the number of overnight stops and the chances of being stranded in Dover by contrary winds.  Even so the Dover road was always relatively slow, due to a combination of difficult, hilly terrain and long stages. The best mail and stage coaches could not compete with the average speeds achieved on other post roads.

The modern era of cross-Channel services really began with the arrival of the railways in the 1840s.  In the 19th century there were four main railways operating from London to the south coast: the South Eastern Railway, the London & South Western Railway, the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway and the London, Chatham & Dover Railway.  From the first they saw the Channel crossing and indeed railway travel on the continent as a logical extension of their interests in England.  Each developed its own cross-Channel links, either acquiring powers to operate a shipping line or working in close collaboration with one.

The first all rail/sea route between London and Paris was strangely enough not through Dover but via Southampton and Rouen, operated in England by the L&SWR.  But in addition, the people who built the line between London and Southampton, the engineer Joseph Locke and the great railway contractor Thomas Brassey, also built the line between Paris and Rouen, later extending it to Le Havre.  5000 navvies were especially shipped over for the purpose and for once earned golden opinions from the local populace, as well as striking awe by the amount of beef and beer they consumed.  The L&SWR eventually acquired powers to run a shipping service to Le Havre and Cherbourg from Southampton in the 1860s.

The London, Brighton & South Coast Railway started a Brighton to Dieppe service shortly afterwards, in 1844, but soon concentrated on a Newhaven-Dieppe service.  To help passengers face the ordeal of the 4½ hour crossing or to help them recover afterwards, the LB&CR ran a rather elegant hotel, the London and Paris, at Newhaven.

However, it wasn’t long before the main railway interest was focused on the short sea crossing and it was here that rivalry was most intense.  First on the scene was the South Eastern Railway which reached Folkestone (and its modern harbour built by the famous engineer Thomas Telford) in the early 1840s.  The SER promptly bought the harbour and through a subsidiary (as it had no powers to do it directly) ran a packet service to Boulogne.  Boulogne had a good railway service to Paris via Amiens – needless to say Brassey had also had a hand in building that – operated by the French Nord Railway.  Until the 1860s Folkestone-Boulogne was the main cross-Channel link and helped forge the friendly relationship between the SER and Nord which was to be significant at a later stage in the history of the Channel Tunnel.

And so for many years, Dover and Calais were left out in the cold.  It is true that the SER served Dover in a sense, but as the railway from London to Dover went via Redhill in the middle of Surrey (in a bid to save money the SER shared the line from London to Redhill with the Brighton railway) it was hardly a direct route.  In addition Dover harbour with its exposed Admiralty pier was inhospitable and the SER anyway gave favourable treatment to passengers using its own port at Folkestone.  On the French side, Calais had poor railway links with Paris as the railway went via Lille.  Indeed, it was often quicker for passengers to take the coach to Boulogne and pick up the train there.

All this left the way open for the London, Chatham & Dover Railway – one of many Victorian railways which should have been strangled or at least sold to a wealthier family at birth.  In 1859, it completed by a series of almost piecemeal stages the first more or less direct route between London and Dover.  This immediately triggered off a ferocious war with the South Eastern.  During the war the lucrative Post Office mail contract was won first by one side and then the other, and no less than six different London terminals were operated between the two of them.  More of this in a later chapter, but before the exhausted combatants collapsed into a reluctant partnership at the end of the century, the south east commuter belt had been bequeathed one of the most complex and illogical rail networks in the world. Today’s commuter and to some extent the commercial prospects of the Channel tunnel and through rail traffic still suffer from this epic 19th century rivalry.  About the only decent trains either of the two railways managed to run were said to be their Dover boat trains.

Here is the full text of the book written by my Uncle, Richard Vibart Dixon:  "Muddling Through - The History of Transport in Britain"




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