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Devon was reputed to have more roads than any other English county apart from Yorkshire, and until the advent of the Turnpike Trusts in the 18th Century, these roads were renowned for their universally appalling state. Writers of the time catalogued "the dangers and horrors of their rutted and muddy conditions", and the problems presented by the naturally hilly lie of the land in Devon. Many roads were often dangerously steep, and individuals usually walked, or travelled on horseback, whilst goods moved almost exclusively by packhorse, which was to remain a vital form of transport in Devon right up until the turn of the twentieth century. It was possible to move goods by wagon in a few locations, but most places in Devon relied on the teams of packhorses to transport all their requirements, both for their own use and to remove goods for delivery elsewhere. It must be realised that apart from a small number of poor roads, the great majority of these places had little more than tracks and farm ways as a means of access.

Before the coming of turnpike roads, and long afterwards in the hilly country, trade between centres of population depended on the packhorse and packhorse trails criss-crossed the countryside as horses and ponies replaced men as carriers, implying the transportation of an increasing amount of goods. For much of Devon in the early nineteenth century the packhorse was the only way of transporting goods to and from the villages lying off the turnpike roads. Some villages did not even have a single wheeled cart by 1800, and all transport done by packhorse or oxen dragging a yoke. A farmer situated at the bottom of a hill would often keep a pair of oxen available for hire to haul wagons up the hill where horses were unable to do so. Many villages and hamlets were therefore quite isolated and had to be very self-sufficient.

The furniture of the packhorses varied with the load it carried. Relatively light articles such as Hay, corn, straw, and faggots, were loaded between "crooks" which were formed of willow poles, seven or eight feet long, and roughly, the thickness of scythe handles. Bent in a manner similar to ox-bows, but with one end much longer than the other, they were joined together in pairs, with slight crossbars, eighteen inches to two feet long. Each horse carried two pairs of these crooks, slung together, so as that the shorter and stronger ends "shall lie easy and firmly against the packsaddle". The longer and lighter ends rising, perhaps, fifteen or more inches above the horse's back, and standing four or five feet from each other. Within, and between, these crooks, the load, piled and bound fast together with that simplicity and dispatch which long practice seldom fails of striking out.

Carried between "short crooks", made of four natural bends or knees, both ends being nearly of the same length, and, in use, the points would stand nearly level with the ridge of the packsaddle, would be carried heavier articles such as cordwood and large stones. Dung, sand, materials of buildings, roads were carried in "pots; or strong coarse panniers; slung together, like the crooks; and as panniers are usually slung; the dung, especially if long and light, being ridged up over the saddle. The bottom of each pot is a falling door, on a strong and simple construction. On reaching the place of delivery, the trap is unlatched, and the load released. The carriage of Lime is universally in narrow bags, two or three of them thrown across a packsaddle, which is of wood, and of the ordinary construction.

Although the packhorse could carry around 240lb, and a large variety of goods, a greater use of wagons and coaches, imposed still more wear and tear on the already over burdened tracks. It was not until the mid-sixteen hundreds that the gradual introduction of wheeled traffic began, but with restrictions on the weight and the number of animals drawing vehicles in an attempt to protect the roads from further damage. To try to ease the burden, the turnpike system came into being to ease the maintenance burden on the parish and to transfer at least part of the cost to the road user. This was particularly important as through traffic grew to keep pace with the growth of industry, but proved unpopular with the local farmers.

Various writers have written attesting how slow the country people were to take to this new-fangled form of transport, but often this was because the use of wheeled transport on rough roads remained impossible. Matters slowly began to improve in the eighteen hundreds. The Exeter Turnpike Trust, formed in 1753, covered all the main roads around Exeter. The Tiverton and Barnstaple Trusts followed in 1757 and 1760 respectively. Many old routes were improved, and new roads built which avoided some of the very steepest hills.

This improvement in roadways, however marginal, left the horse to prove that 19th century was very definitely the century of the horse. Whether singly pulling the gig or the unwieldy carrier's cart, or in pairs pulling both the wagonette and the farm wagon, or in teams of four, they were a familiar sight drawing the stagecoach, and to be a successful coaching house, a livery stable was essential. Throughout the turnpike era, roads had remained singularly ineffective, and with no system of roads, merely a collection of unfenced tracks. These were all extremely muddy in bad weather, deeply rutted when dry and treacherous at all times. This condition worsened under the stresses imposed by unwieldy wheeled wagons and carts, and many roads became impassable in winter.

As long as man has traded goods, there have been transport routes from the place of production to the point of sale, and frequently, unless man himself was the carrier, the packhorse or mule was the only method of transportation. The packhorses were sure-footed and more adaptable in difficult conditions, and able to negotiate hilly, rock-strewn terrain far better. Their chief limitation was in their inability to carry very large and heavy items.

The Highways Act of 1555 established that the repair of roads was the responsibility of the parishes through which they passed. Each parish had to appoint a 'Surveyor of Highways' who had the thankless task of arranging statutory labour and materials for the upkeep of the roads. The maintenance of major bridges remained the responsibility of the whole county, reflecting their importance. However, despite regular indictments at the Quarter Sessions, parishes were neglectful of their duties and the roads remained in a poor state.

An Act of Parliament passed in 1730, enabled the formation of Turnpike Trusts whereby groups of local men took over the maintenance and improvement of sections of road in the county. In return for the work they did on the roads, these men were entitled to install tollgates and turnpikes, and to charge people for passage along their roads. As a direct result of these improvements to the roads, it became possible for packhorses to be replaced by wagons and carriages, which in turn meant heavier loads, could be as a carriage could carry 5 times as much as a packhorse. The improved roads also resulted in speedier and more comfortable personal travel.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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