What’s Underfoot,

Wench bond-street-gillray-elaine-golden

Bond Street and a passel of gentlemen

Joanna here, back with another exciting dispatch from the universe of the past. Talking about roads, in fact.

I was going to wax eloquent on road building in general, starting with the madly competent engineering Romans and going right on till I got to ugly but practical tar-bound macadam in 1902, pioneered by a Swiss doctor in Monaco.

Have you ever noticed how very many Victorian doctors invented things? I worry a bit about their patients, what with the physicians studying refrigeration, road surfaces, and coca cola instead of, for instance, gall bladders.

Back to roads.

I quickly discovered the history of road construction and law is mind-numblingly dull, so I decided to throw myself directly into what roads and pavements would have looked like in Regency London. This is not precisely enthralling, but better than Turnpike Trusts, believe me.

We're going straight to the hard, permanent, waterproof stuff laid down on city walkways and roadways to distinguish them from the endless tracks of dirt and muddy ruts with which the countryside was plentifully supplied.

Were there dirt roadways in the city of London?
Some, probably.

Wench a_view_on_the_thames_with_numerous_ships_and_figures_on_the_wharf-rowlandson 1818 crop

Probably some wheeled and foot traffic on Thames side
Wench dirt street

Here's a dirt road arriving at the edge of town

Dirt roadways approached the edges of the city, of course.
I imagine one of the welcome signs of arriving in London was the rumble and clack of London roads under wheel or hoof. The banks of the Thames were unpaved and frankly mucky I should think and travelled by foot and the odd wagon. It's likely that some of the smallest alleys in the rookeries were essentially drainage swales washed out by the downpours and unpaved.

But on the whole, London was paved.

The paving was most generally cobbles, bricks, and in some places large, flat flagstones.We are pre-macadam here.

To see examples of these elements, head up to the Gillray painting way above to the left.
I'll wait while you go find it.
It's up at the beginning.
Bond Street.
We get a bit of social commentary there as well. Just a splendid opportunity to see what was underfoot in the Regency in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

First off, there's the cobblestone street. Click on the picture to get a closer view of it. More cobblestone down on the right at the bottom.

Wench cow-keepers-shop-1825-george-scharf-001

Square flagstones in the shop and on the walk

There in Gillray's Bond Street we're made vividly aware of how mucky (or dusty, in season) the cobblestone road with its traffic of horses and wagons would have been. Those crossing-sweepers who cleared a path at the corner earned their little tip, apparently.

See the curb. These curbs were a usual appurtenance of the better streets. Kept the walkway a little drier, likely. And then on the walkway itself never, in England, a sidewalk we see the larger, square-cut flagstones. We'd find thee flagstones on the fancier streets where there were shops. They'd be common for interior courtyards 

I will make a writer's confession here. What I had been in the habit of calling 'cobblestone' seems to be referred to as 'cobbles' in the period. 'Cobblestones' may have been a bit of an Americanism at the time.

The word 'cobble' refers to the size and shape of the stones, rather than to what they're made of, which would usually be granite. (i.e. rock.) Thus 'cobbles' means 'a buncha

Wench street scene west end C18

nicely regular cobbles
Wench cobbletone

nicely random cobbles

naturally round stones smoothed by the natural action of rivers and handy for prying up and throwing at somebody'.

If you look over to the right you will see a line of bollards separating the walkway from the street. This is another Regency feature I see a lot of. They may use it when they don't want to put in a curb. One might think of it as something for the stray pedestrian to shelter behind.

Moving on to technique. The brick or stone or flagstone was generally laid dry that is, in a bed of sand. In courtyards, stables and the like that got a lot of traffic the brick or stone might be laid in mortar to keep it just firmly as heck in place. I will just point out, though, that one of the many advantages of sand-laid cobblestone was that it didn't crack with freezing and thawing which it would start to do if you laid it in mortar, thus creating unsightly crevices in the public thoroughfare. Just saying.

Now the bricks could be laid lengthwise so that they look like brick or laid on end so that they look like "are those bricks or half bricks?" It's thirty-two statue bricks to cover a yard when you lay them longways but sixty-two stood endwise if you want a thicker road, courtyard, or walkway altogether. And that is more than most people will tell you about laying brick roads.  The brck roads in Oz were laid longwise and thus would have been thirty-two per square yard, in case you have ever wondered.


So. What's on YOUR walkway these days? Or what was on your childhood walkway? Or even, will you get behind the City Council's desire to redo the whole downtown in cobblestone which is almost the definition of a municipal wild hare?