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Traffic Jams: A window into Victorian Mobility

2011 May 31

A new UK Government strategy to tackle the congestion caused by road closures was unveiled this week by Roads Minister, Mike Penning.  In the global twenty-first century society, traffic jams and travel chaos seemingly go hand-in hand with the cosmopolitan lifestyle mobile technology affords.  As I write, the BBC’s live ‘jam cameras’ reveal the extent of the traffic problems in London alone (currently I can view the miles of stationary traffic on the North Circular, or the equally snarled Cricklewood Broadway, to pick just two from the 723 strong list).

Yet the daily traffic jams witnessed across the UK are not a solely modern phenomenon.  Technologies are constrained by the environment in which they operate, and nineteenth century London was no exception.   The road network in West London was not designed for the influx of the many thousands of carriages which required access to them on a daily basis, a problem escalated during the annual Season when elite families would migrate to London in their carriages for the summer months.  Biographical sources point to the frequency of traffic incidents. Dowager Lady Leconfield recalled the difficulties of movement during the late nineteenth century in The Times: “Let no one suppose that our progress through the streets was unimpeded.  When I read in the papers now about the traffic problem I remember the half hours we often spent in trying to get round Hyde Park Corner” (25th October 1930). Despite possessing the tools for mobility, the number of people able to travel through West London using the means of the perennially fashionable carriage was limited throughout the century, as illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson in 1807 through his cartoon ‘The Miseries of London’.

The accounts of Louisa Bowater highlight these difficulties further.  On 16th May 1863, Louisa and her chaperone (Mrs Newdegate, an older cousin) were trapped in a large traffic jam:  “Mrs Newdegate got into the carriage at one, thinking ourselves in capital time, but great was our horror on emerging into Piccadilly [from their home on Arlington Street, a road branching off Piccadilly] to find a string of carriages extending the whole way to St George’s Hospital [a distance of 1 km][1].  We resigned ourselves to our fate, the fate proving to be to spend our time until 4.50pm in regaining the point from which we set out.  Meanwhile the tide of starers [sic] flowed on, and Piccadilly was the fashionable promenade of the day” (16th May 1863).  Whilst this comment is not entirely clear as to the precise details of the journey Louisa had wished to take, it is clear is that she was unable to complete it owing to the traffic jam along Piccadilly, illustrated by the fact she sat in the carriage for three hours and fifty minutes waiting to arrive back at ‘the point she set out’ in Arlington Street, having presumably made the decision to abort the trip due to the traffic!

The traffic situation was made worse in Victorian London, however, by the refusal of the elite in society to travel by any other means.  Such was the desire to arrive in the socially acceptable carriage that families would wait in the vehicle for hours, even when their desired location was just metres away, as illustrated by the following record from the diary of a footman, William Tayler, who rode aboard a carriage: “went this evening to see the illumination but the streets was so crowded with people and carriages that it was impossible to move.  The throng was so great that I got to a lamp poast [sic] and there I was oblig [sic] to hang for half an hour before the road was clear that I could get on [back on to the carriage].  Women was plentifull [sic], come screaming murder, others calling police, some fainting.  There was such a kick up as I never saw in my life before.  I went out at nine o’clock and got back at eleven.  In that time I did not get more than half a mile” (24th May, 1837).

Through these brief snapshots into the traffic chaos experienced daily in the streets of Victorian London, it is possible to contextualise modern travel difficulties.  Motorway jams and long delays may be a relatevly recent phenomenon, however, the frustrations felt by those travelling can have changed very little since the accounts of Louisa Bowater or William Tayler.  Had the BBC ‘jam cameras’ existed two hundred years ago, they would no doubt have captured the faces of the equally annoyed road users of the past!


[1] Distances calculated using Google Maps Distance Calculator:  http://www.daftlogic.com/projects-google-maps-distance-calculator.htm

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