The Development of Transportation by Barbara Gaskell Denvil


 I’d like to welcome Barbara Gaskell Denvil today as she shares a fascinating article on the development of transportation.


A fundamental requirement for the freedom of humanity, is the need to move, and to move over varying distances. Yet, somewhat surprisingly it took a very long time for us to invent an easy method of travel.

Now we take it for granted. The car is a passion as well as a basic modern necessity. Trains, buses, bikes and now, the ultimate, planes! But for most of our history it was walk or ride a horse – no other choices were available. If you couldn’t afford the horse, then you walked. Travellers covered hundreds of miles on foot, and might take a month to arrive. Others simply stayed at home! Indeed, small communities became extremely insular and in England someone just from the next village along the road could be called a foreigner.

Other cultures invented the war chariot, but this wasn’t normally used except in battle or for sport, carts gradually became an accepted mode of carrying possessions and goods for sale, but you still needed the horse to pull it.  For a long time these carts were simply wooden wheeled without any form of spring, and therefore they would bump over every rut in the road – of which there would be thousands – and offer an excessively uncomfortable ride. But for a long journey, especially for women and those with young children, there was no alternative. These carts could be adorned with a waterproof covering, which would also offer privacy, and such carts were referred to as litters.

The wheel was an exceedingly early invention, and one which completely altered the lives of those who utilised it, but for a very, very long time it was simply a wooden circle with inner bars, giving no comfort of any kind and which could easily break on over-use. There are some indications that carts and wagons were used in ancient times, and that the invention of the wheel occurred even further back than we generally suppose, but in many parts of the world, in the Americas for instance, the wheel remained unknown for centuries.

 Boats of various kinds enabled travel across the water, but travel across the land remained an exhausting business.

Along comes the Carriage

And then along came the carriage. Oh, what a change! Yes, the horse was still required to pull it but at last there was some degree of comfort, and great distances could be covered with accompanied baggage and the whole family along for the ride, including babies, the aged, and the sick

Two, three and four wheeled wagons were used in medieval times, and there is an indication that pivotal axles and adapted steerage with some suspension were definitely in use in the later medieval, but were certainly restricted to those who could afford them.

The more comfortable and well sprung coach became extremely popular as the design spread from Hungary in the late 1500s. This was designed with a bench outside at the front for the driver, and possibly also for a guard, and well cushioned seats inside for the gentleman and his lady. There was a boot outside at the back for less genteel travellers, or luggage. This began the development of one of the most innovative methods of long-distance travel with an assurance of some safety and comfort.

Gradually glass windows were introduced, but these were only used for short journeys, and when a long trip was planned, the windows were removed and replaced with wooden boards. Otherwise, travelling over the rough roads, the glass would have broken and shattered all over its owners. The bumping discomfort during coach travel must have been considerable for many, many years, and there was a definite danger of over-turning.

The joys of Georgian Transportation

So carriages, coaches and wagons of great variety were not introduced until the 17th and 18th centuries. It is during the Georgian and Regency eras that the carriage really became not only a comfortable and attractive way of travelling, but the style and quality became both a passion and a way of showing your importance. The horses used, usually a pair, were bred and chosen so carefully that they became as important and as expensive as a small country cottage. There was also considerable skill required in handling these horses and carriages, and a certain amount of racing, betting and sport became involved.

Even minor nobility and wealthy citizens invariably hired the horses, carriage and drivers needed for a long journey. To own a vehicle fully equipped for all occasions was just too expensive, and also demanded considerable space in the outhouses and stables. Only the fabulously rich could afford to own, for instance, a racing curricle, a grand barouche for more sedate journeys, an elegant phaeton for driving around town, a Berlin carriage for the old fashioned and aged, and perhaps a  comfortable Landau for the ladies. The stage coach was the standard early horse-drawn bus, and was often so over-crowded that passengers had a hard job all squeezing on together.

Whether owned or hired, these equipages became common usage, and so naturally they became the targets of the criminal element. First had come the foot-pads, thieves  hiding in bushes beside the road, ready to spring out and threaten travellers unless they handed over their valuables and money. Later, such thieves became more organised and successful enough to own horses themselves, and so the notorious highwaymen became the greatest hazard while travelling on quiet country roads.

The beautiful coaches still used during traditional occasions by the royal family, are far more highly decorated, but still remain in the general fashion of these past times.

Of course, the principal need was one of travelling both short and long distances while maintaining a reasonable level of comfort. This was certainly achieved during the 19th century, but almost as soon as the ultimate had been reached, it was the dawn of a whole different method of arriving, with the development of the steam and motor engine, with thee train, the car, and aeroplane.

So just as they had arrived at a pinnacle of elegance and desirability, the carriage was no longer needed!

Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Barbara Gaskell Denvil  is a multi-award winning author of historical fiction, mystery, suspense and fantasy.

Born in Gloucester, England, she grew up in a highly literary family, her great, great, great aunt being the classic Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell, and her father a playwright and artist. As a young woman she worked in many literary capacities, as a publishers’ reader, a television researcher and script writer, an editor, literary critic and published numerous short stories and articles. Then motherhood took precedence. Having three young daughters, two of whom were identical twins, writing had to take a back seat.

She then spent many years living on a boat and sailing the Mediterranean before finally settling in rural Australia amongst the parrots and kangaroos.

She has written five historical mystery/adventures, FAIR WEATHER, which is a time-slip novel which has won five prestigious awards, and a fantasy trilogy. Now Bannister’s Muster is the new children’s series and the first in the series, SNAP is  already published to considerable acclaim.

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    • Teresa Broderick on September 16, 2017 at 10:38 am
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    Lovely post. I find history so fascinating. I can never get enough of it.

    1. Thanks so much, Teresa!

    • J. W. Garrett on September 19, 2017 at 7:27 am
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    This was a most interesting post. I didn’t mean to laugh, but that caricature of the carriage just broke me up. I never realized the danger and then to see people being tossed about and actually being thrown from carriage. Man… when you traveled, back in the day, you really risked your life. I’ve always heard the expression ‘rode like a road wagon,’ and can now relate it to the above. There was no suspension or springs, and the occupants felt every bump, rock, rut and dip in the road. I would have stayed home too. Thanks for this informative post.

    1. I recently had the privilege of riding in a model A Ford that had the same kind of suspension as a horse drawn carriage. My that was eye opening! Road like a wagon is a great description of it! The only thing I can think of worse than having to travel that way hours at a time is doing so pregnant or with small children!

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