Worst in Britain? Cornish roads 200 years ago

Maybe it was the penny-pinching of the parishes who were responsible for the upkeep of the roads. Maybe it was a question of Cornwall’s hilly topography. But contemporaries were agreed; Cornwall’s roads were atrocious. In 1754 a writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine concluded that:

Cornwall, I believe, at present has the worst roads in all England, a great part of which are intolerable, remaining just in the same rude situation in which the deluge left them, and most of those which have been improved are still so extremely narrow and uneven, that they are almost inaccessible to all kinds of wheeled vehicles.

The 18th century main road from St Austell to Truro

Insiders tended not to dispute the point. Thomas Tonkin in the 1730s thought, with more than a hint of pride, that ‘there are not any roads in the whole kingdom worst kept than ours.’ A century later, by which time, as we shall see in this chapter, Cornish roads had improved considerably, they could still be described as ‘very hilly, and abounding in steep, inclined places.’ In fact, with nowhere in Cornwall that far from the sea, coastal shipping would have often provided a more convenient and equally quick mode of transport.

Bad as they already were, the roads of west Cornwall could not have been improved by the growing number of mule trains that trekked to and from the ports, carrying ore to the ships and bringing back coal and mines supplies. In 1832, even after alternatives by rail became available, it could still be noted that ‘the primitive mode of conveyance on the backs of mules is still continued in some of the mines west of Redruth. These animals go in troops of 20 or more, under the guidance of one man: each carries two bags containing ore, hanging across his back’. Stockdale, visiting in 1824, encountered troops of 30 to 50 mules and commented that ‘the cruelty which is often exercised towards these poor animals deserves the severest reprehension’.

From Chapter 4: The Road, The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820

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