The English did not rate walking very highly. Horse powered transport, even of the most modest kind, was always more socially preferable. There were exceptions. Tens of thousands of people crossed London Bridge every morning in the 1810s, but that was early metropolitan commuting. Poets and others who were the first people in Britain to developed and aesthetic sensibility about the landscape would often walk when they did not need to. Keats mostly walked through Scotland in his 1818 tour. Another poet, Thomas de Quincy walked forty miles through the empty roads at night between Bridgwater and Hotwells near Bristol in 1807. Coleridge and Southey tramped the same route due to their poverty, sharing a bed and not getting on very well, but this was because they were poor. Unnecessary walking was a suspicious trait in anybody higher up the scale than a farm labourer.
Karl Philipp Moritz was a German theologian and gentle anglophile, who took it into his head that he would work from Richmond to Derbyshire in the late spring of 1782. He, like Keats, walked because he wanted to enjoy the countryside. Dressed soberly and respectably as a Prussian clergyman, he was stared at, shouted, at and sometimes abused by coach passengers and horse riders who could not believe what they were seeing. Charitable farmers would stop and offer him a lift on the back of their nag. Coach drivers would stop and offer a seat, with the fare going straight into the driver’s pocket.
As Moritz passed through Burton on Trent a few days later, the whole town came out of their houses to point fingers and hiss. Burton was the most rude, rustic and xenophobic place he visited. “This strongly-marked contemptuous treatment of a stranger, who was travelling through their country merely from the respect he bore it, I experienced nowhere but at Burton”
As he arrived in various towns late at night, the inns and public houses slammed the door in his face- they did not want an itinerant wanderer even in their not particularly classy establishments. Sometimes, when he was allowed in, he was directed to the kitchen to sup with soldiers of labourers; occasionally his level of discourse was so high that by the next morning they had given the walking stranger the benefit of the doubt and started calling him “ Sir “ instead of “ Master”
In an age of tight knit local communities, the rootless stranger was an object of suspicion and a potential charge on the poor law and the local tax payer. This was also the age of agricultural enclosure, when workers would migrate in desperation from place to place in search of work, the stranger without a horse would be turned away or asked to pay in advance. There would also be blatant discrimination. At one inn, Moritz noted that his reasonable (“a carpeted room, a good bed”) treatment was interrupted when a private three- seater carriage arrived at the inn;
While I was eating, a post-chaise drove up, and in a moment both the folding-doors were thrown open and the whole house set in motion, in order to receive, with all due respect, these guests, who, no doubt, were supposed to be persons of consequence.
Organised walking was a different matter. The craze of “pedestrianism” was celebrated in books and newspapers; sometimes it was a foot race between two people or long distance solo walking over a few days. Sporting heroes were created, and for the first time in British history, individuals could become national celebrities because of their sporting achievements. One of these was Robert Barclay Allardyce, a Scottish aristocrat better known as ‘Captain Barclay’, whose greatest feat of pedestrianism was in 1809 when he bet 1,000 guineas that he could walk one mile in each of 1,000 consecutive hours.
The obsession with pedestrianism chimed very much with the ethos of the time. In 1813, Walter Thom’s book “Pedestrianism” was a partly a book of walking world records and partly a homily on the value of long distance walking. Thom saw it as good mental and physical training; especially as preparation for the military life or ways of keeping those already in the army busy (avoiding the horrors of insolent repose” in their barracks during periods of inactivity). Others saw it as a respectable harking back to the athletes of Greek antiquity. For others it was a sporting activity that facilitated gambling- it was said that Captain Barclay made £16,000 in side bets on his long distance walking in 1809. Pedestrianism provided a link with modern athletic training. It was clear at the time that there was nothing natural about trying to walk for hours on end, so you had to prepare for it. Many gentlemen who fancied themselves as modern “natural philosophers” ( scientists) would study the anatomy and physiology of the muscles and the lungs and offer advice on physical and mental preparation.
Pedestrianism was not merely a hobby of the rich who had nothing more pressing to do than to set themselves arbitrary goals and compare themselves with the athletes of the Olympics. The lower orders dabbled in competitive walking. Pedestrianism was one for the few leisure activities that was enjoyed by both the rich and the poor, although it was done for different reasons – the most famous example being Joseph Edge of Cheshire. Elderly artisans such as Joseph would have been used to tramping- moving around from place to place looking for work in a time when economic downturns were more regionally based – travelling light and hoping from help from strangers. Unlike Moritz, people like Joseph Edge would rely on previously organised contacts from artisans in the same line of work as him, or in this case, would rely on his fame as a celebrity walker.
Joseph Edge made two attempts to walk from Cheshire to London against a time limit in the summer of 1806. He arrived in Kegworth, Leicestershire after walking for eleven hours from the Angel Inn, Macclesfield. His plan was to walk to London in 50 successive hours- not continuously, as this would be physically impossible, but to walk at a constant three and a half miles an hour- a brisk walking pace for a young healthy adult in the twenty-first century. Kegworth was 51 miles from home and he had achieved this in 11 hours- a pace of nearly 5 miles per hour which he would not be able to keep up until the end. He stopped for a rest and a pint of beer, which evidently disagreed with him and he tried to continue was too ill to continue.
A few days later he tried again, this time with a lot more publicity due to his original failure and an accumulated £2000 in bets from people who claimed that it could not be done. The vast majority of pedestrian challenges involved a money wager, usually from the richer members of society in the same way that they would bet on a bare knuckled boxing match, which was the other Regency sport that could create celebrities of the lower orders. Joseph had probably collected a large number of small bets as the papers did not mention any particular name of an aristocrat who had wagered recklessly-although that was often the arrangement.
He set off again on Wednesday 12am on July 30th 1806 and reached London at twenty to one on the Saturday morning of August 2nd, with a mere 40 minutes to spare. He was accompanied throughout by a Mr Jones, the postmaster of Macclesfield, who was presumably riding a horse for some or all of the way, and was there to protect the interests of the gamblers. In an age when exact time and timing did not matter very much, the postmaster was one of the few public officials whose business involved an exacting timetable; the post was never allowed to be late. He was a man for whom timetables were second nature and his conclusions could be trusted, assuming of course that he had no bet on the result.
A quick calculation shows that his journey consisted of 50 hours of walking and ten hours of sleep. Joseph had achieved an overall speed of just less 3 and half miles throughout his time limit He had walked to London-a remarkable feat made more remarkable by the fact that Joseph was 62- it was , according to the Sporting Magazine ‘ an astonishingly instance of senile vigour and pedestrian expedition’.
There were hundreds of public houses and coffee shops in London, and many other places where Joseph could have finished his journey with the maximum amount of publicity. His inn of choice was the Swan With Two Necks in Lad Lane, and this was not chosen at random. This was the place where Joseph could get the stagecoach back to Macclesfield-which was the way rich people travelled at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Joseph now fell into that category.
My Georgian and Early Victorian Books. The blog above is derived from my book Passengers. Chapter headings and more details here.
My other book is an alternative history of the Regency. Available in paperback from October 2022