Heavy Transport in Cumbria before 1800

An edited version of the article by Blake Tyson in The Cumbrian Industrialist, Volume Four, by kind permission of the author

(Page created 19/04/05)

Before the 19th century, the cheapest form of transport in the Lake District was by boats along long lakes such as Windermere, Coniston and Ullswater, However, crossing or avoiding the width of these and many smaller lakes radiating from the central mountains was a great handicap to Cumbria’s internal communications. the rugged mountains were probably a greater hinderance, so that packhorses had to be the main means of transport for goods of all kinds, and continued in use well into the 19th century even though the carrying capacity of an individual beast was limited.

Away from the central mountains, wagons and carts could be used but their capacity was greatly restricted by the physical conditions and underdeveloped routeways. Thus, when Celia Fiennes rode on horseback from Kendal to Bowness in 1698 she passed along very “narrow lanes” where “here can be no carriages but very narrow ones like little wheelbarrows”.

Many such early roads can still be identified from their narrowness, usually less than six feet wide. Some examples include the pre-1822 route into Longsleddale that ran from Gateside to Catbarrow barn (SD 520 999); the road leading southwestward from the crossroads (SD 527 977) in Garth Row (too narrow for a car); and also the track leading directly from Garth Row to 50 yards north of Stocks Mill gateway, a route described by Thomas Machell in 1692 as “the highway which leads from Garth Row to Kendall”.

The small size of carts was confirmed by Andrew Pringle in 1794 when he stated that a cart contained “less than sixteen cubic feet”. Such a cart would be 3.5ft long by 2.5ft wide and under 2ft deep. The carts used to remove sediment from Whitehaven Harbour in 1687 held only 5 cwt each, and it cost 6s. (at least nine man days) to shift 15 tons about a quarter of a mile northwards where longshore drift was supposed to continue the removal.

The smallness of the carts was not their only handicap for they might easily be bogged down especially if they did not follow the established routeways. Thus the weight limit of packhorses did not place them at an entire disadvantage. They were sure-footed and more adaptable in difficult conditions, and could negotiate hilly, rock-strewn terrain far better. There were other economic advantages in that bridges for packhorses could be less than half as wide a one for carts, and did not need parapets to keep wheels on the wearing surface. Indeed the absence of parapets allowed packhorses to carry very bulky loads of lighter goods like crops, wool, peat etc.Their chief limitation was an inability to carry heavy items that could not be divided into convenient parts, such as most millstones.

In such cases – when routeways were rough, or articles could not be divided into convenient packhorse loads – problems arose which often necessitated heavy manual labout. For example a millstone four feet in diameter and a foot thick would contain 12.57 cubic ft and weigh 16 cwt, too much for most country carts. Thus on 19 August 1665, when Lady Anne Clifford paid £4 to mason Jonathan Gleddall “for getting of two Millstones in Loven Scarre for my mills at Bongate” by Appleby, she also recorded the cost of transporting them. Loven Scar lies in the Millstone Grit, high on the east side of Mallerstang. She paid £9 to Lancelot Machell of Crackenthorpe for leading them “12 miles, which he did with 32 oxen and 6 horses and 12 men, out 4 days”. The figure suggests an astonishing rate of about 112d. per ton/mile, but the difficulties are not known. In addition 11s. compensation was paid as compensation to Lady Anne’s Mallerstang tenants for damage to their ground.

While this shows how labour-intensive such work could be, some details for millstones for Sir Daniel Fleming’s watermills at Rydal and Coniston gives a very clear idea of the actual difficulties. On 20 July 1683, Fleming’s steward, John Bancks, paid £9 19s. to “Jo Ostley ye millston-getter at Kellet-moor for a pair of millstones delivered at Windermere Waterfoot”, where a Richard Robinson had 5s. “for ye stones goeing over his ground”. Kellet Moor is one the edge of the Millstone Grit near Carnforth, and the purchase price clearly includes shipping the stones to Pennybridge and hauling them five miles up the Leven valley to the lake. For “boating them up Windermere water” Thomas Braithwaite – who owned the ‘great boat’ and had the monopoly on hired lake traffic – was paid 16s. for a trip of 10.5 miles. This rate of of 10d. per ton/mile probably reflected difficult handling.

Fleming did not state where the stones landed, but it would have been near the mouth of the river Rothay, In his account book he wrote:

One of them was (with great difficulty) brought upon a Dragg by ye Tan-pit & so up by ye side of Rothey into ye Low-park & through it & Stonethwait into ye Low How & breaking through ye wall (below ye yate) into ye old Orchard & through it & ye Old Hall into ye lane and so into ye lands ye 19th October 1683″. But finding this way very inconvenient, the other stone was brought Oct 22 “ye way aforesaid (upon a trail with a pair of wheels unto Rydal-bridge end) & through ye water directly into ye long close & through ye Round close unto ye mill-door breaking a gap there…into ye land. And then ye other stone was trailed over ye gill unto ye Long Close & conveyed into ye mill as ye other was”.

The difficulties made it worthwhile to break down a few field walls to simplify the route, and to trail the second stone under a pair of wheels rather than drag it on a sledge like the first.

The carriage of heavy timber is well recorded in the Appleby Castle estate accounts which detail the supply of oak to the navy. In July 1700, 54 oak trees were selected in Whinfell Park near Penrith, and were felled the following spring when the sap was rising and the bark would fetch the best price from the tanners at Temple Sowerby. The navy, however, wanted winter-felled trees, and the estate was “forced to Cutt down out of Sapp time” another 23 trees, so that the surplus had to be sold later to local people. The best trees would have been scattered through the woodland, and to save moving heavy trunks 15 saw-pits were dug for 21s. at 8d. per day – about two man/days per pit. They were later filled in for 6d. per pit.

For taking the timber over halfway to the coast, in September 1702 £62 10s. was paid belatedly to four names “Tenants of Kings Meaburne for the carriage of 60 loads of wood Containing 75 Tunn from….Whinfell to Heskett, being 13 Miles”. In August two other men had already been paid £56 5s for the “Carriage of it from Heskett to Rowcliffe, being 12 miles”. Coastal ships that could reach Rockcliffe were too small to carry 75 tons of cargo, so that two ship’s captains were contracted to take it about 50 miles to Whitehaven, and unload it there “till the Queen’s Shipp Come for it”.

It is clear that the capability, efficiency and costs of transportation were key factors in determining the rate of British industrial development, and contributed to Cumbria’s tendency to lag behind less isolated regions which had less severe geographical conditions and therefore fewer transport problems.