I’ve been giving this some thought over the last week…as a result of the last post I put up about the lads. And one of the questions which I found myself reasoning through was, why were the British so horse-mad in the 18th and early 19th century? What made Britain different in this way? Why could carriage making and horse breeding be so advanced here as opposed to elsewhere.
And I believe I have two answers. Money. And the state of the roads.
Unlike the countries of continental Europe, Britain led the way in terms of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century. And this created huge amounts of new wealth. Some of which, obviously, would have benefitted those aristocractic families who had investments. But there were also the new possessors of that new wealth eager to acquire the finer things in life–and that would have meant, at least to some, fine horses and the latest fashion in carriages. (Garrick makes a joke of this in his play, The Clandestine Marriage…)
There’s also an interest in breeding better and faster horses. Stubbs’ paintings detail many horses being bred from newly acquired Arab stock.
But what do you need for all these fine horses? You need good roads for them to run upon–and in that Britain excelled.
The countrywide system of turnpike roads, with a fee collected locally–at the turnpike gate–and locally used to maintain the stretch of road, meant that Britain had the best roads in Europe. Our stagecoaches and mailcoaches were infinitely faster–due to the state of the roads–than the French diligences. And after reading about Beethoven’s struggles in the mud tracks which were the best of the German roads (Sir Thomas Lawrence also found them less than pleasant…), you can get a feel for just how bad bad roads could be in the rest of Europe.
So, there’s money–and keeping horses requires a great deal of that–but also good roads, so that the London to Brighton race was even a possibility among those who could afford the horses. The records for that race are something in the region of 4 hours and 15 minutes, or so. Not bad, eh?
And that would have been a racing carriage pulled by four horses. Or Four-in-Hand as they called it.