Discover more from Lefineder’s Substack
Carts of Carnage
Travel in the age of the cart was more dangerous than travel in the age of the car.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said safer horses.” - not henry ford1
In 1734 George Turner was riding his horse when it was suddenly frightened by a noise and started galloping, a turnpike opened its gate hurriedly to prevent a crash but on and on the horse went as people shouted for it to stop or slow down, ‘Son of bitch! You’ll do some mischief’, at last, the horse crushed into a woman, Ann Croft, as she was turning a corner:
“The horse barrelled into her, caught its hind leg in her petticoats as she rolled beneath it, and was brought to its knees. Turner went over the animal’s head and with one foot still in the stirrup lay momentarily in the roadway. He freed himself as the horse rose. It then bolted onwards down Sow-gelders Lane. Turner called to John Beacham who worked nearby, ‘For God’s sake brother, lend me a hand to help her up.’ They tried to lift her, but she lay dead on the ground; her head, kicked by the horse”2
George Turner would later be tried and acquitted of manslaughter (witnesses accused him of speeding, ‘riding at full speed’). Those types of accidents were incredibly common, England was a mobile society, an Italian visitor reported in 1557 that ‘there is no male or female peasant who does not ride on horseback’.3 We can confirm this observation with probate data in which around a quarter of workers owned horses.
From a study of Sussex’s coroner’s rolls of accidental deaths, 30% of all deaths happened during travel with 15% of deaths happening due to horses or vehicles.
Even the water was not safe from the horse menace, in 1581 John Swannycke was helping steer a ferryboat from the coast when a trampling horse drove him from his post, the boat turned in the wind and sank killing 16 people.4
How do the historical rates compare to the modern danger of car travel? Decent enough data is available for comparison in London’s “Bills of Mortality”. Between 1654-1735, 1030 people would die in London from Horses and Vehicles, comprising 8.3% of deaths.
When these numbers are converted to per capita rates and compared to modern rates of traffic fatalities we see that per capita deaths were around twice as high in pre-industrial London than they are now.5
If we could calculate the matter in the classical way of deaths per mile traveled, then the differences would undoubtedly magnify. Given the low distances that people traveled in the past one only has to look at the ridiculous travel times that existed from London to neighboring towns to realize that not only did people die at considerable rates from pre-modern travel, they were not getting very far while doing so.
Let us take a look at deaths by means of transport.
The worst offender here is the cart, these deathmoblies can reach weights of between one or two tons when fully loaded and had no suspension system or brakes. This means when the cart veers off the road it’s liable to overturn and kill you like it did to drunk Thomas Edwardes. Alternatively, you can take it slow like Edmund Gellybrand who was leading a fully loaded cart down a hill by heavingly leaning against it with his own body weight until he slipped, fell underneath it, and was crushed6.
So thank god for the Engine, so you don’t have to flintstone your Toyota.
Consider becoming a subscriber.
The actual quote was also by not henry ford.
“Accidents and Violent Death in Early Modern London” - Craig Spence, p 118-119
“Animal accidents in Tudor England” - Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski
https://tudoraccidents.history.ox.ac.uk/?page_id=177, January 2020.
The numbers for horse deaths (361 ) & vehicle deaths (669 ) were combined, this seems reasonable to me since those horse deaths are almost all related to travel, close to half of the people who died, died from falling off them (164 deaths) and 100 more were kicked which is the cost of operating such a feisty means of transport. The number of deaths was divided by the population of London at the time, which is taken as 575k, this is the average value between 500k and 650k, since the population of London grow rather linearly from 500k to 650k between 1654-1735, dividing by the average should give a decent approximation of the average rate of fatalities. Historical demographic population data on London can be found in “The Population of London, 1550-1700: a review of the published evidence” and in the book “The Rise of the English Town, 1650-1850” p.18. Modern traffic fatalities are from the following reports: https://content.tfl.gov.uk/casualties-in-greater-london-2019.pdf, https://content.tfl.gov.uk/casualties-in-greater-london-2021.pdf. Modern population data for London is from Greater London Authority (GLA).
https://tudoraccidents.history.ox.ac.uk/?page_id=177, April 2023 ,January 2022.