David Copperfield's curated walk can tell us much about the route he follows from London - so far David's account is painstakingly accurate. What he does not tell us is what he can smell as he enters rural Kent or quite why his feet are so damaged by the journey's end.
Maps can show us the route, but what of the road itself? We can surmise something from what we know about road surfaces during this period and mismanagement in an era that had turnpikes. As David leaves Canterbury, he is likely to be on road surfaces that are well kept, the city is paved and cobbled. There are even accounts in 1838 of bitumen pavements in Canterbury. So, this part of the journey might be relatively easy compared with what he would encounter further on. The Victorian image of the cobbled road quickly fades to a road surface called McAdam. This type of road surface was cheaper and easier to lay and maintain.
Invented by John Loudon McAdam, this was a type of road surface that consisted of angular stones which bind together better than rounded. Each stone was a specific size (7.5cm in modern metric terms) to (5cm top layer). This made an easy ride for carts etc and traffic would create a dust that would further bind the stone. When this method was first used each stone was broke into size by hand. The navvies would keep the size correct by the rule that each stone could fit into a man’s mouth, that or the foreman would use a gauge. In summer (when David is on his walk to Dover) it can get quite dusty, mixed with track road and poorly built of kept McAdam. One can well imagine why he was in such a state on arrival at his aunt’s.
Developments to improve the original invention were to mix water and rock dust, then use it to bind McAdam roads; they would become firmer and less of a problem during extremes of weather or if coal tar was used as a binder it would later improve further. It would take a while to perfect these recipes using resins and other materials (Tar-McAdam or tarmac). Perhaps to us the most surprising was asphalt (bitumen) as a road development, but a reasonably well travelled Victorian might not be surprised at the roads we use today, while many promenades in the 1850s would seem familiar today. Currently we do not know the exact stretches of the Dover Road that might be cob, track or McAdam variants. But due to the previous turnpike system it is a sure bet that they were a mix, especially considering the corruption exposed by McAdam during his career.
David Copperfield’s footwear plays a significant role in this part of his story. We know from what he tells us that they were pretty much destroyed by his journey’s end. Considering a work or military boot might last with little wear on such a walk, it highlights a question about David’s footwear. What was he wearing?
From the original illustrations we can see David’s footwear is smooth soled and healed. As he was a child, it is fair to presume he wore child’s footwear and, in this case, footwear not meant for exceptionally long arduous walks on varying road surfaces. Illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne (`Phiz’), which were drawn for the original book, seem to deliberately show the sole of the shoe to the reader. This detail may be missed by today’s reader, but it might be the case that a contemporary reader would notice the smooth soles with no dots to represent hob nails.
The leather in shoes and manufacturing processes would be familiar today. Major differences are the glues and synthetic sole compounds. Victorian soles were mostly leather, construction of sole the attachment might have been either furrow stitched (where you cut a furrow in the sole and the stiches would be inlaid, as shoes wear it’s normally the middle of the sole first) and the finish was variable. Soles were nailed on or sometimes tunnel stitched, and with work or walking boots there would be the addition of hobnails and cleats (like small horseshoes for people’s shoes). Hobs were not found in shoes used for town or house. David’s shoes seem likely to have a heel with not much more than layers of nailed or glued leather. No wonder they fell apart and gave him blisters!
Moule’s County Maps, The East and South East of England. (Moule, 1837).
An Historical Atlas of Kent. (Lawson et al. 2004).
Britain’s Tudor Maps County by County, John Speed. National Library of Scotland, 2019.