Place: Nethersole, near Canterbury (1783-7)
According to the extensive journal of John Marsh, gentleman, barrister, and talented amateur musician, the few years he spent living at Nethersole, near Canterbury, were notable for the concerts in which he either played a leading role (as violinist, organist, composer, and/or organiser) or was an enthusiastic member of the audience. Occasionally he records a trip to London to sustain his study for the bar, though this seems by some way the less important part of his life. Apart from the prodigious musical energy of the man, the glimpses of the county's cultural life and the infrastructure – such as it was – which supported it are fascinating:
'As the moon was now in its last quarter and the evening turned out to be very dark, we all found it expedient to stay till 11 o’clock, by which time the moon became of sufficient height to enlighten us on our road home. On this account, after Michaelmas it was usual for all dinner and evening engagements to be fixed for the moonlight nights, in consequence of which our engagements came so thick during the second and third quarters of the moon that we were always rather glad than otherwise when the dark nights came that we might have a few evenings to ourselves. On this account also it was usual for families settling and arranging their engagements etc., at this time of year to ask how they stood engaged during the present or the next moon.'
A little later in the diary, Marsh notes that his musical activities were not always so accommodating:
'These private concerts (to which Mrs M. not being a subscriber could not come) being always on dark nights I was necessitated on these nights to sleep at the inn and return home the next morning. After the public ones (it being moonlight) we always went home in the coach afterwards.'
The need to be able to see where one is going may strike us as (pun intended) blindingly obvious, but darkness was not the only obstacle. Over a century later, Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, collector of folk songs, reminisced about travel along England's country roads in the early nineteenth century. Their very construction, he notes, was a matter for contention:
Road-making was formerly intrusted [sic] to the parochial authorities, and there was no supervision. It was carried out in slovenly and always in an unsystematic manner. In adopting a direct or circuitous line of way, innumerable predilections interfered, and parishes not infrequently quarrelled about the roads.1
And the quality of engineering was as might be expected:
'Formerly the roads were – not exactly paved, but made by the thrusting of big stones into holes which they more or less adequately filled. Then on top of all were put smaller stones, picked up from the fields, and not broken at all. [...] Even with systematic mending, the old roads were bad, for the true principle on which roads should be made was not known.'2
‘The wonder to me is, that chaises ever made any progress over these old roads without being splintered to atoms’ is Baring-Gould's conclusion, and Sydney Smith, Anglican cleric and humourist, testifies to the problem:
'In going from Taunton to Bath I suffered between ten thousand and twelve thousand severe contusions before stone-breaking McAdam was born. I paid fifteen pounds in a single year for repair of carriage-springs on the pavement of London. […] I forgot to add, that as the basket of the stage-coaches in which luggage was then carried had no springs, your clothes were rubbed all to pieces; and that even in the best society, one-third of the gentlemen were always drunk.'3
Levels of intoxication, as will be noted, probably remained an issue, but at least roads improved: Smith's ‘stone-breaking McAdam’ was John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836): the engineer who wrought a transformation in this lamentable state of affairs. Baring-Gould explains his road-building method quite accurately:
'McAdam's principle was this. Make all roads with the highest point in the middle, then the water runs off it, instead of – as in the old roads – lodging in the middle. Next, do not pave the road at all, but lay in a bottom – metal it – with broken stones, to the depth of six or eight inches, and then cover these with another layer, broken smaller, to the depth of two or three inches. Then all will be welded together into a compact and smooth mass.'4
The improvement in travelling comfort in the first three or four decades of the nineteenth century, as McAdam's method of road building was adopted across the nation, must have been wondrous at the time. Some sense of that wonder may be found in the newspaper report below: in reporting the stunt pulled off by a local actor-manager, the Kentish Gazette clearly found the travelling more remarkable than the acting, since the report gives no clue as to what piece or pieces, exactly, Mr Sloman performed:
'Mr Sloman's professional feat. On Thursday evening Mr Sloman, the spirited manager of this circuit [of theatres], completed his undertaking to perform in three pieces at the Canterbury, Rochester, and Maidstone theatres, within the hours of seven and 12 o'clock. The time of performing in the pieces, at the three theatres, took one hour and 48 minutes, and the time of travelling from Canterbury to Rochester, and from thence to Maidstone (36 post miles), two hours and 27 minutes, making together four hours and 15 minutes. His performances at Canterbury commenced at 7 o'clock, and closed at Maidstone at a quarter past eleven, thus completing his task in 45 minutes less than the time given. Mr Sloman was supplied with horses at the Lion Hotel, Canterbury; the Ship Inn, Faversham; the Rose Inn, Sittingbourne; and the Bull Inn, Rochester. The travelling was done at the rate of nearly 15 miles an hour, over ground by no means the most favourable for travelling. Mr Sloman was warmly greeted and cheered at the different towns he passed through, as also on his arrival at Maidstone, where he had the gratification of finishing his task to a house filled to the ceiling.'5
For much more prosaic reasons, Canterbury's musicians would certainly have appreciated the improvement in travelling conditions.