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The Scrivener: Pepys On The Tube?

If the great diarist Samuel Pepys was travelling around London by Tube today would he be tweeting on Twitter?

Brian Barratt poses a fascinating question.

The Official Guide to London lists many ways to travel round the city:

The Tube, with its 270 stations. The first undergound railway in the world.

Overground trains, with over 350 stations in and around London.

Buses, but the famous red double-deckers are no longer in general use.

Black Cabs and minicabs, for which there are about 22,000 licensed drivers in London.

The river bus service, used by hundreds of thousands of commuters and millions of tourists and visitors.

Cars, but driving one of those round London is a pretty complicated process.

Trams in a small area only, with badger tunnels and badger- proof fences to ensure that badgers can cross safely and with ease.

Bicycle, your own or a hired bike.

The green sustainable way, walking at your chosen pace. You can pause to admire the wonderful historic buildings and monuments and even see places that were familiar to Samuel Pepys, the great 17th century diarist.

In the 1600s, walking round London, then a city of about half a million people, would have been rather more hazardous than it is now. The term 'footpath' had been in use since the 1500s. Pepys would be familiar with 'pavement'. 'Sidewalk' did not come into use until the 1700s. Whatever Mr Pepys called it, he might sometimes have had to walk on the street itself, which meant having to cope with cobblestones or, simply, earth. And that was not very nice at all.

Relish this description from http://forums.canadiancontent.net/history/48176-18th-century-london-its-daily.html

'An amazing variety of filth slopped down London's cobblestone streets. Along with dirt, dust and animal manure, there was the ever-falling London rain to add to the mess. Cesspools of human waste collected in puddles everywhere. Dead animals (dogs, cats, rodents, even horses) were left to decay in the streets. In darker corners of the city, an occasional human corpse might even be found. To add to all this, horse-drawn carriages with heavy metal wheels often splashed through puddles, slopping the street's putrid muck all over strolling pedestrians.'

People who could afford them would hire sedan chairs. That would help them to avoid stepping in mud, dung, and whatever else was on the ground. Pay someone else to do that for you!

Hiring a sedan chair was cheaper than hiring a hackney cab and was also more appropriate in twisting narrow lanes and streets through which a horse-drawn vehicle couldn't drive. Hackney cabs, of course, were the forerunners of the famous London black cabs we see today. They might also have been the original cause of a ubiquitous phenomenon, the traffic jam.

Samuel Pepys often used water transport too. Wherries, boats oared by watermen, plied their trade across the Thames and along its banks. Those watermen served a very long apprenticeship, getting a thorough knowledge of the vicissitudes of the tides and currents of the Thames, before being granted a licence. They charged about fourpence to take someone across the river and were very much against proposals to build more bridges, which would take away their trade.

For longer journeys Mr Pepys would go by horse. Much of what we now know as London was then grassland, marshland, meadow, woodland and forest. On one of his typically busy days, 28 February 1660 (reprinted in Open Writing on the same date 2012), he records that after breakfast:

'Then to horse, and for London through the forest, where we found the way good, but only in one path, which we kept as if we had rode through a canal all the way.'

He also travelled by stage coach, which could be a pretty bouncy and uncomfortable mode of travel before springs and suspension were improved. However, later in his life he thought it rather inferior for someone of his status to continue using a hackney cab and so bought his own coach and had his own liveryman.

It is said that when Pepys was taking a familiar route he would read a book while walking. It is easy to imagine him doing the same thing when he travelled by horse, hackney cab or riverboat. He was also a constant conversationalist. And he was an innovator. If he travelled on the Tube in modern London, would he read a book or chat on a mobile phone and tweet on Twitter?

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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