Above: View looking north at the turnpike gate.
With the vast area of Smithfield given over to animal pens for the daily cattle market, a common sight on roads into London was one or more drovers with many animals being driven to the market. If you have ever driven on more rural roads you may well have encountered a farmer driving his cows along a country road for milking or moving a flock of sheep from one field to another. We probably think it is quite quaint to see this today but for the traveller in the centuries before the railways this was an everyday occurrence on road all over Britain.
In the countryside there were ‘drove-ways’ which were used to drive animals across fields and moorland for hundreds of miles. As the drover approached large towns or cities they had to use the roadway. Animals were driven in herds often numbering hundreds of head of cattle, sheep, pigs and also geese. It was a tough job for the drovers who often spent weeks with the animals – driving them long distances to London from Wales, from Scotland and from the north of England. Closer to London, drovers travelled through Essex, Kent and Surrey. The drovers usually slept beside the animals at night and kept watch to see that none of them wandered off or – more importantly – were stolen.
Many of the main roads were toll-roads – often known as turnpikes. Companies were responsibly for maintained the road surface and raised money for the work by charging tolls. For the drovers this meant paying a fee based on the numbers of animals that they had with them. The print at the top of this article shows the Islington Turnpike Gate. The route through Islington was one of the busiest in London for driving animals. Drovers brought cattle from Scotland via the north of England and often sold them on to other drovers at the large cattle market at St Ives, in Cambridgeshire. From there they were driven to London and very often the route led through Islington which was part of the Great North Road. The final stage of the journey was via St John Street and thence to Smithfield Cattle Market.
Above: Map showing the position of the turnpike gate on Greenwood’s map of the 1820s. The northern end of Islington High Street is Upper Street.
The print at the top of the article shows the scene at the turnpike gate. It looks north from a point that is probably near the junction with City Road. In the distance (above the gate) is the easily recognisable spire of St Mary, Islington. Either side of the print are the toll-houses where the gate-keeper stood and collected the money. A herd of animals has just passed through the gate being led at the front by a drover on horseback with a second man at the rear driving the animals forward. Progress with the animals was slow with the average speed being around two or three miles per hour. It will be realised that travelling long distances took a considerable time. When the drovers reached fields near London they would rest the animals for one or two weeks to let them recover from the journey and to fatten them up before selling them at market. Farmers on the route rented out their fields for this particular purpose.
Returning to the print we see a ‘coach and four’ passing through the gate. Those sitting on top of the coach would have had a fine view of London and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The dome can still be seen from near the position of the gate to this day. The passengers would have been relieved to see the view because they knew then that the end of their journey to London was only a couple of miles away. Coach travel was also very slow, although not as slow as that of the drovers. Coaches travelled at an average speed of around 10 miles per hour. The horses could only maintain that speed for about 10 or 12 miles so, on a 100-mile route, the horses would be changed about 10 times. This of course added to the journey time. While the horses were being changed the passengers were permitted to rush into the inn and snatch a snack or a drink to fortify them for the journey. However, if the coach had been delayed by bad weather the coachman would shorten the stop in order to make up lost time. It was a grim experience for passengers on a stage-coach!