Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Cobbled (?) Streets of Victorian London

Summon a mental picture of Dickensian streets, and if you’re like me, images spring to mind of horses clattering across cobblestones. Actually, whilst cobblestones are an ancient innovation, Dickens would have been more familiar seeing “granite setts” on the better London streets.
The ideal road surface needed to be durable, easily cleaned (all that horse excrement!), non slip, and didn’t turn into a bog when it rained.

A street being repaved with granite setts

As London grew and expanded rapidly, the search was on for a road surface that could cope with the traffic. One answer was macadam. St James’s Square in the affluent West End was the first London road to use macadam. This is a mix of small granite stones pressed into a prepared surface. Huge, heavy rollers pulled by teams of twelve men were pulled over the surface, compressing it down. This worked well when done properly; however, contractors frequently cut corners to increase their profit margins.
Look closely and you'll see these are irregularly shaped
granite setts rather than cobbles
Their cost cutting dodges included using bigger stones (less effort required to mill them finer) and giving the artifice of smoothness by covering them with sand. First heavy rainfall and sand washed away, exposing a hopelessly irregular surface. Another problem was inadequate rolling flat, which meant the weight of traffic pushed the gravel to one side creating deep ruts in the road. Perhaps an altogether less obvious problem, was poorly laid macadam provide ammunition for the protestors to throw at police at times of disquiet.
With thanks to
Cobbles are rounder than than rectangular setts

Master engineer Thomas Telford, also in the 1820s, came up with the idea of granite sets. These were stone blocks measuring 11 by 13 inches, and 9 inches deep, set over level ballast. Even when laid correctly, this surface was too smooth and therefore slippery for horses. Labourers regularly had to hammer away with chisels to roughen the surface to give the horses hooves purchase.
Granite setts
But cutting hard stone to the exact size was an expensive and time-consuming process, and poorly shaped blocks or offcuts often found their way into the roads, providing ruts and holes for a horse to trip on.
The idea behind hardwood roads

A strange solution to the modern mind, but for a while wooden roads seemed the obvious answer. Wooden blocks were easier to cut than stone, and could be dowelled together in the factory, and assembled on site like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The surface was grooved so as to provide grip. Another huge benefit was the wood muffled sound, and was much less noisy beneath hoof or iron wheel. One contemporary reports:
“The shopkeepers stat that they can now hear and speak to their customers…even when their windows were open.”
The residents of affluent areas clamoured to have this new wonder road surface installed in their square or road, and by the early 1840s Regent Street, Oxford Street, and parts of Holborn had wooden roads.

However no one foresaw the rapid deterioration of a wooden road surface – especially one in high use. By 1843 they were in such a poor state that on one stretch, in just four days, 19 horses had slipped and fallen. Indeed, on hills, or in frosty weather the roads rapidly became impassable to equine traffic (at least it kept the noise down!)

Roads which had recently been paved with wood were torn up and resurfaced. Interestingly, a few wooden roads remained in places where quiet was desirable, such as outside the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court.

So what of the humble cobble stone? The word “cobble” refers to a rounded stone, of between 2.5 to 10 inches diameter. And before you ask when the Victorian’s invented cobblestones – they didn’t! That honour is a much older one and dates back to the Romans. Their preferred method of building a durable road surface was to use the lumpen strength and reliability of cobbles. 


  1. Never knew about wooden roads

    1. Fascinating, isn't it.
      It's kind of a "no brainer" it would get slippery, like walking on wet garden decking I imagine.
      Thanks for visiting!
      G x

  2. I've never heard of the wooden roads, either. It's interesting how many different types they tried. It's not clear to me, though, whether they returned to using cobblestones after they had problems with these others.

    1. I think the wooden roads were replaced with granite sets.
      My impression is that cobbles were the poor-man's granite sett. The granite had to be worked and chiselled into the correct dimensions, whereas cobbles came ready formed - so whilst cheaper, this meant the road surface was more random.
      Grace x

  3. I didn't know roads could be so fascinating! Cheers for that.

    1. Ha! Glad you found the post entertaining. I must admit, this has given me an idea for the profession of the protagonist in my next book ;-)
      G x

  4. Amazing! Granite is spendy these days. I wonder if it was readily available then. Apparently so.

    1. Interesting idea, but yes, I imagine it must have been.
      Love your word "spendy" - I haven't heard it before but it says so much!
      So many things in life these days are "spendy"- indeed, this could be my new favourite word!
      Thank you, Debra!
      G x

  5. Your picture of granite sets shows the more usual cube shape about 6'' in dimension, this makes it convenient for handling.


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