Dorian Gerhold, Bristol's Stage Coaches.
The literature on the economic history of Britain is dominated by the industrial revolution and technological change. In these histories, road transport is often given a marginal role as there were no revolutionary breakthroughs like the steam engine or spinning jenny. However upon closer inspection it becomes clear that road transport was not marginal. In fact, based on estimates of productivity growth road transport should be regarded as one of the 'revolutionized' sectors of the eighteenth-century British economy and a key contributor to the industrial revolution. Dorian Gerhold's new book gives new support to this view by providing a case study of the coaching industry in Bristol. It makes several contributions. First, the Bristol case illuminates national trends in coaching productivity. Second, it speaks to the mechanisms of productivity growth including improved roads and technological improvements like steel springs and better horses. Third, it examines the link between market structure and competition. Fourth, it provides a social context for coaching addressing themes of mobility and class.
Increasing speed is the most striking indicator of productivity growth in coaching. In the early eighteenth century average journey speeds were around three miles per hour and by the 1820s they were around eight. As a result, total journey time from Bristol to London fell from three days to one day. As Gerhold notes, greater speed came at the cost of higher feed for the horses drawing carriages. However, the rise in feed costs need not be large if there was productivity growth making speed more efficient. Under the assumption of perfect competition, an estimate of the rate of productivity growth comes from comparing the trends of input prices and fares. Without productivity growth, costs should have risen by more than inflation in feed prices and wages because speeds were increasing. Drawing on biomechanical evidence from the nineteenth century, Gerhold argues that for every rise in speed of one mile per hour total costs might have increased by thirteen to twenty-nine per cent. The implication is that fares should have risen by approximately 100 per cent as a result of the growth in speeds and inflation between 1750 and 1825. In fact, fares increased by only thirty per cent (p. 57). The implied productivity increase from 1750 to 1825 is 233 per cent. Here Gerhold makes an important contribution to the literature. The degree to which fares should have increased for every extra mile of speed-absent productivity growth is not at all clear and require careful research. Gerhold's estimates also have important implications. The implied annual rate of productivity growth in coaching of 1.6 per cent turns out to be relatively large for the British economy in this period. In fact it is not far below productivity growth in Britain's vaunted textile sector.
Gerhold's second contribution is in analyzing the sources of productivity growth. There are three candidates: better roads, better horses and better springs. Better breeding meant that horses could haul more for the same amount of feed. Steel springs for carriages also created economies in hauling. Springs were introduced in the early 1760s and were incorporated in new vehicles known as post-coaches or machines. Elliptical springs were introduced in the early 1800s, and were widely adopted in the 1810s and 20s (pp. 106-7). The story of springs is especially interesting as they were the product of individual inventors, like Richard Tredwell and Obadiah Elliot. Tredwell and Elliot took out patents, presumably in the hopes of profiting from their invention. In the case of Tredwell, he was able to set up a manufacturing establishment, but it does not appear to have been a financial success (p. 46).
Better roads are the most controversial of the potential drivers of productivity growth. While there is ample evidence that roads were much improved in the 1810s and 20s, it is not as clear that roads were improved in the mid eighteenth century. The story centres around the early activities of turnpike trusts, which financed roads by issuing bonds secured on toll revenues. Trusts were one of many institutional innovations arising from parliament's system of local legislation. They were adopted in a piecemeal fashion, often with different trusts managing a long distance route. They also spread through the road network slowly before 1750 and then much more rapidly afterwards. Gerhold suggests that trusts were not entirely successful in improving roads before 1750, including those along the London to Bristol route. There is some evidence that turnpike trusts struggled to improve roads in their early days, but this was not true of all trusts. The effects of those who were successful were unlikely to translate into productivity gains unless a threshold of road improvement had been achieved. Along an individual route one bad stretch of road could cause problems. Also it may not have been profitable to develop technologies like steel springs, or to purchase the coaches that embodied them, unless they could be used on a large number of improved roads. Most of Britain's cross roads and many of its London roads did not get turnpike trusts until after 1750. According to my own research, the turnpike trust was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for productivity growth in coaching. As one piece of evidence, the introduction of new regional coach services almost always came after turnpike trusts were established, although sometimes after a long delay (p. 199). It is probable that Britain's coaching sector would not have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by better roads if coach-masters were not entrepreneurial or the market was uncompetitive.
Gerhold offers a number of important insights regarding the firms that serviced Bristol's coaches. For long-distance services firms were generally organized as partnerships where each coach-master was responsible for their section of the route (a.k.a. their stage) providing horses and feed. The proceeds were split according to the miles of each section. Although individual partnerships could easily break up, the organization of firms proved to be very stable. In terms of market structure, there were usually few firms serving a market at a given time. There was a lot of entry, but new firms rarely survived or were merged with incumbents. Gerhold suggests that the London coaching market was generally competitive despite the high level of concentration. The threat of entry seems to have acted as a disciplining force. In periods where innovation was high, it was often the entrants who pushed speeds and kept fares stable. Incumbents generally followed suit even after entrants had exited. These points are important as they provide another indication that markets with low barriers to entry also tend to have high productivity growth.
Gerhold offers a number of interesting anecdotes on the groups who travelled and their experiences. The reader gets the sense that coach services were valuable to the upper and middle classes. Landowners, ladies, intellectuals, politicians, industrialists and merchants were among the most common travelers. They were usually found 'inside' the coach. An 'outside' seating option was a major innovation of the period as it broadened access to travel. The identity of the outside passengers is not as clear. No doubt they included some of the emerging working class. The outside travellers' experience was mixed, no doubt. Clearly it beat walking, but bearing the weather, especially at night, must have been challenging. Here one sees why railways were taken up so markedly in the 1840s as they offered much better services to outside travellers. As a final remark on an excellent book, Gerhold notes the poor treatment of horses. Many were worked to death by the coachman. The superintendent of mail coaches provided a telling comment in 1836 that 'if the animals could plead they would surely be advocates for rail roads (p. 181)'.
Department of Economics, UC Irvine
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|Publication:||The Journal of Transport History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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