In rural areas in the nineteenth century, where no other transport links existed and where most local people could not have afforded them anyway, carriers’ carts provided a vital and inexpensive there-and-back-again service between villages and towns, bearing passengers, goods and errands to market and home once more. The carriers drove two- or four-wheel wagons enclosed with a canvas cover or tilt-cloth, usually drawn by a single horse, in which women and children, crates or hampers of pullets or ducklings, baskets of eggs and cheese, bushels of vegetables or cobnuts, chips of soft fruit, and shopkeepers’ parcels tied up in brown paper and string all bundled together. For a girl of 14 or 15, leaving Plaxtol for a life in domestic service, dressed in her best and with her precious possessions packed in a banded trunk, the carrier would usually provide transport on the first stage of the journey. He was entrusted to make deliveries, to fetch ordered items, to match samples of cloth, thread or knitting wool for countrywomen with no time to travel to town themselves.
From at least the 1850s, Plaxtol enjoyed service by two carriers: Henry Fawcett and David Beadle and his son, Hezekiah. These men offered a cart to Maidstone on Tuesdays and Thursdays – market day for farmers – and to Sevenoaks ‘occasionally.’ They would pick up their goods and passengers, together with any commissions for errands, at various stopping-points, usually inns or beerhouses, but also farmhouses, along their route. We know that the Beadles’ cart stopped at Mereworth and had usually passed through Wateringbury by about 10 o’clock.. On arrival at Maidstone, the carts would most often gather in pub yards, where the horses could be unharnessed, fed and watered and await the return trip. For Fawcett and Beadle, this was the Rose & Crown Inn in the High Street. Fawcett’s cart made the Tuesday trip, returning from the Rose & Crown at 2.30 pm, while the Beadles made the journey on Thursdays, leaving the inn at 3 pm.
We know that Henry Fawcett started his life in Plaxtol as a farm labourer (1851), going on to become a some-time baker and a farmer in his own right. His home and baker’s shop were in The Street, somewhere between The Old Rectory and The Papermakers’ Arms. David Beadle had settled in Plaxtol in the early 1820s, and was a farmer of comparable standing to Henry Fawcett, employing four men on 40 acres, against Henry’s six men and two boys on 37 acres, in 1871. His home was Daltons Farm in The Street, where he and his wife Clara raised ten children, nine of them baptised at Plaxtol. Having begun the naming of their children conventionally, with David junior, Clara, Thomas (after Beadle’s father) and Anna (after his mother), the Beadles looked to the Bible for inspiration in the christening of their children. Mary and Hannah, even Miriam, were modest choices (it is easy to forget today that many commonplace names have their origins in the universality of the Scriptures) but Hephzibah (a daughter), Hezekiah and Caleb were perhaps more unusual. Hezekiah Beadle is a name worthy of a Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy novel. He was born on 3 September 1838, and Caleb in the spring of 1844.
Census and church records tell us so much. But it is from the newspapers of the time that detail in relation to the Beadles can be gleaned, casting light on how they ran their carrier service to Maidstone and some of the challenges they faced. In February 1856 a case came before the Malling petty sessions, in which the magistrates heard that David junior had been seen riding without reins on 17 January that year. ‘Riding without reins’ was in contravention of the Highways Act passed under William IV, which required any cart driver to have always ‘some other person on foot, or on horseback to guide [the horse]’ unless his cart was one of those ‘driven with reins and … conducted by some person holding the reins of all the horses drawing the same.’ It was a common offence at the time, appearing repeatedly in the petty sessions reports, but in evidence the charge in this case was proven wrong on almost all counts. It had been young Caleb, 12, who had been in control of the front horse of two drawing the cart in tandem, having ridden out to meet his father (not his brother) to help with the steep hill on the way home from Maidstone. It was already dark, and the roads around Oxenhoath and Gover Hill were probably slick with either rain, ice or snow when he met them somewhere near The Artichoke Inn (now a private house). The passenger on that occasion, a Mrs Turley, testified that she travelled to and fro on the Beadles’ cart every Thursday and that it was usual for a second horse to be hitched to the cart in this way. Caleb had dismounted when he met them, she said, but stayed with the horse and had a rein upon it. The case was dismissed.
Offering service as a carrier was a useful source of additional income, but it did mean that a man and a horse would be unavailable for farm work for at least a day each week. Combining the service with a chance to conduct one’s own business in town (such as meetings with the seed merchant, fruit dealer or hop factor), or to indulge in some Victorian networking over a good lunch with other farmers, was no doubt the reason that the Beadles, at least, chose to make the journey themselves.
On the last morning of March 1870, Hezekiah Beadle was on his way to Maidstone as usual, with three female passengers and assorted goods on board his cart. On the other side of Wateringbury, he had just got down from the cart to lead his horse uphill when he passed a man carrying a flag and then saw the traction engine to which the man belonged, bringing a threshing machine along the road in the opposite direction. The effect that encountering these snorting, clanking monsters of steam and iron could have on horses was well-known (statutory regulations demanded that engines be preceded by a warning flagman such as the one Hezekiah met that day) and the driver drew to a stop to allow the cart to pass.
The exact sequence of events is not then clear. The driver claimed that he called out to Hezekiah, asking if it were alright for him to start the engine again, but had to ask the man on the engine with him what the answer had been, as he had not heard it himself. When asked about it later, Hezekiah would not remember saying anything at all. It seems certain that he and the horse had passed the engine, but apparently the cart had not yet cleared it when the driver started up. Sophia Sarah Beavin, the wife of agricultural labourer George Beavin from Plaxtol, was riding at the front of the cart. She said she heard a gush of steam, similar to that which was familiar from the paper mill (a major employer in Plaxtol), and the horse – previously quiet – took fright, plunged in the shafts and galloped away, dragging Hezekiah until he fell beneath its hooves. The other passengers, mother and daughter, said the same.
Hezekiah was badly hurt by the horse’s hooves. Unconscious, he was picked up by Sophia and the passing driver of a fruit van and taken to West Kent General Hospital, where he was treated for two severe cuts to his scalp, a wounded eye, bruises to his face and bleeding from the ear. His surgeon believed that he had suffered a fractured skull. He was in hospital for almost all of April and then took lodgings in Maidstone, so as to be close to his surgeon’s care, for a further fortnight. Once home in Plaxtol, he was nursed by his maiden sisters or a hired carer. After five months he was still weak and unfit for work, and a year later reported that he had suffered loss of the hearing in his right ear. His doctor ‘did not believe that he would ever be a sound man again.’ Supported by his father, Hezekiah made a claim against the owner of the traction engine, Mr Winder of Wrotham. At the hearing in March 1871, the jury found in his favour and awarded him £125 damages.
By the beginning of the 1890s Beadle and Fawcett had been replaced by Jn Clark on Tuesdays and Hy Snell on Thursdays. Clark may have been John Clark, a neighbour of Henry Fawcett’s, now at Dunks Green, while Devon-born Henry Snell appears in the 1891 census return as a farmer and corn carrier living in Plaxtol Street. It may be Snell’s cart which appears in a photograph of The Street, in the Plaxtol archives. In the first decade of the twentieth century, services were offered by the appropriately named William Buss (via Oxenhoath, each Tuesday), Sidney Wakeman of Dunks Green (to Maidstone on Thursdays, to Sevenoaks, and thrice-weekly to Tonbridge), Frederick Beeching (to Maidstone twice a week) and James West.
As demand for carrier services continued to grow, their carts became larger and more numerous and would be lined up in Maidstone High Street, the horses taken from the shafts to be stabled or tethered separately. As late as 1916 the carts could be seen parked in a row there, empty shafts tipped skyward, among the passing motor cars.
© New Moons For Old, 2015.
Picture credit: Carriers’ carts in the lower High Street, Maidstone (1910) from Maidstone From Old Photographs by Irene Hales (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2009)