The 19th Century

The final days of the pack trains

Steel arch connecting the two halves of a military pack saddle

In 1825 it is recorded that 20 Fell ponies laden with farm produce left Kendal each week for London; 18 to Wigton; 20 to Whitehaven, which was a thriving port.

Thanks to pack transport, later in the century London merchants could reliably offer fresh Lakeland goods all year round. At one time it was estimated that over 300 Fell ponies left Kendal every morning for destinations all over the country. They carried such goods as salt, butter, live chickens, fresh fish, bolts of cloth, tanned hides and Kendal's famous woollen stockings.

Left: Refurbished Army packsaddle of the early 20th century, owned by the explorer, naturalist, conservationist and Earthwatch Fellow, David Murray. Photos © D A Murray / M L Murray 2003

The basic shape and construction of this 20th century pack saddle is probably very similar to the earlier versions. "Fans" of wood hinge onto the two steel arches which hold the packs clear of the pony's spine, and padding prevents rubbing as the pony walks along. You can see that the hooks could be used to fasten on wicker panniers such as those in the Museum, as well as other loads.

overhead view of 20th C military pack saddle

See also Ironbridge Gorge Museum which has etchings of packhorses at a coal pit. (This link takes you out of the Museum site. Use Back button to return.)

Sir Walter Gilbey, quoting Mr William Graham of Eden Grove, writes in 1903:

"Up to about fifty years ago great interest seems to have been taken in pony or galloway cob breeding throughout the whole district of the Eden valley, in the village and hamlets that lie scattered all along the foot of the Pennine range of hills. Previous to the days of railway transit the ponies and small galloway cobs were employed in droves as pack-horses, as well as for riding, and many men now living can remember droves of from twenty to thirty continually travelling the district, carrying panniers of coal and other merchandise between the mines and the villages." (Dent)

Sir Walter also says: "An authority resident at Harrington who gives much information concerning the ponies of the Fell-side holdings and moors states that there are several strains, and the appearance and character of each differ in various districts under the various local influences of climate, feed, etc; little or nothing is known of the origin of these ponies."

The End of the Pack Trade

Turnpike Trusts

From 1739 changes were in progress, as "turnpike" roads began to be built. Turnpike "trusts" exacted tolls on travellers for the upkeep of the highway. Pringle (1794) observed that the "great roads" were "kept in excellent repair by sums collected at turnpike gates" although "parochial roads" were less satisfactory: "many scarcely exceed the smallest legal breadth allowed by statute, which is eight feet". The last turnpike to be completed in Westmorland was the road built in 1818-1819 from Levens to Penny Bridge, where a toll was levied for the passage over the River Crake.

Trade began to move off the pack routes and the ponies, to take advantage of the greater speed and carrying capacity of coaches and carts on the easier gradients of the turnpikes. However, "for many years the old tracks and pack horses with their hults and panniers were to remain the only means of communication for farmers between one valley and another or one village and another over the rough uncultivated moors and commons which these direct turnpikes did not reach." (Garnett)

Railways displace both packhorses and coaches

More change came as the railways began to thread their way through the Lake District in the late 1840s. In flatter areas of Britain these changes went on at speed and the "coaching age" lasted a bare thirty years.

But both the "railway fever" for building branch lines and the earlier enthusiasm for canal transport must have been curbed in Cumbria by the difficulty of the terrain. In the mountainous Lakeland country, long after that, coaches remained useful and even became tourist attractions. (see Late 19th C pages)

... every mile of the thirty from Kendal to Keswick was inches deep in powdered dust, churned by passing coach wheels, horses and cyclists. How that evil cloud hung in the air; how vile it tasted, and how it stank... Road dust fouled every Lakeland brook and roadside pool; whitened every hedgerow, and wasted fifty yards of meadow land (uneaten by cattle) on either side of the coach road. (Palmer)