The Fell Pony Museum: 17th century
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A packpony's day

Transport, observed by Daniel Defoe:

Most of our other greatest and most navigable rivers are navigable but a very little way in ... our river-navigation is not to be named for carriage, with the vast bulk of carriage by pack-horses and by waggons; nor must the carriage by pedlars on their backs be omitted.

This carriage is the medium of our inland trade ... the Yorkshire clothing trade, the Manchester and Coventry trades, all by land, not to London only, but to all parts of England, by horse-packs ...

Defoe, The Complete English Tradesman. [LONDON 1726, EDINBURGH 1839]

A long steady day

The pack-horses were allowed to graze for some distance in the morning, if they had not been able to do so through the night; and then were muzzled so they would travel without pause to their midday stop, when they could graze again. Pack horses that carried lead ore would be muzzled from the start to prevent them grazing the grass beside the track which became contaminated with lead dust from the constant traffic. Apparently grass itself does not take up lead very readily but other herbs do, as common local names like "lead wort" imply - examples are Alpine Penny-cress, Spring Sandwort, and Scurvygrass - and of course ponies will graze many other plants as well as grasses.

Bell Collars

Trains were heralded by the sound of the bell collar worn by the lead horse. This must have been an advertisement to potential customers in villages, and a warning to other trains in darkness, bad weather, and narrow places.


Most of the journey was done at a walk. A pony walks at around 3 miles an hour, so in a 7 hour day a pack train would cover 20 miles.

Charles Thurlow Craig, who worked cattle on horseback in South America in the 1920s and 30s, explains why walking is the pack pony's pace:

When loading up do not forget that one prime essential is to balance it evenly. As little as 30 or 40lb can make a bad sore on a horse in a couple of days if it is lop-sided ... The reason a saddle stays so nicely in place when you are riding is that you are alive and balancing. The pack is dead and cannot help ... never lead a pack-horse at the trot, and get down every mile or so to see that all is well, to slip your fingers between surcingles and belly ...

The pack ponies in the pack trains probably travelled "loose headed", ie, not tied together or led, at any rate until they reached a town. Ponies were unlikely to dash off and leave the safety of the group; they knew that their usual tracks were the route they should follow. Anyone who has worked with ponies carrying beginner riders over a regular route will know how easily they fall into a routine and take up set places in a line.

The state of the roads

It must be remembered that there were few "good" roads until fairly recent times. In 1698 Ogilby records only one road through Westmorland, that between Kendal, Ambleside, Keswick and Cockermouth. In 1730 the magistrates demanded repair of the Kentmere road over Garburn after a report by Benjamin Browne, the High Constable of Kendal: "a great part of it is not passable for either man or Horse to travel ... without danger of being bogged in the moss or lamed among the stones." Roads were sometimes only 5 to 6 feet wide, and not only in bad repair but often under water.

In bad weather a section of path might become very wet and boggy, disappear under a landslide or fall away completely at a beck edge. William Gell noted in his journal in 1797 that when walking over Honister Pass, it was impossible to decide "whether a loose line of stones was intended for a road or the bed of a torrent".

Where paths did change in these ways, leaving the ponies loose was probably safer than having them tied together. All could pick their own way through the obstacle; the tracks for pack ponies over the open fell show paths dividing and coalescing again through trappy areas. If a pony slipped, if it were loose it would not pull any others down. If they were all tied together, then several ponies would be involved in such an accident, which would have made for considerable difficulties. A pony burdened with a 16-20 stone load needed to be unloaded before it could get up, where an unladen one would have had no trouble. This would be especially troublesome in bad weather when leather straps were made slippery and knots tightened by the rain. But a single loose pony could be helped rather more easily out of a bog or an awkward place, then reloaded; the rest of the train probably making up for lost grazing time meanwhile!


Fell ponies were once heavily used in smuggling - the British tax laws of the 17th and 18th centuries unintentionally encouraged an illicit trade in over 1500 items including spirits, spices, tobacco & salt.

Exporting wool from England became a capital crime in 1662. It must have been tempting for the producers of Cumberland and Westmorland, with their flocks of hardy sheep and easy access to the sea, to "take profit" from other countries' demand for wool. In the South of England at least, wool-smugglers were known as 'owlers'. Mary Waugh, in "Smuggling in Kent & Sussex, 1700 - 1840", suggests that 'large scale importing of contraband came later, and initially as a means of paying for the wool'. The Fell was ideal as flexible transport for these goods inland from the ports of the Cumbrian West Coast.

Four and twenty ponies trotting through the dark;
Brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk.
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.

'A Smuggler's Song' by Rudyard Kipling

Smugglers' ponies, unlike their legitimate counterparts, worked night shifts without the advertisement of pack-train bells.


After the death of Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II to the British throne, times appear to have been more prosperous and relaxed. Farmsteads that survive today, for instance around Tebay, often bear datestones from the period just after 1660, indicating a period of improvement and expansion. (Lambert)

The pack routes were susceptible to robbers. On the "Galloway Gate", the drove and pack road which ran from Scotland via Shap, highwaymen were a menace, notably where several drove and pack routes converged in the deep, narrow Lune Gorge. In 1682 William Smorthwaite's gang frequented the alehouses in Greenholme and Roundthwaite; Smorthwaite was hanged on Gibbet Hill south of Carlingill in 1685. (Lambert) The "Galloway Gate" was so named mainly because of the direction of the walking cattle trade, from southern Scotland; but also there would be a sidelong reference to the galloways themselves, the pack ponies travelling the route.

For further information about droving and drove roads, please see:



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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
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