Follow that Shallop!
The hardest things to recapture in writing historical fiction are often the ones we take the most for granted in our daily lives. The presence of servants, for example. When even minor households had at least a servant or two (and by minor, we’re talking very minor here) and major households had a few dozen, you have a very different view of privacy than that we hold in our modern world where the live-in servant is more the anomaly than the norm.
But what I had on mind today was another commonplace that isn’t at all commonplace for us: the difference in modes of transportation. I’m not just talking about horses and carriages in place of automobiles, although goodness only knows that makes a great difference in terms of the look, smell, and sound of a scene (not to mention that you would have more ubiquitous servants perched at places where one would never have extraneous characters perched on a car), but the use of water as a major means of conveying people both within and between cities.
Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Thames was a major artery not just for commerce but for casual travel, both within and without London. There’s a reason so many great houses, both within London and on the Thames, have water stairs, leading down to the river. It was the equivalent of going down to one’s garage. For those without a great house, there were the public stairs, scattered all over the city, where you could hop aboard an open boat for a cheap ride across the river.
Not only were boats faster, they were safer. While the river did have its own brigands, one was generally in less danger from waterborne thieves than the footpads and highwaymen who stalked the streets and high roads. (As an interesting side note, the first police force in London was not Peel’s Metropolitan Police but a special Thames River force formed thirty-one years earlier, in 1798. While this started as a private endeavor, it was transformed into a public agency by the Marine Police Bill of 1800).
A whole vocabulary developed around the different types of transport on the river. For a few pence, you could take a sculler, the smallest of the lot, manned by one oarsman. For a bit more, you could have a place on one of the wherries, which had two boatmen and seated five. If you were being really grand, you could sail down the river in a shallop, a barge rowed by six to eight rowers with a canopied cabin—or tilt, as it was called—either in the middle or towards one end.
It wasn’t just London, of course, that relied on river transport. In Paris, you can still see the water stairs leading down to the Thames, just as, in the American South, plantations often featured river entrances, where guests could sail in and dock rather than forcing their way down uncertain roads. Even my own native Manhattan boasts its water stairs; fewer than a hundred years ago, Rosario Candela designed 1 East End Avenue to include a set of marble stairs leading down to a dock for the yachts of the tenants. It’s a notion any number Georgian nobleman would have taken for granted.
Having my characters travel by boat in preference to carriage is one of those small choices by which I remind myself how different their world could be.
Which elements of daily life in the past do you find most surprising or alien?