The uses made of the road system have changed over time. The first significant change came with the establishment of the turnpike road through the village. Subsequently the railway led to even more dramatic change, starting in the early 1840s, albeit with the nearest station at first being over five miles away in Greenwich, and then accelerating further once the railway reached Bromley and Orpington in the 1860s.. 
This article will explore how horse-drawn traffic adapted to the new situations, and  continued to be important until well into the 20th century, with the railway stations providing nodal points for trade and communication

It has been adapted from one first published in the March 2019 issue of the magazine of the Bromley Borough Local History Society, It is reproduced here by permission.


To a Bromley resident in the 1840s the future looked bleak. Bromley was without a railway and the departure of the Bishop of Rochester and the extension of the South Eastern Railway from London to Dover via Tonbridge in 1845 saw the loss of the long distance coach trade. Few would have anticipated that the market town would emerge as a major suburb before the end of the century.

The present London Borough of Bromley has two major roads out of London, the A20 on its northern border with Bexley and the A21 which runs from London through Bromley and Farnborough to the coast. The latter has several important crossroads to places including Beckenham, Chislehurst, Westerham, Orpington and Croydon.

Acts of Parliament

There were several significant Acts relating to roads, reflecting the rapid development of travel by road and also setting out who were the responsible authorities. The first was The Statute of Westminster in 1285, which affirmed that the Manor had responsibility for land and roads under its control. Later, counties became responsible for the bridges outside of towns.

In 1555 the Highways Act required parishes to maintain the roads within their boundaries. People owning horses and/or carts were required to provide them for four days each year for maintenance work. In addition, able-bodied householders and tenants were also required to give four days’ service (increased in 1691 to six). Fines were to be levied and substitutions were allowed. The parish was also required to provide a surveyor of the roads, who was first appointed by the church wardens.

The volume of trade along the Rye to London Road — now the A21 — and its value is hardly known. It largely comprised produce from the local farms and fish and other produce from Rye and Hastings. From London, sugar, cheese and other goods not grown or made locally were brought by carrier, cart and packhorse. Livestock was also driven to local markets and to Smithfield Market in London.

By the late 17th century, towns and many villages had carriers from the Bromley area to London which passed through the local villages. They operated at least once a week and times and routes were well known. Most started from both town and village inns en route to their final destination.

Turnpike Roads

The volume of traffic rose rapidly as the economy grew. However the heavier wagons had strong, large wheels which created deep ruts after rain. Traffic often slowed or got stuck and accidents were frequent. The existing provisions were inadequate.

The first Turnpike Act was in 1663 and in the 18th century there were more than 2000 Turnpike Trusts. Bromley occupied a key position on the road system to the south of London, situated on higher ground above the Ravensbourne, and was the first market town out of London. In 1749 the New Cross Turnpike Trust to the south coast, through Bromley, was established. The route branched off from the Dover Road and came through the long high street of Lewisham and then through countryside to Bromley.

Arthur Young’s description of the roads in the Weald as virtually impassable in winter, “where vehicles had to traverse the heavy, wet Wealden clay” was the reason for the first Kentish Turnpike Act in 1769 between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge. Not all Kentish roads were as bad, but the need for better roads was clear.

In 1788 a General Turnpike Trust Act was introduced which saved Parliament time and enabled turnpike trust Bills to go through more quickly. There was also a General Enclosure Act at this time for the same reason

Bromley booms with the Coach Trade

In the early 19th century many people with business interests in London were taking up residence in Bromley and its surrounding area because of the proximity and ease of access to London by the New Cross Turnpike. Charles Freeman, writing in 1832, said of Bromley: “No parish perhaps, considering its short distance from the Metropolis and that coaches pass through its street almost every hour of the day, could afford a more desirable retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Town: besides which it is rendered peculiarly so on account of its pleasant and healthy situation”.

The Old Toll House, Pratts Bottom,
an illustration in The Hastings Road by C Harper, 1906
A rare toll ticket for the Green Man Gate at New Cross
Some 30 – 40 coaches passed through Bromley each day in the early 1830s and, as Freeman indicates, Bromley was flourishing. This is evidenced by two facts.

Firstly, a substantial road improvement was carried out in 1830-32 in Bromley town by which the High Road was straightened by widening the passage on the western side of Market Square. This enabled traffic to avoid the congestion around the Market House and square, particularly on market days.

Secondly, around 1830 the White Hart, one of Bromley’s leading coaching inns, was remodeled. “It has undergone an extensive alteration, that it now forms one of the neatest buildings of its kind on the road from London to Hastings. The whole front has been taken down, and the present building now stands back from the road about 28 feet … a good carriage drive is formed.” Previously, the coaches outside the inn had represented an obstruction to traffic.

Impact of the Early Railways

However he booming coach trade was to be relatively short-lived.

Between 1836-38 the London and Greenwich Railway was built, with its Greenwich station being just five miles from Bromley. A further blow came in 1845 when the South Eastern Railway (SER) opened its circuitous route to Dover via Redhill, with a station at Tonbridge..

These had an almost immediate impact. The rapid decline of the coaching trade passing through Bromley in the 1840s can be seen in the evidence given by certain witnesses speaking against the extension of the North Kent line (by now also being operated by the SER.) to Gravesend.

In evidence before the House of Commons Select Committee on Railway Bills (Group A) in 1845 the landlord of the White Hart, William Pawley, lamented that the inn no longer kept him. He argued that this had not always been so “before the SER”. Then he had 50 pairs of horses for coaching and posting “now only 12”. In his evidence it became clear that his prosperity had come from the long distance traffic “when 30 coaches a day passed through Bromley to Sevenoaks, now four”. Pawley’s grievances were threefold.

Firstly he had lost the long distance coach trade which had brought him a considerable income as the White Hart was an important staging post. This decline was indicated by another witness WR Ray, corn factor and coal merchant, who in his evidence to the above committee said that he had received £800 - £1000 per year from one innkeeper for corn, “now £1”.

Secondly the opening of Tonbridge station meant that those who had formerly travelled by coach to London from places south of the railway line, such as Westerham and Sevenoaks, now took short-run transport to Edenbridge or Tonbridge. Pawley hoped that a railway [at Bromley] would attract those travelling south who would then travel to Bromley. Pawley said that by doing this they would save “half a crown in money and his time”.

Finally, Pawley said that the end of the regular long distance coach trade deprived him of substantial income from lodgers at his hotel. One resident had recently left after only three months because he could not satisfactorily get travel to London.

This view was echoed by Mr J Thorpe of Hayesford, a mile south of Bromley town, who in complaining about the poor communications with London, said that in the neighbourhood of Bromley were 70 – 100 gentlemen’s seats and villa residences “occupied generally by people engaged in business in London , and persons of independent property”.

Thus before Bromley acquired a station in 1858 the town suffered more than other
places because it had lost most of its through coach trade, and was in danger of losing its popularity as a home for the wealthy London businessman through the demise of the fast and frequent coach traffic.

The Omnibus

Coaches were by no means the only form of passenger traffic and over the shorter distance the horse-drawn omnibus was of growing importance.

These vehicles, slower than the coaches, stopped more frequently and usually completed their journey without a change of horses. However unlike the long distance coaches, they were rarely an alternative to the railway and thus as the new stations were sited new omnibus routes were created. In 1847 omnibuses ran from Bromley to and from Greenwich and Sydenham stations several times during the day; and to Sevenoaks.

Thomas Tilling started his omnibus company in 1846 with horse-drawn buses and later moved on to motorised transport. His son Edward lived at Highfield House off Westmoreland Road in the early 20th century.

Similarly, in 1852 Fownes omnibus ran daily from The Swan Inn, Bromley, to Greenwich Railway station at 8.30am, 12 noon and 8pm. But by this time the Sevenoaks trade had been lost as the traveller from there would most likely have travelled to Edenbridge station on the SER

Ten years later, after the station had been built at Bromley, Kelly’s Directory listed “an omnibus from Keston to meet four down and four up trains daily according to company timetables; flys from the Railway Hotel (by the time of its demolition called the Railway Signal) – just south of the station – to meet all the trains.”

The Bell Inn, Bromley, an Illustration from The Road Guide to Tunbridge Wells, 1835

Pawley’s point that Bromley needed a station was a wise one as he saw that while long-distance coach trade could not compete with the railway, a town with a station was in a strong position to bid for the short-run omnibus trade, and by 1858 was able to attract by omnibus many of the travellers to London who lived as far away south as Westerham. This was retained until the opening of a station at Oxted, only five miles to the west of Westerham. Pawley himself soon introduced an omnibus service from St Mary Cray via Orpington to Bromley station.

The short-run coach omnibus trade into London from Bromley, or to the nearest station, was restricted to those who could afford not only the time but approximately 3d per mile by stage and 7d per mile by carriage and gig at a speed of roughly seven miles an hour.

Bromley and its immediate neighbourhood contained several large houses and the prestige and healthy situation attracted many City merchants, in work or retired, who continued to maintain their London connections. It was such as these who actively promoted the railway, not only to assist their own travel, but also to benefit from the increase in land values which a railway would bring. As John Nokes, a landowner of 1700 acres, said in 1845: “But for deficient communications and the lack of a station I should lay out a great many thousands in building, and I could have let to different builders something like 100 acres".

The Carrier Trade and the Railway

Carriers and wagonners were well established before the railway. Many survived the coming of the railway serving market towns and villages. There was an intricate pattern of carrier routes round Bromley, though Bromley’s importance in the carrier trade must be seen in relation to London which was the focal point of the majority of operators.

Any attempt to plot the routes taken must be regarded as impressionistic as the directories do not always give the name of the carrier and there is a danger of duplication. Professor Everitt suggested that carriers operated by day within a 15-20 mile radius of their home and that in fact the railway offered no real rivalry to their activity.

The majority serving Bromley returned the same day, although those south of Downe returned the following day (the weather and the season were a factor). Some local carriers built up substantial businesses. The Russells were listed in the 1852 Kelly’s Directory as operators from Keston. They placed an advertisement in Strong’s Directory of Bromley and the Parishes of Hayes, Keston etc and had developed a business that had offices in a wide variety of places in London and the City. Many of these collection and distribution points were inns, but in Bromley’s case they were often the homes of local tradesmen.

Not all carriers responded to the challenge and adapted their business accordingly. Peter Nesbit was a Bromley and Beckenham small parcel carrier, who in 1860 sought to raise money to bring an action against the Mid Kent and West End and Crystal Palace Railway companies “ to show cause why they have come this way to the injury of himself and his lawful calling”. It seems that money was not forthcoming, for in June 1862 in the Bromley Record Nesbit said “Finding business flat, and having given up all hope of compensation from the Railway Companies, and to go to law with them he thinks will be of no use", begs to offer his services as hall porter to a good family …"for reference refer to everybody in Bromley, Beckenham, Penge Common, Norwood and Forest Hill".

The level of alternative work sought by Nesbit is revealing and there may have been other “small” men, or those who operated a carrier’s cart, alongside another occupation, who went out of business either due to competition from the railway, rival carriers, or their own shortcomings. In this respect the evidence given by Mr Lewis Shillito of Beckenham is relevant. He lamented the absence of a station, arguing that because they did not have rail access, goods were dearer than in other areas that were better served. “The poor walk to Croydon or Deptford on a Saturday for the shopkeepers who have not very large shops pay for carriage, some of them have not even a cart; consequently if they want to make a profit on their goods they must charge an additional price.”

Beckenham and Bromley stationss may have been the obvious reason to Nisbet why he went out of business, but it may have been that the distribution of goods by larger operators, and by more specialist carriers, were more important reasons.

For those who could adapt, rail access offered opportunity. For instance, Bromley Station’s goods yard came to house the offices of coal merchants and others who either sold coal from the yard or delivered it to the purchaser by road.

However, a letter from “A Tradesman” in the Bromley Record for July 1858 complained about the high cost of parcels carried by rail. He had received a small parcel from Derby, on which the charge for the 126 miles from Derby was 1s-5d, while on the 10 miles from London to Bromley the carriage was 1s-6d. He asked: “How long will this state of things last?

The letter was answered in the following months by TG Grigg, one of Bromley’s two listed carriers, who said it was “an extreme of folly to complain of an evil, when the remedy is in the Tradesman’s hand". The carriers continue to convey parcels to and from London daily at the old prices, which were acknowledged to be lower than Railway Charges … “

The carrier also provided the basic means of servicing the villages, inns and farms, taking produce to the traders and market in Bromley from the outlying areas and returning with their needs. The Minutes of Evidence of 1845 showed that wagons and carts cost 9d per mile while the railway company proposed to offer a service at 2d per mile — but as we have seen, this differential was not achieved locally.

In 1845 the farmers and fruit growers to the south of Bromley were in opposition to the extension of the North Kent line because of the advantage it would give the growers nearer the proposed stations and would have an advantage in price. Conversely, when the Mid Kent Direct Railway (Bromley and St Mary Cray) was under discussion, those who depended on the London market were supporters of the line.

Caleb Barth of Crockenhill, near St Mary Cray, was a large fruit grower, farmer and grocer who sent strawberries and raspberries as well as 10-12 tons of potatoes a week to the London market. He also received 50-60 tons of manure from London each week. He looked forward to the railway.

William Mace, also of Crockenhill, spoke in similar vein. He produced some 150- 200 tons of potatoes per week for the London market and returned each week with six tons of manure on two large wagons. He believed the railway would enable more land to be brought into cultivation “for only the carriage prevents it”.

Another producer, Addis Jackson of Orpington, who with his father managed an estate of 700 acres, consisting  of 60 acres of fruit, 60 of hops and the remainder for sheep, used between four and six tons of manure during the fruit season, the summer and the autumn. “A horse will draw 13 cwt [hundredweight] of fruit, and we have two van loads a night,” he said. "therefore at least 90 tons between June and August". For Jackson advantages of the proposed line were obvious. “Yes, it is coming just where the people are; and where all the business is going on.” The rail link to the Crays would enable them to get their produce to Covent Garden and Borough Market more effectively.


Examples such as these help explain why the railway threatened primarily the turnpike trusts, which invariably operated as the main trade roads. The New Cross Trust lost £2,500 in the year that the Greenwich Railway opened for the railways took over the direct passenger and carrier traffic which had provided most of their revenues

However the decline in the revenue of the turnpike trusts must not be taken as indicative of the decline in volume of horse-drawn traffic. Jackman has shown that the number of licences for vehicles increased and quotes from the statement made by the Earl of Harwicke in The Effects of the Railways, written in 1843, suggest the railways were “fed by coach, carriage, wheelbarrow and cart”.

Thus while at one level Bromley faced considerable readjustments as the long distance coach services suffered ruinous competition from the railway in the 1840s. At another level the growing population and the intricate pattern of villages that were not served by rail ensured that even after the coming of the railway in 1858 horse-drawn traffic continued to develop.

Before 1858, directories show there were two carriers travelling daily to London. Fifty years later in 1887 six were listed, including the London Parcel Delivery Company and Pickfords and Co, which were not peculiar to Bromley.

Michael Rawcliffe


Markets and Fairs

Richard Kilburn’s topographic Survey of Kent, published in 1659, lists 28 market towns including Bromley and St Mary Cray in the present London Borough of Bromley, with Eltham, Sevenoaks and Westerham in the immediate vicinity.

In the next century, Owen’s New Book of Fairs, published in 1780, lists 109 fairs in Kent. The specialities of each was also noted as well as the type and the frequency. Bromley was for “horses, bullocks, sheep and hogs” and was held in February and August. The day previous was a show day. St Mary Cray’s was in September and “toys” were listed. This was a smaller fair and smaller goods were sold as well as toys.

Bromley had a market on Thursdays and one can imagine the increased traffic on the roads and particularly in Market Square on Thursdays when fairs were held.
        Bromley Market Square, c 1860

The Post

The General Post Office was created by Charles II in the days after the Restoration in the 1660s. The Dover Road (the present A2/M2) from London was always more important than the London – Rye/Hastings road, (A21) but both saw a considerable increase in traffic in the next century.

Initially the latter road through Bromley had three post collections and delivery points, roughly 20 miles apart. In 1676 Sevenoaks took over from Chipstead and in 1678 Bromley became a post town.

In summer the coaches passing through Bromley increased considerably, as well as the mail. This was largely due to the popularity of Tunbridge Wells as a fashionable spa town. Mail was left at Tonbridge and then taken by postboy on foot to the Wells.

In 1803 Chislehurst became a receiving post where mail could be left each day and distributed to the villages of Chelsfield, St Mary Cray and Orpington by foot post.

As the volume of mail, both private and commercial, increased, speed and safety from highwaymen were required. Mail coaches were introduced on the London – Rye route in 1784.

All coaches now had armed guards and a post horn which alerted the villagers as they approached, not only to clear traffic but also to have a change of horses ready. The White Hart and The Bell were both post inns.


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