Measurements and Dates

In: Jonathan Swift on the Anglo-Irish Road
Author: Clive Probyn
Free access

Jonathan Swift walked, rode and travelled by ship a great deal in his lifetime. This is hardly news, but even the less obvious proposition that travelling defined the man and the writer may seem noteworthy nowadays in an age increasingly shaping its understanding of time and space by virtual means. Three intensely crowded centuries lie between him and us, and Swift’s understanding of distance in each part of his Anglo-Irish life was shaped by a specific geography, a particular history, and a unique experience of politics.

His life witnessed the beginning of the early modern phase of travel, when systematic efforts were already being made towards a single national standard in the measurement of distance through mileposts, signposts, stages, turnpikes, coach schedules, place names, and affordable road maps based on the mathematical efforts of surveyors and printers.

Although the English Statute Mile of 1760 yards (1.609 kms) had been the official unit of measurement in England since 1593, it had not been adopted as the single national measure even at the time of Swift’s death in 1745. Some key infrastructure was already in place. The General Post Office was officially established in 1660, just seven years before Swift’s birth. Postal charges were calculated on the mileage between towns and staging posts. Statute Miles introduced more and shorter miles and therefore boosted the tax income of central government. Most significantly, the first national road survey had been completed and published in John Ogilby’s Britannia. This appeared in 1675, when Swift was eight years old, and went through thirteen editions until its demise and the disposal of its copperplates in 1719. In general, roads were not measured before Ogilby, but fortunately for us his road book describes with unprecedented accuracy the English and Welsh topographical space in which one part of Swift’s life was lived. Wales, which saw Swift on many occasions, as we shall see, had been legally integrated with England by 1542 and provided the land route to the Irish Sea. England and Scotland had formed the United Kingdom in 1707, but Swift’s home country was excluded from Ogilby’s Britannia because Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom and would remain so until the Acts of Union in 1801. Britannia acknowledges the various contemporary ways of describing a mile based not on actual measurement but on tradition, guesswork, shifting start and end points, on patterns of settlement and regional cultural practices. In the age of Newton’s universal laws of physics there was, alongside the English Statute Mile, an Old British Mile, an Irish mile, and a Welsh mile. Inside a thirty- or forty-mile radius of London the mile was based on the Roman mile of 1000 paces. The smallest unit of measurement was grounded not in the abstract sciences of mathematics or physics nor in cultural history but in the natural world: it was ‘deduc’d from a Barley-corn’ and three of these laid end-to-end constituted an inch measure (2.54 cms).

Monetary value was, by contrast, politically determined, so that in Swift’s twentieth year the English shilling of twelve pence would thereafter require thirteen Irish pence to make a shilling in Ireland. To have the value of one’s currency determined in another country in this way was, of course, a daily reminder of Ireland’s status as a dependent colony of England. The geographical, political and cultural determinants of food, clothing, trading commodities and coinage—as well as distance and speed—became the key concerns of Swift’s Irish tracts. The status of Ireland as (in theory) politically equal with England under the crown but at the same time different, distant, separate and subordinate, shaped and perhaps even misshaped Swift’s entire life.

When thinking of the distance from Thomas Sheridan’s house at Quilca in County Cavan to Kells in County Meath in order to send and collect his letters, Swift first estimated that it was seven miles, but then revised it to eight. His uncertainty was probably the result of being numerate in two cultures. An Irish mile was longer than an English mile by a factor of 14:11 (1.27), thus seven Irish miles would be 8.9 English miles, a significant variation for a walker or horseman. In a letter to his Irish friend Charles Ford in London, Swift reported (16 August 1725) that ‘Mrs Johnson is much better and walks three or four Irish Miles a day over Bogs and mountain.’ Stella was enjoying a certain level of physical fitness at this time and was evidently capable of walking the ‘longer’ Irish miles in a terrain whose difficulty was familiar to both men. If Swift had told the expatriate Ford that Stella was simply walking four and a half miles in the country, the merely quantitative information would have lost the nuances regarding Stella’s modest victory both over a longer distance and over a famously difficult terrain.

Such variants underlined Irish difference on land. At sea there was agreement about the language of distance. A nautical mile in both countries is 1.15 English Statute miles (1.85 kms). Three nautical miles (3.45 miles or 5.55 kms) constituted a league, so that when Swift wrote of being separated from England by ‘twenty leagues of salt water’ he was using the nautical measure to describe a stretch of the Irish Sea equivalent to sixty-nine land miles (111 kms), a dangerous crossing that could take anything from a few hours to a few days or even weeks to complete, depending on wind, weather, tides and the condition, type and availability of ships.

An accurate, agreed and standardised measure of distance between places is of obvious value to travellers, mapmakers, authors of guide books, and those whose livelihood depended on providing goods and services to travellers, such as coach and wagon drivers, postilions, postboys, carriers, farriers, stable hands, innkeepers and maids. In Swift’s England miles lengthened the further north one travelled. This was no fiction. The Old British or Long Mile of 2428 yards was up to 30 or 40% longer than the Statute Mile. Celia Fiennes’ sixteen-mile ride through Leicestershire in 1698 covered only thirteen ‘local’ miles, and on top of that the physical state of the roads meant that she took eleven hours on horseback to cover just twenty-five miles—a pace slower than one of her footman could walk, as she pointed out with chagrin. The consequence on the ground was even more vividly described by Swift’s nemesis Sarah Duchess of Marlborough in 1732 (discussed in chapter 6 below). The difference between local or ‘vulgar’ notions of a mile and Ogilby’s single, standardized and ‘dimensurated’ mile was vigorously urged but not vigorously implemented.

Road distances in what follows are given in English Statute Miles and are cited from Ogilby’s Britannia. They are rounded up or down to the nearest whole figure for the modern reader’s convenience.

Finally, and as if this uncertainty over the measurement of distances were not enough, the calendar itself changed seven years after Swift’s death. Up to this point England had used the Julian calendar, which was eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar then in general use on the Continent. All dates below are given in Old Style, except that the year is taken as beginning on 1 January.