Regency History

Dare I Say Flagway?

London pavement; photo Judith Everett

How often do you think about the convenience of the modern sidewalk (pavement/footpath)? I must admit that I had hardly given it a thought until I began to research Georgette Heyer’s use of “flagway”, and, at first, could find no other use of it. What I did find was fascinating, though, in its own way.

Though evidence exists for sidewalks being used in Anatolia in the 2nd century, the rest of Europe was without this quietly revolutionary invention until it was revived in 1762 in Westminster, London by a series of Acts of Parliament aimed at improving the safety and sanitation of the city.

Until that time, pedestrians shared the space between buildings with vehicles and animals (and their waste products, and those of most of the humans living nearby as well–but that’s a post for a different day), and accidents and even deaths from infelicitous interactions between them were common. Some areas of the city set up barriers along the sides of the road to create a path for pedestrians, as seen here in Temple Bar (which was not part of the area affected by the Act above):

photo Judith Everett

And some areas sought to minimize dust and mud for pedestrians by laying down wooden planks along the roadsides (until they were all burned up in the Great Fire of 1666 and afterward forbidden). But on the majority of the roads in the city, pedestrians routinely took their lives in their own hands when walking out the door.

Luckily, according to English Local Government: from the Revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act,

The Westminster Paving Acts started a new era… The old rounded pebbles…were replaced by squared blocks of a flat surface… The footways, now universally flagged, were made about four inches higher than the gutters, thus enabling the lines of protective posts to be dispensed with… The new conveniences…became the wonder of the traveled world… The City was distinguished for its flagged footways in the principle streets, as well as for its uniformly constructed carriage-ways.

Vol. 4, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1922), pp. 282-286

Other major European cities, notably Paris, followed suit with their own paving improvements, in what may arguably have been the most important reform in human safety of the early 19th century.

So that’s how we got modern sidewalks. Wow. I so much more appreciate them now, and will never again begrudge shoveling the things in the winter.

The juxtaposition of “flagged” and “footways” in the above quote, led me to believe that the new pavements were probably often unofficially referred to as “flagways,” hence Heyer’s use of the term. But I still couldn’t find any proof of this online.

Enter the Hathi Trust, a wonderful project to digitize and index millions of books for the express purpose of facilitating humanities research. I’m going to put the Hathi Trust in my will, I love it so much! Within about ten minutes, I was able to find two instances of the use of “flag-way” in the first two decades of the 19th century:

Wherever he met a soldier in the street, to him he…directed his enquiries…until, after walking a good way down Thomas Street, two others, whom, as they stood talking on the flag-way, he suddenly addressed.

The Nowlans, in Tales by the O’hara Family, v. 2 (1826) Henry Collins, ed., pp. 327-28

The witness Watt was upon the left of the division, next the flag-way, and the prisoner was upon the flags.

Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials, etc., v. 28, (1802-1803), comp. T. B. Howell, p. 840

I was also able to discover, through the Bookworm tool, that the use of “flag-way” rose just around that time period, and then declined again. So, my surmise seems to be correct, that flag-way was never the most popular term for the raised stone walk that protected pedestrians from certain death at the hands (or feet, or wheels) of careless drivers and their equipages and animals, but it was used during the period about which Georgette Heyer, and many others of us, are concerned.

Therefore, we Regency writers may use flagway, or flag-way with impunity. And, for heaven’s sake, check out the Hathi Trust!