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Venders and bagmen

Tuesday 18 February, 2020, by Karen Griffiths

We will spend quite a bit of time in the ‘A Way Through‘ project looking into the history and influence of the large-scale users of Westmorland’s roads and trackways like the drovers and the jaggermen and their packhorses, but travelling salespeople were also a crucial part of the movement going on. ‘Bagmen’, as commercial travellers were called in the nineteenth century probably had just as much influence on locals as they followed their regular routes into and around the area, stopping wherever they thought they could make a sale.

Long before the establishment of local shops, remote rural communities would look forward to the arrival of the pedlar or packman, who carried his sale items like pins, ribbons and lace on his back and walked the muddy roads and tracks from the earliest times. The road improvements of the eighteenth century and then of course, the arrival of the railway in the nineteenth century meant that commercial travellers could travel faster and lighter, carrying just sales samples in bags and taking orders to be fulfilled at a later date by carriers.

We’ve found several references already to bagmen in historical sources for Westmorland. We particularly like the following description of the effect the sight of one such commercial traveller had on locals at the market in Brough in the early nineteenth century:

“…the delicious sight of the handsome rosy cheeked, black-eyed, finely curled, sparkling bar-maid standing in the portico of Kilvington’s Castle Inn, over the way, who is smiling, simpering, and curtseying very politely to a spruce Kendal traveller dressed in the very height of Dandyism, having on his head a white hat, with long flowing, waving, dark locks, decorated with as many rings, jewels, silver, and gold chains, as to completely confound the humble comprehension of the honest-market folks, who in their simplicity, think the mysterious being surely must be the son of a Lord, when alas! He is but “a Travelling Bagman!” ”
J. Close (Sam Dowell) (1842) ‘The Book of the Chronicles: or, Winter Evening Tales of Westmorland’ p6

The opening of toll roads in the middle of the eighteenth century allowed a much more reliable service of horse-drawn coaches to market towns around the area and presumably people must have begun to get used to such alien sights as our Kendal bagman. J. Close describes locals as being introduced to “the customs of the Metropolis” by these new roads and the people and commerce that arrived on them.

Illustration of a stagecoach on a mountain road from Edmund Bogg (1898) 'A Thousand Miles of wandering along the Roman Wall, the Old Border Region, Lakeland, and Ribblesdale'
Illustration of a stagecoach on a mountain road from Edmund Bogg (1898) ‘A Thousand Miles of Wandering along the Roman Wall, the Old Border Region, Lakeland, and Ribblesdale’ p76

As an example he writes about the huge increase in traffic on the improved road to Tan Hill coal pits but what he observes could equally be applied to many other routes in Westmorland:

“Now instead of strings of horses, ponys, and asses, with back-loads of coals, may be seen scores of carts, waggons etc, thundering along the road, the echo sounding from one end of the county to the others, on a still winter’s night, to which, add the post-chaise and gig of the commercial traveller, or bagman, from Kendal and other larger towns, continually passing and driving in all directions, tend greatly to enliven the solitary stillness.” ibid p16

The ubiquity of such commercial travellers means they often appear in contemporary newspaper reports such as this one kindly sent to us by local historian Heather Ballantyne. A travelling medicine-vender from Kendal is witness to a brutal robbery:

“MURDER IN WESTMORLAND, – The county of Westmorland, so little accustomed to have crimes of a black dye committed within it, has again, we regret to have to record it, been alarmed with the cry of murder. The victim was an Irish drover, who had driven some cattle from Brough Hill fair on Monday morning the 2d inst, to the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway station at Tebay, and was returning to the hill, when he was attacked near Sunbiggin farm, about four miles from Orton, by two men wearing the garb of railway labourers (whether for the sake of plundering the poor fellow of what little money he had got, or for some other cause, is unknown), in a most brutal and ferocious manner, and who, after they had, as they no doubt thought, deprived him of life, dragged him into a stone quarry a short distance from the road. The man’s cries were heard by a travelling medicine-vender of the name of Barnet, from Kendal, who was a few hundred yards on the road in advance, and who witnessed the brutal treatment which he received; but the men’s appearance over-awed him, and, instead of interfering and endeavouring to save the poor fellow’s life, he ran to Little Asby, a village about a mile from the place, for assistance.” Edinburgh Evening Courant 23 October 1848

'Murder in Westmorland' from the 'Edinburgh Evening Courant' 23 October 1848. Courtesy of Heather Ballantyne
‘Murder in Westmorland’ from the ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’ 23 October 1848. Courtesy of Heather Ballantyne

The fact that the doomed Irish drover sent his cattle by way of the railway reminds us that by this time the days of the post-chaise and stagecoach were numbered. The railway stations opened at Tebay, Kirkby Stephen and Appleby allowed ready access into the area by commercial travellers of all sorts. The Junction Hotel opened in 1900 in Tebay may well have expected to receive business from commercial travellers coming from further afield and waiting on rail connections or travelling into the more rural areas on foot or hired horses. It had a large dining room, a smoking room, commercial room, bar and two large sitting rooms. On the first floor there were two large sitting rooms and a total of eleven bedrooms and stabling for six horses.

The Junction Hotel, Tebay, early 20th century. Courtesy of Heather Ballantyne
The Junction Hotel, Tebay, early 20th century. Courtesy of Heather Ballantyne

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Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


4 Replies to “Venders and bagmen”

  1. Glen Dugdale says:

    Very interesting piece.

  2. Debbie Allen says:


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