|“On Not Speaking to Strangers: The rise and fall of sociability on Britain’s national road network, 1740 to 1850.”|
|Between 1740 and 1800 a rich culture of migrant communities emerged in England, and was then replaced with an alienated public sphere where interaction among strangers was legally discouraged. As Britain’s interkingdom highway network spread the first nationally administered, modern communications network in Europe, the roads operated as a stage for the creation and dispersal of new kinds of information, community, and identity. Technology produced direct social effects, as highways regularized travel and mail throughout Britain, producing lucrative monopolies in the carrying and innkeeping trades. Roads liberated individuals from the constraints of local neighborhoods, as mobile individuals generated new signals and behavior patterns for finding strangers in the crowd. Travel created new communities of itinerants connected in unpredictable patterns, as the most mobile groups – including soldiers, Methodists, artisans, and surveyors – began to develop their own political networks as well. As the numbers of strangers swelled, original patterns of sociability began to give way to new forms of community. Local towns were hostile to the political ideas of mobile communities and took political measures to suppress them. As artisan and religious networks disappeared, new patterns for recognizing and understanding strangers began to emerge. The confused, flooded world of the public street became a hothouse for new experiences of the self. Between 1810 and 1850, a rich vocabulary developed for labeling strangers from afar and strangers stopped speaking to each other on the public street. An arena where citizens both critically observed and were watched themselves, the road forced individuals to reexamine their relationship towards strangers and their comfort with pubic space. By 1850, new patterns of behavior emerged, and public opinion registered that the Londoner had stopped talking to strangers altogether.
This paper forms part of a larger project, my dissertation on Britain’s expanding road network, 1740-1850. The project investigates the political origins and cultural affectivity, broadly considered of the road network, both as a tool and source of new forms of governance, and as a stage for experiment in and experience of new collective experiences and new forms of critique. The highways were the site of these emerging communities, new perceptions about collective life and governance, and an entire new language for observing and analyzing civil life. In this age when scholars are bent upon the study of mobile communities, networks formed by technology, the creation and limits of citizenship, the development of governmentality, and the role of public space, the study of Europe’s first centralized network offers a crucial case study for historicizing community within the age of migration.