Can we somehow estimate the average speed of a ground+sea travel between Frankfurt and London in the beginning of 19th century?

I was more than surprised (if not shocked) to find in the beginning of Naill Ferguson's The House of Rothschild a cited part of one of letters sent by head of a family to one of his sons, where he says that the other brother from Frankfurt would like to join the first brother in London and that such trip would take three weeks.

This happens in post-industrial revolution times (beginning of 19th centry) so, even though I'm not a specialist in history of engineering, I was more than sure that with a steam power to both railroads and ships, such trip couldn't take more than a week, maybe five days at most -- 2-3 days for crossing Germany and 1-2 days for crossing the sea.

What am I missing? How could < 800 km track, that takes up to 9 hours by car today, take fifty times more (21 days) just two hundred years ago?

  • 1
    If you adjust your google map link to indicate you are walking you get 141 hours (less than 6 days -- but around the clock) Google also assumes tho that you are taking the ferry across the channel. Perhaps the bottleneck at the time was that channel crossings had to wait for fair weather or were not available on demand but had to be reserved in advance?
    – AllInOne
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:58
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    an important feature of sailing ships is that in theory they were in motion 24 hours a day and at even 5 knots which I think ships could manage on average, that is 200 miles per day which is so much faster than land travel at that time. The speed of information was much faster than foot since they had semaphore stations which could transmit a message at fairly reasonable speeds. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semaphore_line
    – Jeff
    Apr 5, 2017 at 23:35
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    What do you mean by "beginning of 19th century"? What is the date of that letter? Steam angines and steam ships were not available in the beginning of 19th century.
    – Alex
    Apr 6, 2017 at 3:51
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    If @Dulkan is correct about the period of interest then the Napoleonic Wars will complicate sea travel considerably. Britain and France would be at war which would close off channel crossings. Also, depending on the exact time, most of the North European coast was also under French influence (if not control), closing it to British ships (and Britain to most European ships). Additionally, travelling from Northern Europe across the North Sea would be against the prevailing winds and involve dodging the privateers of both sides.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 6, 2017 at 12:43
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    As mentioned below, there's a huge difference between travel by courier and travel by a person with baggage. Apr 7, 2017 at 16:02

1 Answer 1


Rail travel didn't start in Germany until 1835, which I believe is after the period described in the book. Steamships also were not available at that time, so travel in 1800 is not by steam, but by horse and sail.

Travel by horse is generally at the rate of 30 miles or 50 km per day assuming a normal pace. Amsterdam is about 450 km from Frankfurt, so your looking at nine days of travel best case just to reach a port. But this would have required crossing many borders, especially since Germany wasn't unified at the time, so it's perfectly reasonable to assume two weeks as the normal travel time. Given that, plus the time required just to arrange ocean travel, wait for decent winds, etc., three weeks from Frankfurt to London is very reasonable for normal, non-rushed travel.

  • I'm upvoting your question, but not accepting it, because you didn't provide enough arguments (numbers) that would judge three weeks travel even given your "no steam and horse plus sail" arguments.
    – trejder
    Apr 5, 2017 at 19:36
  • I don't really have good info on how long the sailing (including arranging passage) would take, but added information about the speed of horse travel. Apr 5, 2017 at 21:11
  • Sailing across the channel takes about one day in a sailboat under favorable weather. One may wait few days for the favorable weather or for a boat availability.
    – Alex
    Apr 6, 2017 at 3:55
  • To clarify the times: House of rothschild plays during the later stages of the Napoleonic wars, i.e. 1812 - 1815. The first public railway to use steam locomotives in the world was the Stockton and Darlington railway built in 1825. Also keep in mind that early locomotives weren't very fast and speed developed fairly quickly. While in 1840 trains would go at around 30-50 km/h, in 1870 you were already approaching the 100 km/h mark.
    – Dulkan
    Apr 6, 2017 at 6:37
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    There's a huge difference between a courier and personal travel. Couriers use post horses, basically running the horses at full speed and switching often to always have a fresh one. This has been done since antiquity and can achieve much faster speed. Also, messages can be sent by semaphore line, and thus easily go hundreds of miles in an hour. Neither of these methods can be used by a traveller with significant baggage. Apr 7, 2017 at 16:00

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