OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Echoes of the Coaching Days

Pages: <1>

Those who complain of the street traffic of to-day would have found the London of the eighteenth century unbearable. The narrow streets, the innumerable carts, chaises, pedlars, private coaches and carriages, horsemen, sedan chairs and public conveyances made a fearful medley. Everything coming into London to feed it being horse-conveyed over cobbles, the lack of footpaths and the dirt make to-day seem quiet. Add to that the clatter of the thousands of wooden signboards, hucksters crying their wares and the lack of police, and you will, I think, get some sort of picture of the London streets.

Outside London the roads, as a whole, were good; that is, the main roads, nearly all of which were Roman-planned. The side roads were at the mercy of the district.

Every day there started from the George and Blue Boar, in Holborn, 84 coaches going north; every day from the White Horse Cellar, in Piccadilly, 53 coaches going west. From here the Flying Coach for Exeter did 60 miles a day. In addition to these the great coaching inns were the Three Cups, from which carriers started from Broad Street to Bristol; the Saracen's Head, where coaches went to Bath; the Bull, in Bishopsgate, and the Green Dragon, in the same street, also for Bath; the Talbot, in the Strand, the Angel in Cursitor Street, the White Swan, Holborn, three times a week for Southampton.

Imagine the vast array of coachmen, guards, post-boys, grooms, hostlers, waiters, chambermaids, drawers, horse keepers and horse dealers, and, I think, you may get a glimpse at the tremendous activity. Then you have the coachbuilders, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, painters, harness makers, etc., and from that see the size of the trade.

On these roads, which were called the High Toby, the High Tobymen worked, whereas on the other roads a footpad, or Low Tobyman, did his evils. "Hands up, stand and deliver!" Those were the words frightened passengers heard too often, and the grim remains of the highwayman hanging in chains from the roadside gibbets were a constant reminder of the dangers of travel.

Now I have often wondered if England were colder or people felt the cold more. You will remember Mr. Weller's celebrated coat; you will recall the old Christmas when it always snowed - or, anyhow, did so pictorially - and the steam from the horses' backs, and the little white clouds of breath, the stamping of feet and banging of arms, and the red, pinched look of people's noses and the agony of chilblains. No wonder, at the first stopping-place, that hot toddy was served, or grog. No wonder that everyone wore mittens and double-breasted waistcoats, and kept their feet in the straw for warmth and comfort when they were driving.

I suppose Romance divides our attention between the Great Bath Road and the road from London to York, Dick Turpin's road. E v e r y night nineteen mails left London for York, the fare being 3 6s. 3d. Every night the towns folk and the country folk could, in decent weather, very nearly set their clocks by the time the coach went past. Decent folk, abed but sleepless, could say to themselves, "Three o'clock o' the morn; that's the London coach gone by."

Every night when the coachmen gathered in the coachmen's room in the inn they would ask news about the weather from incoming drivers. Postilions sometimes froze to death on a long stage. Blinded, weary, bitterly cold, the various drivers or guards would struggle through blizzards, torrents of rain, icy, cutting winds, and pull up at their regular stage as stiff as pokers. When one considers that it took sixty hours for a letter to reach Edinburgh and three weeks for a parcel, one may well be thankful for changed conditions.

It was considered quite the proper thing for people of quality to make their wills before a long stage, and many of them took nostrums against an attack of coach sickness. One the sights on the road was the passing carriage of a rich personage. Ahead of his six-horse coach were his running footmen, who cleared the way and saw to his lordship's comforts. He expected to arrive at his half-way house with the meal laid, the fire lit and the landlord and servants awaiting his pleasure. From the window of his private room his lordship could watch the less fortunate travellers going in bunches to sit in the public dining-room to eat the ordinary, as their meal was called then, and still is in old-fashioned market towns, where there is still a vast difference between the farmers' ordinary and the commercial room.

A much more humble tavern would have perhaps a dozen wagons standing outside which were carrying servants going to a hiring fair, poor clerks, actors and poor schoolmasters.

The bagmen were a great feature of the road, carrying their wares from town to town, and so, as to-day, obtaining orders for themselves or their masters. The hackney coach was seldom seen in the country, but stood in ranks in the towns for hire, after the manner of the station fly. In 1657 only 50 were allowed in London by law; they increased to 300 in 1659 and to 1,000 in 1771. Curiously enough, the last stand for sedan chairs was in St. James's Street up to 1821.

One has always to remember the toll gate on the turnpike roads, which levied a fee. A horseman had to pay a penny halfpenny at every gate.

In the old days of posting William Dockwra, a London Customs House searcher, invented the penny post. This innovation commenced in April 1680, In 1720 Ralph Allen of Bath, a country postmaster, invented cross postage, so that letters could be sent direct across country instead of having to go first to London. Out of this he made a profit of 10,000 a year until it was taken over by the Government in 1764, when the General Post Office came into being.

Our present system we owe to the business genius of Rowland Hill, who established the Penny Post in form not long dead, the Money Order Office, the Post Office Savings Bank, and the Post Office Insurance Office.

We arrive at the end of our stage and bowl in under the archway - "Beware your heads, gentlemen" - into the galleried courtyard. The big black-faced coaching clock with golden numerals shows us we are one minute before time. The yard is cobbled, the inn yard walls are whitewashed, the gallery over which the maids peer with interest is painted a bright green.

The place has an air of cheerful untidiness, a rag is hanging from the pump, white buckets with green hoops abound, horse collars and harness hang from wooden pegs under a little roof. The outsides climb down very stiff from the journey, the insides are helped, shaking the straw from their legs and feet. Everyone is glad to see the bright fire glow from the kitchen. The bells on curly springs with large room numbers over them soon begin to peal. Presently the travellers, now unthawed, scat themselves at various tables and begin to eat a piping hot supper and to order their various drinks. A little later the men gather round the fire, clay pipes are handed round on trays, hot punch is brought in, and later still the travellers go upstairs to a feather bed already heated by a warming pan.

That is Georgian and Victorian, and so near is it to our time that the writer's father always came back to school at St. Paul's from Lincolnshire by stage coach.

There were wagons and springless coaches in the time of Charles II, and the Thames watermen complained bitterly of lack of work owing to the new competition.

In 1625 Captain Bushy started the first coach stand at the Maypole in the Strand with four coaches. In 1652 there were two hundred, and in 1694 there were seven hundred. In 1634 the Sedan chair was introduced by Sir Saunders Duncombe. In 1682 a journey from London to Nottingham took four days. In 1661 the stage coach fare from London to Oxford was two shillings, and the fare from London to York was forty shillings.

Every new method of travelling immediately causes complaint, and the stage coach came in for its share. Before they came in and everyone rode on horseback the stoppages at inns were of necessity more frequent; when stage coaching came in it ruined any number of inns, because the coach, making longer stages, passed by twenty small inns and made the fortune of a few others. Besides this, the coach took away the trade of long-distance carriers of watermen, saddle makers, and the like After the coach comes the iron road, and bit by bit the long stages disappear, then follows the motor car, and the trains are put in a bad way, but the motor car has certainly revived many of the old picturesque inns. When flying becomes safe and popular it will be as easy to lunch in Paris and dine in Madrid, or even to lunch in the air. How much further this will go no human being can tell.

At the same time antiquarianism and the romance of history has had a great revival since Victorian days, and we intend to preserve instead of destroying. Huge cities, like London, must always be an exception. London was never designed for the present population, and the traffic problem is becoming as great as that of New York and Paris.

In the inns at the time of which I write, the coaching days, enormous quantities of food and wine, good food and good wine, were consumed, whereas now it is difficult to find decent food at any inn; indeed, the innkeeper generally seems reluctant to serve anything but imported beef or mutton, foreign ham, cheese and stewed fruit; he does also provide pickled walnuts and piccalilli and a very washy salad. What a relief, what a surprise to come to a good inn!

In the Stuart days food was cheap, a leg ot mutton cost half-a-crown, a hand of pork eighteenpence, bacon sevenpence, oysters were cheap and plentiful. The food was very often spiced to preserve it, and any amount of pickles were made not only as a relish, but as a disguise to slightly tainted meats. Goose pies were very popular, and buttered shrimps. On the inn list one could see mutton stuffed with oysters.

In Georgian days the hungry travellers had excel-lent fare, but less seasoning. It was easier to obtain fresh meat, and spirit drinking was as frequent as wine drinking, but there were great rounds of beef and rich pork pies, rich black cakes, and any amount of pies of all kinds; and in contrast to to-day a plenitude of chickens.

Those coaching days have gone, with their dangers, discomforts, cold, weariness at the long journeys, but with them the good old inns have nearly all gone, and good old beer and reasonable prices.

Only in a few places does the coach horn sound, and soon that will be but a memory of the past, and our grandchildren, seeing the long elegant instrument hanging on the wall as an ornament, will ask what it is.

Pages: <1>

Pictures for Echoes of the Coaching Days

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About