The Coaching Age was every bit as glamourous and exciting as the Railway Age, yet we know little about it because it pre-dates photography and film-making. Indeed, we probably give it scarcely a thought unless we visit an old coaching inn like the Bell at Stilton or the George at Stamford, when we might pause to imagine the occasional coach trundling in to change horses.
The reality was quite different. Far from being an occasional passing stagecoach, there was an organisation and timetable every bit as complex as the later railways. The Bell and The George are on the Great North Road and forty coaches a day passed through them – twenty up and twenty down. On the Great West Road, at Hungerford, fifty coaches passed through daily in 1835 at these times:-
11.15 am going east 10.30 pm going east
11.45 am going east 11.15 pm going west
1.00 pm going east 11.45 pm going east
1.30 pm going east 11.47 pm going east
1.45 pm going west 12.00 am going east
2.00 pm going west 0.10 am going east
2.15 pm going east 0.15 am going west
2.45 pm going west 0.45 am going west
2.45 pm going west 2.15 am going west
7.30 pm going east 2.31 am going west
9.00 pm going east 2.43 am going west
10.25 pm going west
Clearly coaching inns, were noisy and bustling places – especially between 11am and 3pm during the day, and between 10pm and 3am at night!
Many coaches travelled to and from London. Altogether 342 coaches departed or arrived at London every single day. They travelled in all directions and for very long distances. They set out, not from great railway termini like today, but from Inns across the city. It was a world of travel very different from that which we know today. It was exciting and glamourous – but it was definitely a lot less comfortable. The equivalent of first class was to sit inside the coach but this was expensive so there was always a ready market for people who wished to ride on the rooftop seats for a lower price.
What can it have been like, travelling on one of these long-distance coaches? We probably imagine them trotting along at perhaps five or six miles an hour but the reality was very different. Speed was of the essence, particularly for the mail coaches.
Here is a description from the driver’s perspective, written in the 1830s:-
“There was no better way to travel in my day than by the Holyhead Mail, which passed through Shrewsbury. It was as fast a coach as any going and was rated by the Post Office at eleven miles an hour including stoppages. Driving this coach was both exciting and skilful. With your whip in one hand and your reins in the other you had to keep the horses galloping the greater part of the way in order to keep time. The theory and practice of eleven miles an hour are very different. I have often covered fourteen or fifteen miles in one hour, but to average eleven miles an hour for eighty or ninety miles is a very different proposition. Your horses must be good and they must be well driven.”
– C.T.H Birch Reynardson
And for the passenger, perhaps in winter, what was it like to travel on one of these coaches? Here is the start of one journey – from London to Stamford – at about the same time:-
“Our coach is the Stamford Regent and it starts at 6am from the George and Blue Boar in Holborn. We have our ticket and have taken a cab to the inn in good time. Unfortunately, this is not a summer’s day and the weather is very cold and foggy. The smoke from the thousands of chimneys across London has made the fog a sort of yellow colour.
The Stamford Regent stands ready for her flight. Four chestnut horses with a good deal of blood about them seem anxious to be off. Ostlers are giving the finishing touches to their harness and in a dim doorway our driver – one Tom Hennesy – draws on his gloves and says sweet nothings to a pretty housemaid with her black hair out of curl. Like all long-distance coachmen, he has a fame and status that he relishes and makes good use of, acting the lothario at all the inns and hostelries along his route.
Ostlers are now thrusting luggage into the boot which seems to have an insatiable appetite and swallows everything that is thrown into it. The four inside passengers arrive and climb into the coach to settle themselves on the velvet covered seats, whilst we climb up the ladder to take our places on the outside wooden benches. We shall sit behind the driver. Several others sit on the benches at the rear of the coach, alongside the guard.
When we’re aboard, wrapped up in our warmest clothes and with our hats pulled down tight about our ears, Tom Hennesy languidly mounts on to his box. He chews a piece of sweet lavender which the pretty housemaid gave him and takes up his whip as a conductor does his baton.
Checking that everyone is on board, he glances back at the housemaid before shouting, “Let ’em go,” to the ostlers, followed by, “Look out for yourselves,” to everyone else.
The ostlers fly from the chestnuts’ heads and the four horses spring up to their collars. The guard raises his post horn and shrills out “Oh, dear, what can the matter be?” in as fine a manner as would get an enthusiastic encore at an evening concert, and we are out of the coachyard almost before we know it, stealing down Holborn Hill with that fine fluent motion which can be experienced on any crack coach which is finely driven.
And Tom Hennesy is a master of his art. His manner on the box is so calm and quiet as to be almost supercilious. But he is keeping a sharp look-out, for he is driving through the early morning darkness on a foggy day. We steal up Cow Lane and through Smithfield. The wheelers (the two horses nearest to the coach) are like phantom chestnuts in the mist while the leaders can hardly be seen. Houses on each side of the road loom grim and ghostly, and we on the box seats have already lost the use of our hands and feet. Deep draughts of yellowish fog complete our discomfiture.
Suddenly shouts are heard ahead, and a large herd of cattle throngs the streets. They’re on their way to Smithfield of course and their drovers — looming phantom-like out of the fog, let fly a graceful flow of expletives. Our near side leader now mistakes a stray bullock for some monster of mythology and swerves to one side, upon which our driver, who has up to now sat perfectly upright with hands still, flicks his wrist with consummate skill so that his whip neatly catches the near side leader’s hind leg and brings the horse immediately back into the correct line. The skill of coach drivers in the handling of a team of four horses is a wonderful sight to see.
And now we are approaching the Peacock at Islington. In the old day The Queen’s Head was the stopping tavern but it was pulled down in 1829. It had wood and plaster walls, with three stories projecting over each other in front and a porch propped by caryatides.
The first thing we see is the horn lantern of the old ostler who stands outside the inn every morning and announces the names of the coaches as they drive up to the door. All the northern coaches made a point of stopping at the Peacock, on their way north to pick up passengers, and by seven in the morning there could be twenty or more coaches at a time drawn up there. The noise that attended their arrival was something to behold. The clattering of hoofs, the shrilling of bugles, the slamming of doors and the stamping of feet on splash boards really had to be seen and heard to be believed.
Through all this din the raucous voice of the ostler continually called out, like the cry of a mediaeval herald announcing the entries to a tournament, all the famous names that were so familiar at the time — the York Highflyer, the Leeds Union, the York Express, the Stamford Regent, the Rockingham, the Truth and Daylight — these are the famed coaches that carried the heart-stirring news of Vittoria and Waterloo to the people of the north!
We are soon on our way again and before long we see the sun as our steaming team with its clattering hooves climbs the hill to Highgate archway. The sun springs lurid from the fog and the great city lies about us. The dawn from Highgate is a grand sight and is quite likely to inspire any traveller to dream of becoming another Constable and paint the landscape.
I ask Hennesy what the next stopping point is and he says that the Green Man at Barnet is the first change, and recommends the soothing joys of rum and milk as being ideal for travellers on a cold dawn.
In due course The Green Man at Barnet appears and we alight at the first opportunity. Tom Hennesy is already disembarked and is lounging outside building in his usual languidly sedate manner. Like all the great coachmen, he is a great favourite with the young ladies and, with his hat adjusted rakishly, his melting glances fastened on any pretty young maid, he is quite the lothario.
Before long, the horses have been unharnessed and led to the stables and the next team are already fuming in the traces. With a cry of “Take your seats, gentlemen, please”, Barnet is soon a memory on the Great North Road, as we gallop onwards into the dawn.”