London to Stamford

What was it like to travel on a stagecoach during their hey-day in the early 1800s? We have no photographs or films from the time, but we do have some first-hand accounts. Here’s one. It covers the first stage of a journey from London to Stamford.

“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 our driver – one Tom Hennessy – is drawing on his gloves and whispering 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 he enjoys 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 onto the velvet covered seats, but we climb up the ladder to take our places on top of the coach, one on the box seat beside the driver and the others on the benches behind. The guard sits at the back.

When we’re all aboard, wrapped in our warmest clothes and with our hats pulled down tight about our ears, our driver mounts onto his box and takes up his whip and reins like a conductor at the start of a concert.

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 bugle and shrills out “Oh, dear, what can the matter be?” in as fine a manner as you could wish and we are out of the coachyard almost before we know it, and stealing down Holborn Hill with a fine fluent motion that can be felt on any crack coach which is finely driven.

Tom Hennesy is a master of his art. His manner is calm and quiet but he’s 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 loom grim and ghostly and we have already lost the use of our hands and feet. Deep draughts of yellowish fog complete our discomfiture. 

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 — like phantoms in the fog — let fly a graceful flow of expletives.

Suddenly, our near side leader is spooked by a stray bullock and swerves to one side, upon which our driver flicks his wrist with consummate skill and touches its hind leg with his whip, bringing the horse quickly back into the correct line. The skill of coach drivers handling of a team of four horses is a wonderful sight to see.

And now we are approaching the Peacock at Islington. An old ostler 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 to pick up passengers their way north, 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 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 our steaming team with its clattering hooves climbs the hill to Highgate archway. And now 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 taking up painting.

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. With his hat adjusted rakishly, his melting glances fasten on any pretty young maid who happens by.

* * *

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.”