THE COACHING AGE

‘THE PEACOCK’ AT ISLINGTON 

Can anyone be alive in the year 1874 who could “lay ’is ’and upon ’is ’eart” and swear that he had ever seen a real live ‘Charlie’ in his watch-box, with his horn lantern and his rattle; or had been in a real old hackney coach, before anything in the shape of a cab of any kind existed? Believe me, I have both seen the real old Charlie with his horn lantern in his watch- box, with his rattle stuck in his belt, and have ‘ridden’ often in a real old hackney coach, with its pair of worn-out dog horses, smelling of ‘King Froust,’ and sometimes, I fear, of ‘subjects’ taken by the ‘body- snatchers’ from some churchyard to the hospital for dissection, and for the transport of which a hackney coach was just the thing. 

Often too as a boy, at that little-loved place called ' the Charter House,' have I and others let down our nightcaps (for all wore white nightcaps with a tassel to them in those days) to the old Charlie at the corner of Wilderness Row, to buy for us tarts, plums, apples, and Other contraband eatables, which could only be procured by stealth, and by no better means than your nightcap and a string let down from the window with a sixpence in it for the Charlie's trouble. 

But few in these days can call to mind a real foggy morning in London in winter under the influence of such lamplight as there was then. Gas was in its in- fancy, and oil lamps were still burning in most parts. Only fancy oil lamps in a thick London fog in the middle of winter! and only here and there a Charlie, who was oftener than not asleep in his watch-box, to protect the British public! * Bobbies ' were not born in those remote days. 

We have chartered a hackney coach overnight, for which, being wanted very early in the morning, we have to pay an extra fare as a matter of course. We will proceed from Harley or Wimpole Street, the most fashionable streets in those days. We make the best of our way to the ' George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, from whence the ' Regent ' coach starts at six o'clock. There is a thick fog; and, after groping along in nearly outer darkness for an indefinite length of time, we at length turn into the yard, and find the horses ' put to.'

Piles of luggage are being placed on the top and into the fore and hind boot of the coach. Where the luggage for ' four in and twelve out ' used to go I will leave you to make out, for I never could. But go it did; and, having stowed our load away, we go out of the yard, down Holborn Hill, to the left up Cow Lane, through Smithfield, and make the best of our way to the 'Peacock' at Islington, meeting droves of bullocks, sheep, and all sorts of conveyances coming from Smithfield. But we have arrived safely, neither upsetting anyone nor being upset ourselves. At this I often wondered, for the steam from the horses, the breath from the horses, the cattle, and the sheep, added to the dimness of the lamps and the dense fog, turned everything into worse than darkness. You might as well have looked inside a stewpan for any- thing that could be seen. ' Darkness in fact was visible.' Everything else was invisible through the darkness of early morn and the fog. 

Having achieved the 'Peacock' at Islington, a sight only to be seen there, and in those days, awaits us. A noise, I will call it a 'sonus quadrupedans,' assails your ears, as coach after coach comes up. All coaches going anywhere north called there; and, as they came up the old hostler, or a man whoever he was, with a horn lantern, called out their names as they arrived on the scene. Up they come through the fog, but our old friend knows them all. Now 'York Highflier,' now 'Leeds Union,' now 'York Express,' now 'Rocking- ham,' now ' Stamford Regent,' now ' Truth and Day- light,' and others which I forget, all with their lamps lit, and all smoking and steaming, so that you could hardly see the horses. Off they go. One by one as they get their vacant places filled up, the guard on one playing ' Off she goes! ' on another, ' Oh, dear, what can the matter be; ' on another, ' When from great Londonderry; ' on another, ' The flaxen-headed ploughboy; ' in fact, all playing different tunes almost at the same time. The coaches rattling over the stones, or rather pavement — for there was little or no macadam in those days; the horses' feet clattering along to the sound of the merry-keyed bugles, upon which many of the guards played remarkably well, altogether made such a noise as could be heard no- where except at the ' Peacock ' at Islington, at half-past six in the morning. All this it was curious to hear and see, though not over pleasant in a dense fog, particularly if it were very cold into the bargain, with heavy rain or snow falling. 

It was a miserable look- out for those who had to sit it out till they reached York, or some place, perhaps, two or three hundred miles from London. One dares hardly think of such things happening to a friend, en an empty stomach, at six o'clock on a winter's morning. Still, we have gone through it; and ' here we am again,' as the clown says in the pantomime, not very fresh, it is true, with a good deal of the snow still clinging about the hair and whiskers, but quite as well as can be expected under all circumstances. On we go in the fog, the steam rising from the horses as if one were sitting over one of Barclay and Perkins's largest brewing coppers, till we get about to Highgate Archway. Then morning begins to break, and the fog to clear off. On looking round, if you are not too cold and too wet to do so, you see London about four miles off, below you, in such a yellow fog and smoke as no artist I believe has attempted to paint. At Barnet, the first change, things look a trifle better; and, pulling up at the inn, Tom Hennesy, of the ' Regent,' and George   48 'DOWN THE ROAD:   Cartwright, of the ' York Express,' exchange greetings; and having had a glass of rum-and-milk, off we go again, the ' Regent ' to Stamford, and the ' York Express ' through Stamford to York; the ' Regent ' being due at Stamford at eight the same evening, and the ' York Express ' due at York about twelve hours afterwards. On a fine day in winter the journey used to be quite long enough, but in rain or snow it was almost too long; and often have I thanked my stars on arriving at Stamford, wet through, and cold to my very bones, that I had not to go on to York.