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Coaching Days And Ways - The Stagecoach

( Originally Published 1927 )

ROGER BACON, the famous Franciscan friar who flourished during the reign of Henry III of England, is said to have predicted that ships would some day move without sails and carriages without horses, but his prophecy was doubtless laughed at and set down as another joke of a strange fellow who dabbled in necromancy. Ships would not move without sails or oars nor carriages without horses. Carriages, moreover, were not always easily moved even with horses, and there were many great ladies in the time of Queen Elizabeth who preferred, as did the queen herself, to travel on horseback, either single, on their palfreys, or double, behind a gentleman, on a pillion, rather than to be jolted and jounced over rough roads in one of the new-fangled coaches imported from the continent.

Queen Elizabeth, however, although she did prefer to ride behind her Lord Chancellor or one of her chamberlains, presently adopted a coach drawn by two horses for some of her longer journeys, and the royal example was copied by some of the richer noble-men; but not until much later did the use of coaches become at all general.

In the reign of Charles II public coaches carried passengers for hire between important cities, and in 1669 an equipage, described as the "flying coach," began a regular service between Oxford and London and accomplished the journey to the wonder of travellers between sunrise and sunset. Flying coaches were soon running three times a week from London to all the chief towns. In summer the ordinary day's journey was about fifty miles, and in winter, when the roads were muddy or slippery with ice, the day's run was about thirty miles. The Chester coach, the York coach, and the Exeter coach usually reached London in four days in fine weather, but in stormy seasons took six days. The fare averaged two-pence half-penny a mile in summer and more in winter. Six passengers could be carried and they were all seated inside the coach, since there were so many accidents that it was considered dangerous to ride upon the roof.

These flying coaches, which made it possible for people who did not own carriages to travel about the country, were no sooner established than they became the target for loud-voiced criticism. It was said the noble art of horsemanship would languish and fine saddle-horses disappear, that saddlers would be driven out of business, that the Thames would no longer be the chief thoroughfare to London, that many inns where mounted travellers had been accustomed to stop would be deserted, that the coaches were too hot in summer and too cold in winter, that they frequently arrived at their destination too late for the passengers to get supper and started too early to procure breakfast. All sorts of efforts were made to have travellers return to the old customs of journeying on horseback and by water ; but in spite of their critics coaches kept on the road.

By the eighteenth century the flying coach had become a stagecoach, and was the regular means of travel throughout England and Scotland. Advertisements were posted in all public places, proclamations such as this, describing the coach between London and Brighthelmstone (later called Brighton) :

"Lewes and Brighthelmstone—new machine to hold four persons, by Charley, sets out by the `George Inn,' in the Haymarket, St. James's at six o'clock in the morning, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, in one day to the `Star' at Lewes, and the `Old Ship' at Brighthelmstone, and returns from there every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Inside passengers to Lewes to pay thirteen shillings; to Brighthelmstone, sixteen shillings. To be allowed fourteen pounds weight of baggage, all above to pay one penny per pound."

The stagecoach, or the diligence, as it was often called, was of the greatest assistance to Scotchmen who had business in London. Instead of travelling on horseback, which took many days and was tedious and expensive, one could ride in a public coach drawn by eight horses. The stage that ran between Glasgow and London carried linen and cotton goods to the English market in addition to passengers. It covered about twenty-five miles a day, and was three weeks upon the road, with a rest at a tavern each Sunday. From Glasgow to. Edinburgh there was a two horse stage which started daily from the Saracen's Head in Glasgow at seven in the morning and reached Edinburgh at eight at night. This coach stopped at Cumbernauld for an hour and a half in order to allow the passengers to breakfast and at Linlithgow for dinner. A third halt was made for tea and then the journey was continued to the Grass-market in Edinburgh.

As traffic increased the heavy, clumsy six-inside vehicle gave way to the light four-inside fast coach. These made much better time, the Mail from London to Holyhead covered the journey of two hundred and sixty-one miles in twenty-seven hours and the route of two hundred and three miles to Liverpool in twenty-one hours. The trip from the capital to Shrewsbury or Exeter or Manchester could be made in a day, and after the Prince Regent chose Brighton as his seaside residence and built the great Pavilion there fast coaches brought the fashionables of London to the Prince's resort at a speed of twelve miles an hour. These coaches used a horse for every mile of the road, and it is recorded that one hundred and fifty horses were kept to supply the "Wonder" coach that made the one hundred and fifty-eight miles from London to Shrewsbury.

With the general use of the stagecoach the roads were constantly improved. The main highways, or post roads, generally built of gravel, were carefully graded and repaired, and when Macadam perfected his process of treating the surfaces the principal thoroughfares of the kingdom were hard and smooth and free from ruts. The Royal Mail, with twelve or more passengers and their luggage on top, bowled merrily along at ten or twelve miles an hour through all kinds of weather. Sometimes they travelled both by day and night, but generally the journey was made from dawn to sunset.

The lord of the road was the coachman, who was as proud of his vehicle as a sea-captain of his ship. Usually a portly, well-seasoned individual, he handled reins and whip with a flourish and pointed out to the fortunate passenger who had the seat beside him choice bits of scenery and regaled him with stories of the road. The guard, although greatly inferior to the coachman in importance, was often almost as resplendent in a coat of scarlet cloth with trimmings of black velvet and gold lace. He carried a blunderbuss and sometimes a brace of pistols and made a great show of his weapons when any strange horsemen appeared.

On the journey private chaises were met, for there were those who preferred to hire vehicles of their own rather than ride with the crowd. An American traveller in England wrote that he often saw such chaises "with one or more inmates reclining luxuriously amidst silken cushions, absorbed in a book—or, quite as frequently the case, lost in less sentimental oblivion. The carriage ordinarily hired, at a post house, is a light chariot with seats for two, furnished with glass windows and blinds in front, and in the doors on either side. The post boy, dressed in a gay jacket of red, yellow or blue, with a jockey cap, white pantaloons, or small-clothes and long boots, does not usually drive from a box in front like a coachman, but rides on one of the horses as postillion; and thus, an unobstructed view of the country around, is enjoyed from within."

To ride atop a coach in fair weather was one thing, to ride outside in a heavy rain was quite another. One traveller says that in a downpour the passengers all "put up umbrellas; that of my neighbor turned a stream of water down my neck, and I with mine turned a current into his lap ; we moved a little and took it in another place, and then in another, till we all thought it more equal to take the shower as the clouds dropped it."

But the inside of the coach was dark and stuffy and most preferred to ride on top where the country could be seen and the coachman's stories heard. And in clement weather such a journey was a delight, filled with amusing experiences, as the account of a day's ride from London to Bath made by Lord William Pitt Lennox, a young gentleman of fashion, quaintly shows. "It was early in a morning," says Lord William, "in the merry month of May, when I found myself at the `White Horse Cellar,' Piccadilly, just as the York House coach was starting for Bath. I had previously secured the box seat, and, encased in a double-breasted drab coat, waited the arrival of a noble Duke, then a Marquis, well known to all the best coachmen on the road as a most liberal patron, and a first-rate whip himself.

" `Sorry to have kept you,' said the new-comer, `but Swaine only sent home the whip I promised you this morning; you will find it in this narrow deal case.'

" `Allow me to give up my place to you,' I said, addressing the Marquis.

" `Thank you a thousand times,' he replied, `I am unfortunately engaged. We are going to man my new cutter, and pull to the Red House and back.'

"The case was handed up ; the dragsman expressed his thanks.

" `All right behind, gentlemen,' he thundered, fingering the ribbons in the plenitude of vehicular importance. Away we went, rattling along the stony pavement of Piccadilly at an awful rate to make up for the lost time.

" `Nice morning, Sir,' said my companion, as we passed through the turnpike-gate that then stood opposite the entrance to the Park, near Apsley House. `The flowers are all a-blowing and a-growing.' This line he sang, and then continued, `My missus gave me these beautiful violets about an hour ago. "Sam," said she, "I know I can trust you not to give them away to any girls on the road." '

"I turned round to admire the bouquet and take a look at the wearer. . . . He was a well-dressed, natty-looking fellow, decked out in a neat dark brown coat, white hat, corduroy breeches, well polished boots, cloth leggings, and a splendid pair of double-sewn buckskin gloves. A huge pair of whiskers, shaped like a mutton chop, fringed the borders of each cheek, and were (as a costermonger in Knights-bridge irreverently remarked) large enough to pad a cart-saddle. In the course of conversation he invariably indulged the outside passengers with snatches of the popular ditties of the day, `Oh, say not woman's heart is bought,'Love has eyes,"Will you come to the bower?' `Savourneen Deelish,' `The Thorn,' and `Sally in our Alley.' .. .

`As I had won the good graces of this driving Giovanni, . . . he offered me the reins just after passing the `Sun Inn' at Maidenhead. `Take 'em gently up the hill,' said he, `and then you can have a spirt over the thicket.'

"To say that I was proud is to say nothing, for, having passed a few months with a private tutor at Littlewick Green, within two miles of the spot where we were, I felt that I should cut no little figure as I drove by the `Coach and Horses,' a wayside public-house where I and my companions used to keep our guns when at our tutor's.

" `Do you pull up at the "Coach and Horses"?' I inquired.

" `We can, Sir, if you like,' the coachman responded. `Perhaps Dick has a parcel to leave for Squire Lee. Anything for the thicket 'I' he continued, turning to the `shooter' behind... .

" `Why, yes, Sam; I wish to know whether Mr. Vansittart has sent for the empty sack I left there last Monday.' "

At the "Coach and Horses" Lord William pulled up and the innkeeper's daughter, seeing the coach stop, rushed to the door, exclaiming.

"Lord William ! Who would have thought it!" she cried. "How much you have improved in driving ! Do you recollect when you upset the dog-cart close to that pond?''

Whereupon Lord William continues : " `I hope your father is well,' I replied, anxious to change the conversation; `and Sally—I mean Miss Sadbroke let the coachman and guard have a glass of your cream of the valley.'

" `Pray alight, my Lord,' said the coachman, `I was not aware who I had the honour of addressing. Dick, show his Lordship into the bar.'

"I jumped down, rushed into the well-known snuggery, ... quaffed a glass of bright, sparkling ale, threw down a crown piece, kissed my hand to the blooming girl, and mounted the box. . . . We trotted past my tutor's house on the green, where I was cheered by the boys of the village school, and, after an agreeable drive, reached Reading and then New-bury. Here the passengers were allowed twenty minutes for dinner, where we (I can answer for myself) did ample justice to the fare, which consisted of a splendid boiled leg of mutton and a ham-and-veal pie.

" `I go no further, gentlemen,' said the coachman.

" `All right,' I responded, handing him a gold seven-shilling piece.

" Good morning ! and thank you, my Lord,' re-plied the deposed monarch of the whip. `I've told Mr. Dennis that your Lordship has your driving-gloves on.

"Again mounting the box, I found myself seated by one of the smartest men I ever met with at that period on the road. There was an air of conceit about him that was truly amusing, and it was rendered doubly so by his affected style of conversation. Unlike other dragsmen, he was dressed in the plainest style imaginable—a well-brushed black beaver hat, glossier than silk ; a brown cutaway coat, dark Ox-ford mixed overalls, highly-polished Wellington boots, and fawn-coloured double kid gloves. The first object of my new companion was to inform me that he was well born, that he had been educated at Ox-ford, and that he was the most popular man at Bath; indeed, so much so that he was called the Beau Nash of the road.

"On leaving Marlborough, he offered me the reins, which I accepted. . . . Upon reaching the city and driving up to the `York House,' Mr. Dennis, with the air of Louis le Grand, politely took off his hat, wished me good evening, thanked me for my gratuity, and said that if I mentioned his name at the hotel every attention would be paid to me."

Travelling by stagecoach, even in fair weather, however, had its hardships as well as its pleasures, especially when part of the journey was made at night. David Copperfield, when sent away to school, had an outside seat on a coach that left Yarmouth at three in the afternoon and was due in London about eight next morning. It was midsummer and the evening was fine. The small boy says: "The night was not so pleasant as the evening, for it got chilly; and being put between two gentlemen . . to prevent my tumbling off the coach, I was nearly smothered by their falling asleep, and completely blocking me up. They squeezed me so hard sometimes that I could not help crying out, `Oh, if you please!'—which they didn't like at all, because it woke them. Opposite me was an elderly lady in a great fur cloak, who looked in the dark more like a haystack than a lady, she was wrapped up to such a degree. This lady had a basket with her, and she hadn't known what to do with it for a long time, until she found that, on account of my legs being short, it could go underneath me. It cramped and hurt me so, that it made me perfectly miserable; but if I moved in the least, and made a glass that was in the basket rattle against something else (as it was sure to do), she gave me the crueller poke with her foot, and said, `Come, don't you fidget. Your bones are young enough, I'm sure!' "

After such a journey David Copperfield or any other traveller was glad enough to ease his limbs and satisfy his appetite when the coach pulled up at an inn.

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