A Coach Journey From London To Edinburgh
( Originally Published 1921 )
AS an example of the ordinary means of inland travel in the old coaching days, with its little incidents and annoyances, we are able to give an account, also by Mrs. Catherine Roget, of a journey from London to Edinburgh, ten years later, again accompanied by her son and daughter, now aged fourteen and ten and a half years respectively. The object of this journey was to enable young Peter Mark Roget to commence his medical studies at Edinburgh. These were undertaken at a much earlier age than is customary nowadays, and it is remarkable to look back upon the fact that it was then possible for him to take his full degree of M.D. when he was only nineteen. It is interesting to note that while our travellers were passing quietly through England and Scotland, France was in the thick of the Revolution, and Alsace, through which we followed them so peace-fully in the last chapter, was being invaded by the Austrians.
The following extracts from letters which Mrs. Roget wrote from Dover prior to the journey are given to show how large an undertaking such a journey must have seemed when the preparations were being discussed, even to one of so much experience of travel, and incidentally they throw light on the various available methods.
Mrs. D— is desirous of going thirds with us in a postchaise as far as Stone, in Staffordshire. If we adopt that plan, we shall go the road to Carlisle. But can equally stop at any of the towns on the road if we find ourselves fatigued. . . When I see the daily fine weather we are letting pass by us and reflect on the 400 miles we are going, I am impatient to be on the road. I sent yesterday to inquire concerning the Carlisle diligence ; there is none. The stage holds six, and is £3 18s. Everybody frightens us about the public coaches, which, to be sure, nobody but such poor devils as myself would venture in ; and I am not sure that I shall have the courage, though I can ill afford the expense of chaises for such a length of road. We shall probably mix our journey with the genteel and the vulgar, now and then taking a crowd and jumble in a stage and then loll and look big another post or two in easy chaises. . I shall send in a few days my trunks by water; they will not be long on the voyage, and we shall be there before them."
It appears, however, that one, at any rate, of the trunks that was consigned in this way from Dover failed by a long way to arrive before them, as the boy in a letter from Edinburgh in the May of the following year writes:
" We are in great want of our trunk at Dover, which contains many of our books. It is impossible to have it at present, for no vessels venture from Dover during the war, and if it comes by land, it must be opened by the custom house officers both at Dover and at London, besides the great expense of land carriage."
On September 9th Mrs. Roget writes to her brother :
" If you have anything more to say to me concerning this long journey, you must write by return of post, as I shall set out the middle of next week. We shall take three places in the York Coach and rest ourselves a week there if necessary. Our D— party is given up. We shall have a moon next week, which is preferable to her bright eyes, ainsi je me moque du reste. My young children are eager to be on the road as well as their old mother, who feels herself wearing away to the size of a thread-paper from these repeated delays and unsettled stage projects."
Mrs. Roget's own account of the journey is as follows :—
" Left our good friends at Kensington Sept. 18th, 1793. Took a Hackney coach at 8 o'clock in the evening, drove to the Bull and Mouth in Aldersgate Street, where we had taken places in the mail coach for York. The evening was rainy, and the wagons going out prevented our coming up to it, but we had a very careful coach-man, who made us not quit the coach until we had placed everything in the Inn. The last bundle he left to Peter's charge, and bid Nannette and myself follow him, but, old careful, turning his head, perceived Peter following; he was going to bawl out, but seeing that he had the parcel under his arm, he gave a nod of approbation. After the confusion of the coach office, etc., was over, we were ushered into the coffee-room, to wait with others the stage going out. We were sorry to find that we had an hour to wait. During our stay, a tired family entered out of a long stage, and began a long supper, which continued serving up till we left the Inn. We felt ourselves awkward doing nothing, when every mouth in the room besides ours was employed with eating, so we .called for a tumbler of negus and a few biscuits. This was a pastime for my young people, and had so changed my thoughts from our intended journey that when the Edinburgh and York Mail papers were called for I should, had not Peter jogged my memory, have been an hour longer lost in my reverie, for in the short time I had carried my thoughts back to the good friends I had left and felt vexed at the interruption. We got into the coach and were followed by a lusty middle-aged man, who before we had reached Lombard Street had already entertained us with anecdotes of his family, etc. I was in an absent humour and only heard half his stories. One thing struck me with concern, the idea of travelling 200 miles with such a talkative companion. We waited at the post office about half an hour, when by the sound of the horn we drove on very pleasantly, and as we advanced, our opposite neighbour's clack abated. He at last put on his large fur cap, after apologizing to Nannette for his frightful appearance, which he said might alarm such a young traveller. In short, we all prepared to take our rest, Nannette with her white French coat. Peter, who had forgotten his nightcap, tied his handkerchief round his head. I composed myself with settling in my mind many anxious cares concerning our journey, which probably would have prevented my closing my eyes had not the two bad nights preceding, added to the fatigue and the hurry of packing up and leaving my good friends, so wearied and spent my spirits, that nature sank into repose notwithstanding the motion of the coach, which I must confess was the most gentle of any carriage I had before travelled in. We changed horses at Enfield, Ware, Buntingford and Huntingdon. We arrived at the latter place at a quarter before four in the morning, where we made a comfortable breakfast; although at such an early hour. We changed guard and coachman, to the displeasure' of our fellow-traveller, who called the usual custom of giving them a shilling a vile imposition. He ate little breakfast, but promised himself a good luncheon at the next stage, which was Stilton. He was too sleepy to get out, but at Stamford, our next stage, he had a drop of comfort, which gave him his former spirits. His anecdotes soon ended in a doze, so that on the whole he was not such a troublesome companion as I had feared. His conversation was never fatiguing above half an hour after some good liquor. The rest of the time was passed in sleeping and in studying Patterson's Book of Roads, one page of which in particular Peter is certain he was learning by heart. After passing Grantham, we arrived in Newark, where we dined on eels, a fat goose and mushrooms. We were here solicited to take in a lady, which, after a few murmurs, we all agreed to. When herself and puppy dog were handed into the coach we received the most fulsome thanks I have ever heard, such a kindness never to be forgotten, an unparalleled goodness, etc., which we vowed were undeserved. No sooner was the lady and her young charge seated than our traveller began by telling her that she might thank the good dinners we had met with for her reception, which had put us all in good humours. I resented this rude speech by assuring the lady that she was very welcome, and immediately showed some civilities to her dog, which gained her affection, and we good-humouredly continued our journey for about half an hour, when all but the lady, even the very puppy, fell asleep. Peter snored very loud. At Doncaster she left us with a thousand thanks, and there our traveller called for a mug of ale ; we were all so dry that I was tempted to follow his example. He desired that I would taste his ale, but to my astonishment I found it absolutely half brandy, so that I no longer wondered his tongue ran so fast after his meals. We were concerned to find that our traveller's plan was somewhat similar to ours. He was going to Scotland, but meant to stay a few days at York to rest himself and to see the curiosities there. We arrived at York a little after eleven at night at the York Tavern. The house was full ; only one bedroom remained, which, as there were two beds in it, we immediately engaged. Our traveller had the offer of one bed in a room where there was a gentleman asleep in the other. This poor accommodation did not suit him. He whispered in my ear that this sleeping person might possibly be a thief, and he had valuable things with him. I approved of his fears and encouraged him to take his place on to Edinburgh. He lamented not seeing the Cathedral, but was comforted when I assured him that I had never heard much said in its praise, and the town, my brother had lately informed me, was positively ugly. In short, his fears and my rhetoric sent him post-haste on to Edinburgh. We enjoyed by ourselves a quiet supper, and after a good night's rest we set out in search of lodgings. . . . Our traveller informed us that he meant to write his observations and adventures. His remarks, taken from his dreams and Patterson's Road Book, must be worth reading. We have our fears that we shall appear in print as the dull companions of his journey.
As there was no probability of taking places till the mail coach was arrived from London, we were obliged to pack up. our trunks on the uncertainty of going. Immediately we heard the sound of the horn, I sent Peter to inquire if there were three places vacant. He brought us word that we could go, and after a hasty adieu and settling our affairs with our host, we went bag and baggage to the York Tavern. The confusion that we found there was dreadful, and the places reserved for us were in a postchaise with another gentleman ; another chaise was to accompany us, and according to the clerk of the office we were to keep up close to the mail, and at Newcastle we were to get in, as three of the passengers were going no farther. I saw the absurdity of this plan and exclaimed against it, but, not willing to go back and meet perchance with the same luck another evening, we consented to the plan and got in with our traveller, who was talkative and civil, as the other chaise were all much in liquor. We set off first, and as we were changing horses at the first post, the mail passed us, and we continued flying after it the whole night. At Darlington we stopped to breakfast, and had a full view of the drunken chaise company. We hurried our breakfast in hopes to. get before them to the mail, as one of them wished for a place as well as us. This piece of cunning was soon smoked out, and to our mortification our driver chose to go purposely slow till the other chaise passed full drive and was soon out of sight. We now began to despair of meeting with the mail at Newcastle. It was vain to storm ; he did not go a step faster. At the next post they assured us that we should be too late. But the contrary event befell us ; the landlord provided the first chaise, as he found that they had got the start of us, with bad horses and left the good ones for us. Thus we soon came up to them, but were not in the last post before them, and we were told by all that the mail would be gone. Both chaises now set off at full gallop and kept up together. We arrived at Newcastle when the horses to the mail were putting to. Hall's Inn was crowded and all in great confusion. Our companion with us got into the mail, and, with a light heart and an empty stomach, we set off, well pleased that we had accomplished our ends, and laughing at our great hurry and the disappointment of the other person who nearly occasioned ours, coming up to the coach. At about ten we arrived at Berwick ; we were rejoiced to find an excellent cold supper prepared for us, for we had had nothing the whole day. The rest of our journey was very pleasant. We arrived at Edinburgh at seven o'clock in the morning, and from the recommendations of our fellow-traveller got immediately into a very comfortable lodging."
The party stayed a fortnight in York, and arrived in Edinburgh on October 4th. The actual time of travelling from London to York appears to have been under twenty-four hours, but two nights were spent on the portion from York to Edinburgh.
In a letter Mrs. Roget writes on October 5th as follows :
" You must be greatly surprised, my dear Sam, to receive the news of our arrival at Edinburgh, for I am myself. I informed you in my last letter of the trouble there is in obtaining places in the Mail from York to Edinburgh ; I have now to add that the same uncertainty attends securing of places in the Light flyer, called in London the Heavy Coach, and the latter conveyance only carries you to Newcastle, where you are again to try your chance in another coach the rest of the way. We found that there was no Mail or any other coach that went quite to Carlisle, consequently that scheme was laid on one side. We had only left trying our first plan, which we thought Thursday or Friday would do, but from inquiry I found a Yorkshire gent. or two were expected down by the Mail on Wed. night. We had therefore a better chance, though no certainty."
The type of vehicle in use in those days was somewhat different from the mail coach preserved in South Kensington Museum, which is said to have been the last to run on the London to York service before the days of railways. This was not built till 1820, and is of more highly developed design and construction than those in use in 1793. The employment of steel springs certainly goes back as far as 1760, when a " flying machine with steel springs " ran from Sheffield to London. Further improvements appear to have been introduced in 1787, but as to their immediate success we leave the reader to judge when he has read the following extract from a letter written by Matthew Boulton, the great engineer and partner of James Watt.
" I had the most disagreeable journey I ever experienced the night after I left you, owing to the new improved patent coach, a vehicle loaded with iron trappings and the greatest complication of unmechanical contrivances jumbled together that I have ever witnessed. The coach swings sideways with a sickly sway, without any vertical spring, the point of suspense bearing upon an arch called a spring, though it is nothing of the sort. The severity of the jolting occasioned me such disorder, that I was obliged to stop at Axminster and go to bed very ill. . . Unless they go back to the old-fashioned coach, hung a little lower, the mail coaches will lose all their custom."
We must remember that the state of the roads in those days was very different from what it is now. The art of road-making was in its early infancy. The blind pioneer of road construction, Metcalfe, had, it is true, commenced his great work, but Telford was still a young working stonemason.
Some of the types of coach used both before and after the year we are considering are illustrated in the drawings of Rowlandson. In the earlier drawings six horses appear, with a postilion riding one of the leaders, and there appears to have been a large basket at the back for luggage, and at times even used by passengers. Of this basket, Sidney Smith, writing later and looking back, says :
" As the basket of stage coaches in which luggage was then carried had no springs, your clothes were rubbed to pieces ; and," he adds, "even in the best society one-third of the gentlemen at least were always drunk."
This basket was quite detached from the body; and rested upon the back axle. The fore boot, with the driver's seat on the top of it, was likewise separate and unsprung, and between them the body proper was hung by straps from primitive springs. Venture-some passengers travelled on the roof at considerable risk to themselves, for there do not seem to have been at that time any proper outside seats. That outside seats had appeared by 1809 and that the basket had disappeared is shown by a later drawing by Rowlandson. The coach here depicted approximated much more nearly to the more familiar type, in that the fore and hind boots are attached to the central body and the whole is sprung together.
The coaches that Mrs. Roget rode in on the journey that we have described were mail coaches, and probably superior in construction to the common type of basket coach. From information given by Palmer, the pioneer of mail coaches, in 1791, we learn that the mail coaches of those days were constructed to carry four inside passengers and one outside passenger, who rode with the coachman. They were drawn by four horses, except in the heaviest weather, when there were six? An old print of a coach at approximately this period leaving the Belle Sauvage is reproduced.
It appears not to have been till 1784 that mails were regularly carried by coaches with an armed guard, and according to the catalogue of the South Kensington Museum, the vehicles were similar to the existing stage coaches, but carried only six persons, and ran at an average speed of six miles per hour. About 1800 the coaches had attained their final form, carrying four passengers inside and four out, and they travelled at an average speed of about eight miles per hour. In 1835 there were seven hundred such coaches on the roads of Great Britain and Ireland.