Stagecoach trip back in time

DID stagecoach passengers ever view their journeys as being as humdrum and mundane as modern travellers think their bus, train and plane trips are?

Recent talk of highwaymen and horse-drawn transport raised a few additional questions about life on local roads 250 years ago.

Apart from the risk of highway robbery, what was it actually like to take the stagecoach through Beaconsfield, Amersham or Tring back in the day?

Most towns along main roads boasted one or more coaching inns, often in a prominent position and acting as a focal point for the town’s main activities. And both Amersham and Tring museums have plenty of additional detail about the scale and nature of the local businesses.

TRANSPORT HUB: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, mentioned by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

Just as in more modern times a dozen London railway termini have served different parts of the country – so that we still hear distinctive West Country accents at Paddington, those from Scotland, the north-east and Yorkshire at King’s Cross and those from Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow at Euston – back in the day more than 100 London stagecoach inns offered services fanning out across the country.

As Greg Roberts explains in his fascinating Wicked William blog, the coaching inns with the biggest stables, such as the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, offered the widest selection of destinations, although most concentrated on specific routes – like the Blue Boar Cellar at Aldgate, which relied heavily on Essex trade.

NEW ARRIVALS: a coach and horses at St John’s Gate by John Charles Maggs, 1880
PICTURE: Museum of the Order of St John

He writes: “Inns sited near important industry or London markets such as Smithfield will place greater emphasis on waggons or carts with much less traffic by stagecoach.

“Some inns are owned by the same businessmen. The Swan with Two Necks, the Spread Eagle and the White Horse all belong to William Chaplin.

“Chaplin is ahead of his time in regard to corporate branding because all coaches have livery relating to the specific inn from where they operate. Thus it is common to see coaches with either a two-necked swan, a white horse or an eagle emblazoned across their rear.”

Outside London, coaching inns usually had an imposing entrance doorway leading to the interior of the inn, with an inner courtyard wide enough to allow a coach to turn round. 

HOME FROM HOME: the White Hart was one of the smaller coaching inns in Beaconsfield

Surrounding this, or in the driveway leading to it, were rows of stabling with accommodation above for ostlers and drivers of stage wagons and carriers’ carts, and sometimes an inn owned its own meadows to provide an ample supply of fodder.

The Tudor period had seen the development of the road coach, but the earliest ones had no brakes, careful handling of the horses being the only way to keep the coach at a steady pace and control progress over inclines. On very steep hills passengers had to step down and walk.

Faced with other obstacles such as deep ruts, potholes and flooding, together with foul weather and stray animals, early passengers had to cope with more than their fair share of drama and discomfort.

ROUGH RIDE: an array of open wagons at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Stagecoaches took their name from the term ‘stage’, the distance between stops along a route. The aim was to convey fare-paying passengers and the first route, from Edinburgh to Leith, started in 1610. But with coaches making slow progress on primitive roads, coaching inns soon began to spring up to provide teams of fresh horses and sustenance for coach passengers, including overnight stops on long journeys.

In the earliest days, it was too precarious for passengers to sit on top, but later designs included two seats behind the driver and two over the luggage box at the rear; outside travellers needed to be aware that it was prudent to stay awake to prevent toppling over the side.

Towns like Beaconsfield, Tring and Amersham were ideally placed to pick up a share of the flourishing business, and in the reign of Charles I, Buckinghamshire had more carrier services a week from London than any other county.

Some of this traffic would have gone to High Wycombe, some to Stony Stratford via Hertfordshire and some passed along the Misbourne Valley en route for Aylesbury, with the ‘Carriers’ Cosmographie’ of 1637 listing four London inns where the Aylesbury carriers lodged.

STAGING POST: the Crown Hotel in Amersham Old Town

There were a dozen pubs in Amersham and a trio of important coaching inns – the Griffin, the Swan and the Crown. By 1737, two stagecoaches were passing through the town daily.

Numerous accounts of life on the road survive. But Dickensian-style tales of poor food, unpleasant fellow passengers and dishonest drivers or porters have to be balanced against more rose-tinted accounts of long lavish lunches in cosy inns en route.

If the earliest stagecoaches were expensive, unreliable, uncomfortable and beset with dangers, by the late 18th century, many main roads had come under the control of turnpike trusts and conditions had begun to improve.

GOLDEN AGE: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of the Bath Mail Coach
PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

The period from the first royal mail coaches in the 1780s to the 1840s and the coming of the railways is now known as the ‘Golden Age of Coaching’, familiar to us today through sentimental Christmas card scenes of snow-covered stagecoaches arriving to a hearty welcome at a coaching inn.

Many of these portraits were the work of John Charles Maggs (1819-1896), a Bath-born artist who specialised in such scenes and who captured the atmosphere of the ‘golden age’ that was to last until the 1840s when the railways killed not just an industry, but an entire way of life.

Over in Amersham, while the railway boom spelt disaster for many towns which had grown up with the coaching trade, there was an alternative source of employment thanks to the success of the brewery taken over by William Weller in 1771 which employed half the male population of the town by the end of Victoria’s reign.

When Weller’s sold up in 1929 they owned 142 licensed premises in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex including local houses like The Kings Arm, Eagle, Chequers, Saracen’s Head and Wheatsheaf.

BREWERY EMPIRE: the King’s Arms was one of more than 140 once owned by Weller’s

Although the first turnpikes dated from the 17th century, main routes from London were tumpiked early in the 18th century, increasingly funded by the levying of tolls on certain kinds of traffic – particularly wheeled vehicles, horses, and cattle going to market.

During this period road surfaces improved and turnpike roads were often straightened, widened, and given gentler curves and gradients.  Stagecoach construction also evolved with the fitting of better brakes and suspension, allowing speeds to increase from around six to eight miles per hour, inclusive of stops. The advances meant a journey from London to Manchester which would have taken days in 1750 could be completed in 26 hours by 1821.

Small toll houses provided accommodation for the gate keepers, with side windows angled to give views of approaching traffic from both directions and a board attached in a prominent position displaying the table of tolls.

TABLE OF TOLLS: the Wycombe toll house was rescued and re-erected at COAM

One of the few toll houses to survive of those once scattered across the county is one of five that once dotted the Buckinghamshire stretch of the A40, the road from London to Oxford, Birmingham and Worcester.

The section from Beaconsfield to Stokenchurch was turnpiked as early as 1719 and there were gates at Denham, Red Hill, Holtspur, High Wycombe and West Wycombe.

The Denham gate opposite the Dog and Duck was demolished in 1931 and the Red Hill gate near the 18th milestone in 1929. The Holtspur gate was at the north end of the road from Hedsor, the West Wycombe one at the junction with the Princes Risborough road. The gate in High Wycombe was by the 29th milestone and was dismantled in 1978 and re-erected in 1983/84 at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, complete with toll board.

Turnpike tolls ranged from a penny per person or horse to sixpence for carts, waggons and coaches. Mail coaches, the army and local labourers on foot were allowed to use such roads free of charge.

But stagecoach fares were expensive and only the well off could afford this form of transport: in January 1836 the coach operator Joseph Hearn & Co advertised ‘The Despatch’, an “elegant and light four inside coach” operating on the London to Aylesbury route.  It left the King’s Head Aylesbury at 7am and travelled down the turnpike road through Watford to arrive at the King’s Arms in Holborn shortly after midday.  Fares were 12 shillings inside and 7 outside. 

Coach and horses were smartly turned out in the livery colours of their owners, or in the case of the Royal Mail coaches, in red, although this was changed to blue in 1833, supposedly as a compliment to King William IV.

COLOUR CODED: a Bristol-London mail coach from 1800 PICTURE: The British Postal Museum

When the Post Office started using stagecoaches in 1784, they became the most important vehicles on the road.  By the 1830s and 1840s, the nightly departure of the mail coaches from the General Post Office in St Martins-le-Grand was one of the sights of London, but by 1846 it was over, replaced by the new, faster railway services.

On the passenger services there was increasingly fierce competition between rival coach proprietors, the exotic names conjuring up images of distant towns and cities: The Expedition to Banbury, King William and Britannia to Kidderminster or Leamington, arriving early in the morning in Tring with a distinctive bugle call.

Or what about the Dispatch – driven for 40 years by the same man, James Wyatt – or the Old Union from Buckingham, the Good Intent or the Young Pilot? The Express to Maidenhead or the Wonder to St Albans?

It was only appropriate that after Beaconsfield Services opened at Junction 2 on the M40 in 2009, Wetherspoons should in 2014 name their Hope & Champion pub there after two such services: the Hope, which carried passengers to Warwick, and the Champion, which ran to Hereford.

The stage and mail coaches were a driving force of the industrial revolution. They stimulated road improvements, brought news to remote areas and accurate timekeeping to villages, and gave employment to thousands.

But the end was in sight once the railways started to flourish. Stagecoaches from London to Birmingham were withdrawn in 1839, followed by Bristol in 1844 and Plymouth in 1848.

The last mail coach in the Midlands ran out of Manchester in 1858 though services continued in those areas the railways were slow to reach, like Cornwall, Mid Wales, the Peak District and far North of Scotland.

The routes and towns all remain and many of the old coaching inns survive, but the popularity of rail travel soon meant that the age of the stagecoach was well and truly over, memories of those difficult journeys consigned to historical journals and the pages of Dickens and Austen.

END OF AN ERA: Night Coach by John Charles Maggs

For more about coach driving, the working life of a coach horse and Royal Mail services, see the local museum websites in Amersham and Tring. For more information about stagecoach travel, see the Wicked William blog by Greg Roberts.

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