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.

When robbers ruled the lawless roads

THE evening traffic is building up on the A40 at Gerrards Cross and further along the road Beaconsfield is getting busy again.

Lockdown may not quite be a thing of the past, but there’s plenty of hubbub ahead of the weekend when restrictions are finally being further relaxed.

Funny thing is, this is a road that’s been busy for centuries. It’s just hard to visualise what it must have been when the route was bustling with stagecoaches, carts and wagons.

These days we jump in our cars so casually for a trip to the shops – but getting about wasn’t so easy or comfortable in the days of horse-drawn transport.

Looking out from the trees on Gerrards Cross common on a sunny day, it’s hard to conceive that highwaymen once hid here, preying on stagecoaches heading to and from Beaconsfield’s busy Old Town.

STAND AND DELIVER!: highwaymen once hid out on Gerrards Cross common preying on stagecoaches passing to and from Beaconsfield Old Town

It’s only when we watch a period drama that we perhaps think what life must have been like from the 17th century onwards, when stagecoach services were established and coaching inns along main routes like this were bustling with life.

Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, Tring, Amersham and Aylesbury were all thriving hubs of the stagecoach age, with passengers from London heading out through Uxbridge to Oxford, Banbury and beyond – as far as Worcester, Shrewsbury and Wales.

TRAVELLERS’ REST: the White Hart in Beaconsfield was one of the town’s smaller coaching inns

In the heyday of coach services as many as 20 might come by here in a day – providing rich pickings for highwaymen along the route and good business for the coaching inns of Beaconsfield like the White Hart and Saracen’s Head.

Standing in the woods at Gerrards Cross common, it’s hard to image what a scary journey this would have been in centuries past, as Clare Bull recalls in her article for the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society.

“Despite the advent of the ‘flying coach’ most travellers chose to break their journey by staying in one of the many coaching inns in Beaconsfield.

PLACE OF SAFETY: the Saracen’s Head, where Oxford coaches stopped to change horses

“Travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort. Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to get here through some of the most notorious danger-spots in this country.

“On the London side, Gerrards Cross Common was one of the highwaymen’s favourite haunts.

“From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur – much steeper then than now and badly surfaced – presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses.

“The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite haunts.”

DANGEROUS DETOUR: travellers risked their lives on the quiet lanes around Holtspur

It’s odd how we tend to harbour romantic illusions about these criminals – many of them vicious thugs whose exploits became the stuff of legend for later generations in the same way that Robin Hood became a folk hero.

Louise Allen, author of the 2014 book Stagecoach Travel, might have a vested interest to see the best in such figures as Dick Turpin and the dashing Frenchman Claude Duval, given that two of her ancestors were hanged at Aylesbury for highway robbery in the first half of the 18th century.

But she is unequivocal about her own antecdedents: “So, were these two handsome masked men on flashy black stallions, setting ladies’ hearts a flutter as they relieved the gentlemen of their coin? I very much doubt it – from what I can establish of these two, and their circumstances, they were probably an unpleasant pair of muggers out for what they could get and unscrupulous about how they got it. ”

GENTLEMAN OF THE ROAD?: English artist William Powell Frith (1819-1909) depicts a group of highwaymen led by Claude Duval holding up the carriage of Lady Aurora Sydney on a heathland road where a young woman is made to dance with her captor PICTURE: Manchester Art Gallery

Although it seems likely that even the famous Dick Turpin was a violent thug who tortured victims and inn keepers, Victorian readers loved the tales of daring raids and escapes, and were delighted by the legend of how Claude Duval was said to have gallantly spared the possessions of any pretty lady prepared to dance with him. He was immortalised in a painting by Frith, but it didn’t stop him being hanged at Tyburn in January 1670, aged 27.

Clare Bull has colourful tales to tell of Duval’s fair day exploits in Beaconsfield and he certainly had his female admirers. His epitaph begins: “Here lies Du Vall: Reder, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if Female to thy heart. Much havoc has he made of both: for all Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall.

With hundreds of coaches heading out of London for destinations all over the UK and more than 100 coaching inns in the capital itself, it’s not surprising that the lawless roads outside the city were tempting places for robbers.

RICH PICKINGS: La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill by J C Maggs, one of dozens of busy coaching inns in the capital. Coaches left from here to destinations all over the country, including Windsor and Maidenhead PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

On heaths and commons and in woods and forests from Hounslow Heath to Windsor Forest, there was good reason for wealthy visitors and courtiers to worry; lurking in the thick undergrowth of Maidenhead Thicket or Windsor Forest might be the worst of their nightmares – including the most famous highwayman of all, Dick Turpin.

Maidenhead was a busy coaching stop and the Bath Road to Reading was one of the busiest roads in the country, with many escape routes through the Thicket, where highwaymen flourished until the early 1800s.

Many hostelries were associated with the most prominent rogues of the period, including the Dew Drop Inn in Burchett’s Green, which was said to have had an underground room where Turpin would hide his horse Black Bess in an emergency.

UNDERGROUND ROOM?: the Dew Drop Inn at Burchetts Green

He was also rumoured to have used the Olde Swan Inn at Woughton-on-the-Green as a base, and legend links him with the George in Wallingford and Hind’s Head in Bracknell too. His ghost is said to haunt the roadside hamlet of Stubbings (while Duval is said to haunt the Holt Hotel at Steeple Ashton in Oxfordshire).

But even Turpin was finally caught: he was imprisoned in York and was later hanged and buried there in 1739.

VULNERABLE VISITORS: John Charles Maggs’ portrait of The Old White Hart, one of at least eight coaching inns in Bishopsgate which provided rooms and board for wealthy guests arriving in the capital or returning to the country. PICTURE: The British Postal Museum & Archive

With no national police force to clamp down on robberies, by 1713 it was said that ‘almost every coach running between London and Oxford was robbed’. The same year saw the hanging of the notorious Jack Shrimpton from Penn while another notorious gang of three brothers from Burford also suffered gruesome deaths – and may even have been the original “Tom, Dick and Harry” of the popular saying.

Tom and Harry Dunsdon were hanged at Gloucester in 1784 and their bodies brought back to Shipton-under-Wychwood and gibbeted from an oak tree. Dick Dunsdon is thought to have bled to death after his brothers had to cut off one of his arms to free his hand which became trapped in a bungled burglary.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery locally was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury.

It was the end of an era; turnpike roads and toll houses had already curtailed the activities of the highwaymen and soon railways would make travel around Britain faster, more comfortable and a great deal safer.

Never again would worried passengers have troubled nightmares about being made to “stand and deliver” – or forced to dance at the roadside with a dashing French highwayman!