In 1796 20 year old Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, “As to our mode of travelling to Town, I want to go in a Stage Coach, but Frank [their brother] will not let me.” In her book Journey by Stages Stella Margetson states that Jane did not get her wish until August 1814 and I have been unable to find anything to the contrary in her letters.
As I am researching for a book on stagecoach travel at the moment I was glad of another excuse to dig into the Letters and remind myself what Jane wrote to her sister after arriving by stagecoach to stay with brother Henry in Hans Place on the 22nd August 1814.
“I had a very good Journey, not crouded [sic], two of the three taken up at Bentley [a village 7.5 miles form Chawton] being Children, the others of a reasonable size; & they were all very quiet & civil.”
This was a very important point for a lady travelling alone in the tight confines of the inside of the coach. With three passengers each side on a seat that was only 41 inches wide, knee to knee with those opposite, large or offensive fellow travellers would be exceedingly unpleasant.
“We were late in London, from being a great Load & changing Coaches at Farnham, it was nearly 4 I believe when we reached Sloane St, Henry himself met me, & soon as my Trunk & Basket would be routed out from all the other Trunks & Baskets in the World, we were on our way to Hans Place in the Luxury of a nice cool dirty Hackney Coach.”
From this it sounds as though Jane was dropped off at the top of Sloane Street where it meets Knightsbridge, before the stage continued on its way past the Hyde Park Corner turnpike and into London. The Hackney coach journey down to Hans Place would not have been a long one and she managed to retrieve all her luggage: an important consideration, especially when the journey involves a change of coach, as travellers’ guide books of the period warn.
The next part of her description of the journey is not easy to interpret: “There were 4 in the Kitchen part of Yalden – & I was told 15 at top, among them Percy Benn…We took up a young Gibson at Holybourn; & in short everybody either did come up by Yalden yesterday, or wanted to come up.”
According to Deirdre le Faye, editor of the Letters, Mr Yalden was the owner of a private stage coach which he drove from Alton in Hampshire on one day and then back to Hampshire the next, although this does not quite accord with them having to change stages at Farnham. But what does Jane mean by the “Kitchen”? I wonder if she is making an “upstairs downstairs” joke with the inside passengers “downstairs” being in the “kitchen”. Or did the inside passengers gather in the kitchen of whichever establishment Yalden’s coach started from?
Fifteen passengers on top was a very large number and must have contributed to the chaos sorting out the luggage. Normally three of the outside passengers sat facing forward, three facing backwards and one next to the driver – seven in total. To have squeezed on another eight, they must have been jammed together in the luggage space between the front and rear facing passengers. This was potentially dangerous, for it could unbalance the coach, but Mr Yalden’s appears to have been quite a slow one, so perhaps there was not much risk.
The route after Bentley and Farnham is not given, but I would suspect the coach would have continued to Kingston upon Thames, crossed the Thames at Kew and then turned east for Knightsbridge. These days it is a journey of about fifty five miles. A fast coach would average ten miles an hour, Mr Yaldon’s probably six or seven, so Jane would have had to set out by at least seven in the morning. No wonder she was pleased to see Henry and his nice cool Hackney carriage, however dirty!
If anyone has an alternative explanation for what Jane meant by “the Kitchen part” I’d be fascinated to hear it.