“Coach-fevered, coach-crazed and coach stunn’d” was how the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described himself after arriving at Hatchett’s Hotel, Piccadilly in November 1817 after an all-night journey on the Bristol to London mail coach. It made me wonder if everyone had such a ghastly experience of coach travel and the result of my research is my new book Stagecoach Travel, out in the UK this month from Shire Publications (September in the US).
The first stagecoaches appeared in the mid-17th century – and wise passengers made their will before setting out as well as allowing considerable time – the 182 miles from London to Chester took six days in 1657 (if the weather was kind). But at least in those days speed was not going to kill you and the coach would stop overnight so you had a chance of a meal at your leisure and a night’s sleep. (Prudent travellers would bring their own bed linen). If you were very hard up and could not afford the £1 15s for the London-Chester route you could perch on the roof (no seats or handrail) or ride in the basket with the luggage. To be ‘in the basket’ became slang for being hard-up. Passengers riding this way can be seen in this print of the quite fabulous sign (below) for the White Hart, Scole, Norfolk. The sign really was this ornate and was unfortunately demolished as a traffic hazard in the 19th century. The inn is still operating.
By the early 19th century roads had improved greatly, at least along the turnpike routes, coach design incorporated lighter bodies and better springs and reliable timetables were in place. But although this meant the passengers got to their destination faster and on time it did not necessarily translate into greater comfort or safety. I measured the interior of one of the few, genuine, surviving stagecoaches – the Old Times (Shown left in Birmingham Museum stores). It carried six inside passengers who would have been wearing bulky outdoor clothing. Each had 14 inches (35 cm) width on seats 13.5 inches (34 cm) deep. They and the passenger seated opposite had 18.5 inches (47 cm) of leg room to share. It makes budget airline seating seem luxurious.
Then there was the question of your fellow passengers who might be smelly, noisy, offensive or simply excessively chatty. As the Hon. John Byng ranted “…box’d up in a stinking coach, dependent on the hours and guidance of others, submitting to miserable associates and obliged to hear their nonsense, is great wretchedness!” Nor were the live human passengers the only source of discomfort. Coaches might carry the occasional turtle (live and strapped to the roof) on its way to some nobleman’s soup tureen, a smuggled veal calf (also live) in the guard’s box (definitely against regulations) or the sinister ‘box of book’ containing a body-snatcher’s ill-gotten corpses addressed to a London surgeon for dissection.
Travelling outside was cheaper and you were in the fresh air, but you were also exposed to the weather. Jane Austen’s nephews Edward and George arrived in Southampton in October 1808, “…very cold, having by choice travelled on the outside, and with no great coat but what Mr Wise, the coachman, good-naturedly spared them of his, as they sat by his side. They were so much chilled when they arrived, that I am afraid they must have taken cold.” They were fortunate, during very cold spells passengers sometimes died of exposure on the outside seats.
Then there were the inns, another source of misery, although foreign travellers usually wrote with admiration of “…that picture of convenience, neatness and broad honest enjoyment, the kitchen of an English inn.” (Washington Irving). With overnight stops a thing of the past, the 19th century innkeeper had to make his money where he could which meant over-priced, rushed meals. A useful trick was to serve it slowly and make it very hot but to prevent passengers removing any uneaten portions of the meal once the coach was ready after its 20 minute stop. The half-eaten food would go back in the pot for the next arrivals. You could, of course, bring your own picnic or buy from a vendor. The scene below is of an inn yard with passengers waiting to board their coaches with, to the left, the pie-seller carrying his wares on his head.I’ll post again about the pleasures of coaching, its dangers – from the highwayman (uncommon) to overturnings (all too frequent) – and those essential ingredients of the experience: the coachman, the guard, the vehicle and, of course, the horses.