Tag Archives: Great North Road

Travelling The Great North Road With The Georgians

The Great North Road – the ancient route from London to Edinburgh – must have seen the foot prints, hoof prints or wheel tracks of virtually every Georgian of note. Part of the fun of tracing the historic route under today’s roads and motorways for my book Following the Great North Road: a guide for the modern traveller was bumping into Georgian characters at every bend in the road. Here I will take a dozen, almost at random, and travel north with them from London.
The great clown Joseph Grimaldi was an early commuter and would travel from his home in the village of Highgate to the London theatres. Just south of Islington on the first stage out of the city the road passes Sadler’s Wells theatre and Grimaldi often appeared there. One night in 1807, on his way back home, he was stopped by footpads on Highgate Hill, but when he showed them his watch, engraved with him in costume, they recognised him and let him go. (The print on Archway early 1the left shows the foot of Highgate Hill).
Beyond Highgate lies Finchley Common, one of the most notorious haunts of highwaymen on the entire Great North Road. Amongst the infamous men who haunted it were Jack Shepherd who led a life of dangerous celebrity and was caught on the Common in 1724 after his fifth, and final, breakout from Newgate prison. He was hanged in November at Tyburn. Dick Turpin, whose violent exploits were romanticised by the Victorians, also haunted the Common. The so-called Turpin’s Oak tree stood just before the road reaches the modern North Circular Road and was said to be peppered with musket balls from hold-ups. The enclosure of the common began in 1816 and put an end to the dangers. We meet Turpin all along the road north, at least in the imagination of the Victorians who thrilled to Alfred Noyes’s Ballard of Dick Turpin. dickturpin
Charles Dickens was a frequent traveller along the Great North Road, right from his early days as a young journalist, and he writes feelingly about the discomforts of stage coach travel. (You can find more of Dickens’ travels in my book Stagecoach Travel. )
He certainly described the towns he passed through with an acid pen – poor Eaton Socon, 55 miles north of the capital was, in his opinion, so dull and backward that he called it Eaton Slocombe.
Another 40 or so miles north stands the oddly-named Ram Jam Inn, named, so the story goes, for the mysterious liquor that the landlord, returning from India, sold there. It was pointed out to travellers as the lodging of Molyneux, the black bare knuckle boxing champion, on the night before he met the equally great Tom Cribb at Thistleton Gap nearby on 28th September 1811. Cribb, who was the winner, stayed at the Blue Bull (99 miles), which was a small inn further north.    (The image at the foot of this post is the final one in Henry Alken’s series ‘The Road to a Fight. 1821)
Sir Walter Scott was a regular traveller from his Scottish home to London and he used the Great North Road in his novels. He described Gonerby Hill, a long and difficult hill 112 miles north of London, in Heart of Midlothian (1818) where Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London and encounters thieves and murderers at its foot. Harrison Ainsworth mentions it in his novel Rookwood (1838) where Dick Turpin crests the hill only to be faced, prophetically, with a gibbet holding two mouldering corpses.
Newark, 125 miles north of London, has a dramatic castle and a fine market square surrounded by coaching inns. Lord Byron often stayed at the Clinton Arms, then called the Kingston Arms, and mentions it in a letter of 1807. His first publisher, Ridge, had offices at number 39 on the corner of the market and Bridge Street and you can still see the handsome door-case and the knocker Byron would have used.
The Prince Regent travelled the Great North Road, and would visit Doncaster races. The racecourse is still there, 161 miles from London, and so are the handsome Georgian houses of South Parade, including the one where the Regent lodged. The print below shows the grandstand on Doncaster racecourse in 1804.

Doncaster_0001
Daniel Defoe was another Great North Road “regular”, viewing it with an eye even more jaundiced than Dickens’. The village of Croft on the River Tees (237 miles north of London) was a flourishing little Georgian spa, long since decayed into a village. On the north bank of the river is one of those features that provided scope for local legends and stories to entertain bored coach passengers. The road follows the bend of the river over the tributary River Skerne and in a pasture to the right are two deep pools known as Hell’s Kettles. Unfortunately they are no longer visible from the road so the modern traveller cannot peer into their depths and see the impious farmer and his plough team who were swallowed up for working on St Barnabas’s Day. Daniel Defoe would have none of it, observing, “’Tis evident they are nothing but old coal-pits, filled with water by the River Tees.”
In an earlier post I wrote about the Regent’s Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, who enjoyed regular holidays at the Wheatsheaf Inn in Rushyford, 250 miles from London. The inn is now the Eden Arms and the once pretty little brook-side spot has a large roundabout in the middle of it. In his reckless youth the Chancellor was one of the numerous young men who chose the Great North Road as his route to elope to the Scottish border. We meet him again in Newcastle in 1772, armed with a ladder and assisting pretty Bessy Surtees to climb down from a window in her father’s fine half-timbered house on the corner of Sandhill and the steep hill called Side. The house and window are still there.SONY DSC
The road is into Northumberland now and passes through the town of Alnwick (308 miles north). Its ancient castle was drastically ‘modernised’ in the later 18th century by the first Duke of Northumberland, a man who married well and who changed his name to Percy from Smithson on acquiring the castle through his wife. He asked George III for the Order of the Garter, pointing out that he would be the first Percy to have been refused it. The king, who apparently did not take to the ex-apothecary, retorted, “You forget, you are the first Smithson who ever asked for it.”
Thirty miles further north and the road enters Berwick on Tweed and the eloping couples were almost on safe Scottish ground. Finally, 341 miles from London the road enters Scotland at Lamberton Bar. The famous toll house, which used to have a notice in the window reading, “Ginger beer sold here and marriages performed on the most reasonable terms”, is no longer there, alas.
East Linton (370½ miles), where the road crosses the River Tyne on a red sandstone bridge, was the birthplace in 1761 of John Rennie, the pioneering engineer and builder of London Bridge.
Only three miles from Holyrood House in Edinburgh the Great North Road enters Portobello, now a coastal suburb, but once a salt-producing fishing village with a flourishing china industry. The sands were excellent for exercising cavalry horses and it was here that the quartermaster of the Edinburgh Light Horse, Sir Walter Scott, was kicked in the head during a drill. Enforced bed-rest allowed him to finish the Lay of the Last Minstrel.
The traveller now entered Edinburgh, although if they were expecting a comfortable hotel, or even a coaching inn, they were disappointed. Until James Dun opened the first Edinburgh hotel in the New Town in 1774 accommodation was very rough indeed. Perhaps we should end with an image of Dr Johnson, whose unflattering views on Scotland are well known. He put up at the White Horse in Boyd’s Close and Boswell visited him there to find him in a towering rage because the waiter had sweetened his lemonade using his fingers, not the tongs, to add the sugar.

boxing

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Turn Again Whittington – there’s a traffic jam ahead

If you follow the Great North Road out of London towards York and Edinburgh you come to the village of Highgate four miles after leaving Smithfield, the traditional starting point of the road. These days you fight your way out through heavy traffic on the A1 along the Holloway Road to a one-way system encircling the Victorian Archway Tavern and next to the Archway Underground statiBlack and white Archway cropon. Ahead lies Archway Road running through a deep cutting and spanned after half a kilometre by the bridge carrying Hornsea Lane over the top. If you want to visit Highgate Village itself you need to take the fork off the one-way system just before Archway Road, to drive up Highgate Hill, past the modern Whittington Stone pub and the Whittington Stone itself sitting beside the pavement.
If you had been making your way along this route in the mid-14th century you would have no problem with traffic, fumes, noise or jams. But you would have been lurching along a muddy track sunk deep between the fields on either side – the original Hollow Way – until it turned and followed the route of Highgate Hill, for there was no cutting and easy route where Archway Road now runs. You would have armed outriders if you could afford them and a stout cudgel if you could not, because you would be deep in the country here and making your way through an area notorious for footpads or worse.

In the mid 14th century a hermit, William Phelippe, was living in a cell on the lower slopes of Highgate Hill – a great lump of London Clay rising to 423 feet above sea level, a formidable obstacle. William seems to have been that unlikely creature, a wealthy hermit, for he approached the King Edward III with the proposal that he pay for the excavation of gravel from near-by pits and use it to improve the road surface. In return he would set up a toll-bar to tax all wheeled traffic and pack-horses that passed carrying goods. The king duly granted a decree “to our well-beloved William Phelippe, the hermit” who charged two pence per week to each cart with iron-shod wheels, one penny if not iron-shod. Pack horses were charged one farthing a week.Stone crop

It was north along this improved road that young Dick Whittington, a poor apprentice who had failed to make his fortune in London, was trudging one day, with, so legend tells us, his cat. He paused near to where the Whittington Stone now stands, to rest before tackling Highgate Hill and there he heard the bells of the City calling, “Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London.” So he did, and made his fortune and the rest is the stuff of traditional tales and modern pantomime.

But Richard Whittington did exist – he was Lord Mayor in 1397, 1406 and 1420, he was knighted, he was one of the richest men of his time and a notable philanthropist whose charities are still in existence. A succession of Stones has marked the spot – the current one was erected in 1821. The etching above shows the previous version, dated 1608.

By the late 18th century Highgate was a prosperous village with a tollgate on the Great North Road and a good coaching and posting trade, for all the traffic still had to climb the hill and go down its main street at the summit. It was a popular place for early commuters, amongst them Grimaldi the clown who was robbed on the hill by footpads in 1807 returning home from performing at Sadler’s Wells theatre. Fortunately when the thieves saw his pocket watch with his portrait in costume painted on the dial they apologized profusely and returned it!

But the increase in coaching traffic meant something had to be done about the hill. Ackermann’s Repository (November 1822) records that, “At Highgate-Hill, over which one of the great north roads branches from the metropolis, a formidable steep presents itself, and which, until about ten years ago, was endured, but liberally abused, by the sufferers obliged to pass it.”

Archway 1822
First, attempts were made to tunnel through it but the tunnel collapsed in April 1812, fortunately after the workmen had left at the end of the working day. The tunnel was abandoned and a great cutting driven through, bridged by a massive archway designed by John Nash to carry Hornsea Lane. It took up a considerable width of the carriageway and was eventually replaced in 1900.

The new Archway Road was cut through on the eastern side of the old Archway Tavern which can be seen with the tollgate to the right in the black and white engraving at the top of the post. This is dated in Old And New London as 1825, but trying to accurately date the prints I have of the Archway is a nightmare.

The small rectangular coloured one above is from the Repository (1822) and shows the view beyond the tollgate. But the two rectangular images below are much more problematic if compared to the black and white oneArchway early 1. They are two sides of a very large print that was too big to go in my scanner so the unfortunate cow in the middle has lost its hindquarters, I’m afraid.

One shows the Archway Tavern which, oddly, has lost the upper part of the right-hand wing which is clearly illustrated in the black and white print. Highgate Hill goes off to the side and the pond, which is shown in the black and white print as walled, has no wall. The other sideArchway east shows Holloway Road coming in from the right and the tollgate before Archway Hill.
To the right just beyond the tollgate is a neo-Gothic building which, according to my early Victorian Ordnance Survey maps, is the Whittington College almhouses, one of Dick Whittington’s charities. The almshouses were moved to this site in 1809 but the neo-Gothic building was not erected until 1822 which means that the black and white print must have been made before that date. This print is an 1823 re-working of an 1813 print which has been changed to show the new almshouses. There’s an image of the original version on the Government Art Collection website.
It is difficult to reconcile this largely rural, village scene with the urban chaos on this site now – I doubt very much that Dick Whittington would have been able to hear the bells and hs cart would have probably been run over by a passing delivery van!

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The Eloping Lord Chancellor

On the 18th November, 1772, a twenty year old university student called John Scott crept along Sandhill on the bank of the Tyne in Newcastle under the shadow of the castle. He was equipped with a ladder and, when he reached the very handsome half-timbered house that stands on the corner of Sandhill and Side, the steep street up to the cathedral, he propped the ladder against the wall and helped Miss Elizabeth “Bessie” Surtees to climb down from a first floor window.SONY DSC
Conveniently, the Great North Road runs along Sandhill and up Side so it was easy enough to hand the daughter of wealthy banker Mr Aubone Surtees into a post chaise and head for the Scottish border. They were married at Blackshiels on the next day, eighty eight miles from Newcastle, so John must have left the major road and taken the most direct route towards Edinburgh, via Jedburgh on what is now the A68.

So far, so romantic, although you are probably wondering by now what this has to do with Jane Austen’s London. Young John Scott was the third son of a respectable coal-fitter (a sort of broker) of Newcastle and was studying at University College Oxford with the intention of entering holy orders. His school career appears to have been marked by truancy and regular whippings for misdemeanors so his father was probably hoping he would settle down, study hard and become a respectable clergyman. All looked set when he graduated in 1770 and was awarded a fellowship.
The elopement ruined all chance of a career in the church and he lost his fellowship as a result. However his father stood by the pair and John entered the Middle Temple in 1773 to study for the bar. Despite his father’s support the young couple seem to have been hard up. “Many a time have I run down from Cursitor Street to Fleet Market to buy sixpenny-worth of sprats for our supper,” he recalled later.
However he did well eventually, argued several difficult and interesting cases and began to rise in his profession. He became a Member of Parliament, then entered the Lords as Baron Eldon in 1801 to become Lord Chancellor. He held that position for over twenty years and was known for his opposition to Catholic emancipation and his support for the Prince Regent against his wife, Princess Caroline. He was created Earl of Eldon by George IV in 1821, probably in recognition for that support.SONY DSC
William Hazlitt wrote of him, “Lord Eldon has one of the best-natured faces in the world; it is pleasant to meet him in the street, plodding along with an umbrella under his arm, without one trace of pride, of spleen, or discontent in his whole demeanour, void of offence, with almost rustic simplicity and honesty of appearance – a man that makes friends at first sight, and could hardly make enemies, if he would; and whose only fault is that he cannot say Nay to power, or subject himself to an unkind word or look from a King or a Minister. …There has been no stretch of power attempted in his time that he has not seconded: no existing abuse so odious or so absurd, that he has not sanctioned it. He has gone the whole length of the most unpopular designs of Ministers … On all the great questions that have divided party opinion or agitated the public mind, the Chancellor has been found uniformly and without a single exception on the side of prerogative and power, and against every proposal for the advancement of freedom.”
I first came across Eldon when I was researching Walks Through Regency London and explored Bedford Square where he had a very fine town house at number 6. He also had a pretty uncomfortable time there! In 1815 he was besieged by Corn Law rioters who fixed a noose to the lamp post outside. The only way he could get out to attend Parliament or the King was to creep through his back garden into the grounds of the British Museum escorted by Townsend the Bow Street Runner.
Probably just as uncomfortable was to be laid up with gout and have the Prince Regent barge into the house and refuse to leave until Eldon appointed one of the Prince’s cronies to the office of Master of Chancery. Eldon yielded.
And then to cap it all his daughter Lady Elizabeth eloped in 1817 with George S Repton (son of Humphry Repton) after Eldon had refused to allow them to marry. Given that the circumstances of Elizabeth’s parents’ marriage were well known there was considerable satirical humour at Eldon’s expense.Elopement
Even more ironic was that when George III was asked to give his consent for a reform of the marriage laws he found that both his Lord Chancellor and his Archbishop of Canterbury had made run-away marriages!

I was reminded of Lord Eldon during my current research for a book on the Great North Road. It seems that Eldon liked to take a holiday from the pressures of London and used to stay at the Wheatsheaf, a posting inn at Rushyford Brook, a charming hamlet on the Great North Road just south of Ferryhill and the River Wear. At least it used to be charming. Now a large roundabout sits right on top of “…a pretty scene, where a little tributary of the Skerne prattles over its stony bed and disappears under the road…” Eldon established a cellar at the inn and he and Holt the landlord used to dispose of seven bottles a day of ‘Carbonell’s Fine Old Military Port.’ According to Sidney Smith they would drink eight bottles on Sunday to fortify themselves before church service. Apparently Eldon always went to church at Rushyford, but rarely in London. When reproached because, in his position he should be “a buttress of the church” he retorted that he was merely “an outside buttress.”

Modern newspapers would have a field day with Lord Eldon!

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