James Hobson (twitter @about1816)
Your journey today will be uneventful; there will be no accidents, deaths or injuries; but remember the word ‘travel’ comes from ‘travail’, so your journey is still going to be hard work. The only uncertainty is how much, and that depends, partly on your good organisation, and partly on external events. Like life, really.
Your journey has begun; you ducked at the exit to the coaching inn yard, and you are on way. It will be smooth and comfortable if you are leaving from London, because the roads have been improved, largely by private enterprise desiring a profit. There will be toll roads throughout your journey and you will have to stop; you are not the Royal Mail stagecoach and will not expect the gates to be open when you arrive. On this occasion all the tolls are passed without incident; that is not always the case. (This will be in part three)
Are you scared of highway robbers? Is there a gun in your pocket? It’s probably not necessary. It was never a good idea even twenty years ago when there were robbers lurking outside of London. Waving a gun about in a crowded metal box was rarely a good move. If there is a robbery, hand everything over and curse yourself for not leaving valuables at home. Dying for money was a mistake; most people knew it. Don’t be like Scrub, a comic character in a well known play by George Farquhar, who begged his assailants to ‘take my life, but spare all I have’
How fast are you travelling? In the well resourced streets of London, perhaps ten miles an hour. On the better roads, westward to Bath or on the Great North road to Edinburgh (up to York) perhaps seven or eight. In other places, who knows? If travelling in Ireland, then you might want to reconsider that weapon you rejected earlier.
You will pull in at a coaching house every fifteen miles or so, because the four horses are now exhausted and cannot do any more. It is the weakness of the horse, ideally suited for hard agricultural work and lesser loads (your stagecoach, unladen, may weigh two tons), that put the ‘stage’ in stagecoach. If treated properly, your horse will do the return leg and then rest for twenty-four hours. They can work for three years before the effort sends them to the knackers yard at best, or the food chain at worst. You can afford to ride the stagecoach, so you will not have bought ‘knackers pork’ from the butcher in the slum. You will help to kill the horse, but you will not eat him.
Unless it is a stop for food, you will stay in your place while the horses are changed. Somebody has checked the vehicle and oiled the places where parts move. The wheels will not fall off today, although you may think that it would be much better if somebody actually travelling on the coach checked its safety, rather than a minion from the inn. This is not an age of health and safety.
If you stop for no apparent reason on the road, then the driver and guard will be ‘on the fiddle’. They would stop, pick up a road passenger and pocket the money themselves. They will even stop the lone pedestrian and tout for business on the off chance. This was usually called ‘shouldering’. New passengers would normally go on the roof; any laws about overcrowding would be ignored. Indeed all rules are ignored…but that is another story.
You biggest immediate problem is social embarrassment. Are you going to talk these strangers, and worse, are they going to talk to you? This is not a modern train; there is no scope to walk away; it is no coincidence that the first trains had no corridors, and like stagecoaches, the only escape was to throw yourself out on to the hard ground, which would be an overaction- most of the time
The only thing possible is the one thing not desirable- talking. You only have this problem if you are inside of course. You have less than four feet of personal space in your seat; you legs are not touching the people on the other side, but they nearly are. Taking out a newspaper would make you unpopular, and so would anything else that would while the time away. You can read a book on the 1816 stagecoach. The roads are improving and the coaches are sprung, so read away, if you wish; but the journey is long. There will be an initial silence, but then there will be talking. Small talk is good, but it takes no time; big talk is dangerous; do not tell people any personal details and do not mention money.
The Sussex Advertiser of March 1800 made a joke out of a common truth;
In the end, you would probably give in. The Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1795 admitted as much;
It hath been remarked that travellers in a stagecoach show very little inclination to be sociable for the first ten or twenty or twenty miles and seldom begin to grow good company till towards the end of the journey.
It was like a marriage; you were stuck with it until death (at the time; divorces needed Acts of Parliament) and you got used to it.
What to talk about? What you can see outside the window, if it has been covered. You driver may know the names of all the aristocratic houses on the route; or you may consult your Cary’s Itinerary.
If people had jobs, they could talk about that, unless it was a vulgar job, or you were a gentleman or woman who found paid work of any kind beyond the pale . You could gossip about the people who have left the stage…but don’t tell them anything about your money, family, politics or religion.
You could talk about the weather.
How is the weather, by the way? People fear the damp and draughts more than heat; the windows may be nailed shut. People also feared sudden changes of temperature; but draughts were needed to keep bad air at bay. The conundrum remained unsolved. If it is stuffy, you could simply smash the window with your cane; a glazier would charge you three shillings to fix it at the next town, which would be less that the cost of your breakfast and nothing compared to the one to two pounds on the fare.
Coaching inns had roaring fires not to be cosy, chocolate-boxy and attractive, but because the incoming passengers were damp, tired and had lungs full of fetid air.
Are you on top? Then these rules do not apply. You are possibly not facing anybody; you will not see many faces. If it is a July afternoon, you will see the English countryside slide by, both earth and sky and pleasant fields and villages, and you will remember this once in a lifetime experience forever, when the countless horrible journeys in wind and rain will be forgotten. You will feel the turning of corners if you are up top, because the centre of gravity is high. The centre of gravity is high because the luggage is on the top and side, not the bottom. Nobody wants they luggage dirtied, do they?
Which is worse ‘up top’- wind or rain? Possibly wind; you could put your umbrella up in the rain, but the drag of the moving stagecoach will intensify the effort of holding it. Your umbrella is useless in simultaneous wind and rain; put it up, and your umbrella will be in the sky, as will you if you do not let go.
Your bottom will hurt. Only the driver and his companion has a sprung and upholstered seat. Hold tight onto a rail until muscles are tortured and you wish that your only problem was strained conversations with vulgar strangers.
It’s time to stop to eat and drink. A drink might beer a beer, a spiced rum and beer drink called purl, a brandy, a tea or a coffee. Food will be an expensive lottery.
If quick snacks are needed there will be beer, bread, and cheese and prices will be random and possibly exorbitant. The butter may be rancid, the rum and water mostly water, and the cream and buttermilk very far from pasteurized. If you are staying longer, a roast will be offered, or part of one, and the slowest person there deputed to carve it; there would have been a cheap hot soup beforehand that wasted even more time, and the driver may well have been bribed to call out ‘All is Ready!’ before the appointed time. The roast will go back in its case for a second, or perhaps third, party to buy it. (More about the inn here)
Your driver and guard are now leaving you. They will want a tip; you have, of course, remembered to fill your pocket with sixpences and shillings? The sixpences ensure service at the inn, and the shillings avoid the deep sarcasm of the driver; he may spit on your sixpence to make it grow.
It grows dark. There are lights on a stagecoach, but they are on the front, to light to road head, as you would wish. An English stagecoach inn awaits.
Have you arrived in London? Then read this, and be afraid!
My other books
A Social History of the Regency– The Dark Days of Georgian Britain