A Guide to the Georgian Coaching Inn

Welcome, customers !

So, you have arrived outside an inn with rooms (the word hotel is unknown) in the late Georgian era. What kind of experience would you have?

The first question is- how did you get there? Did you travel there by private carriage, hired post chaise, stagecoach or did you, heaven forefend, arrive on foot?

If you arrived on foot, expect nothing. You will be all sweaty and dirty either from the mud of a rainy day, or much less well known, the filthy dust of a couple of dry days on the roads. Pedestrians may not even be let in. The inn may be obviously empty and you will be told that all beds are taken. If you are allowed food, you will be directed to the shabby kitchen to feed yourself. You will be called ‘master’ or ‘mistress’ and nothing will be too ordinary for you. Some beer, bread and cheese does not mean they will relent and give you a bed, or even a bench. You may be directed to another less salubrious establishment out of town that ‘may’ take you. The lowliest maid, used to being disregarded herself, may be the biggest snob about you.

Did you arrive in a stagecoach? This is more difficult. You will be let in, because you will be expected; indeed the landlord may well have put gold in other people’s pocket to get the coach to stop, and you will be expected   to put that gold back into his. You are probably only staying for the time it takes to change the horses; it could be done in five, and if this was a Post Office coach it would be, but you need to eat and drink.  So it might be twenty minutes or it might be an hour.

Those travelling ‘up top’ to would be directed to the kitchen with the pedestrians, gypsies, itinerant labourers and soldiers. Do not expect help getting off the eight foot high coach; if you were a lady, you would not be on top in the first place, would you?

Most passengers will be in the parlour. 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.

If you arrive on a hired post chaise, you are probably  only staying as long as it takes to hire two new horses and attach them to carriage- it you want something, it will come immediately, and those in the kitchen may come and gawp at such fine people. When you removed the exorbitant price of food and lodging , travelling by private carriage was often not much more expensive than the public stagecoach.

Are you staying for the night or two? Then a whole new world opens up to you. If you were rich you would have sent   your servant- an avant courier – to secure a good room. Everybody else will get a room depending on what the landlord thinks of them, as before. You may be sold a room on your own, but check that there are no more beds in it, so it cannot be sold on later, giving you a stranger in your room . Best to take a room up some stairs; remember who lives on the ground floor; the stabling may well stink, and the way your horse is treated will be a prediction about your treatment .

If you not been prudent enough to bring your own bedsheets, check them for dampness by placing spectacles on them and see if there is condensation. If there is a maid with a warming pan, call her and scold her for not doing it earlier (if you arrive late at night and unexpected, they would not have bothered). If nobody is available, sleep in your clothes in the blanket only. People died because of damp bed sheets. It was in the newspapers, after all.

Assuming you have your own room, a decent bed and warm blanket (people actually robbed feathers from beds) would you get a good night’s sleep? Probably not; your room would either face the road (the best bet) or the stable yard. Either way the coaches would start to leave about four a.m, and there would be no sleep after that.

Are the inn servants looking at you funny? Have you tipped them? Tipping in the Georgian inn was not an acknowledgement of good service; it was a prerequisite for any service at all. As you arrive, give everybody a tip, including the ostler who feeds your horse and be sure to check its food . Don’t just look at his corn, as it may be switched later- make sure that he eats it. Guide books suggest that you come stocked up with sixpences so you do not have to give a shilling. Less than sixpence will result in a curse, a dark look and rubbish service.

An ideal meal, with a threat that can be seen through the window

How is the landlord? Is he always absent, making his wife do the work and then she takes her resentment out on you? Is he permanently drunk? Is his establishment dirty? If it is clean, does he insist that you wear grubby second had slippers that have seen a hundred dirty feet already?  He will have freely available opinions on politics and religion and you have a choice of ignoring him, which is hard work, agreeing with him, which is a blank cheque on your time, or snubbing him, which may cost your dearly when you leave.

The food may be very good, but it probably will not be. It will be boiled and roasted meat with a token accompaniment.  Your partridge may have been old when it was cooked, and reheated more than once. Have you brought your own sauces, unless of course you think the idea is too French?  Are your vegetables either non-existent, or boiled to a mush?  Have you desserts got pie lids on, and were you sensible enough to check the state of the fruit?   You will be sick of salmon by now, but may worry about the alternatives. If you are inland, beware the freshwater fish; they may have been in a salt tank for months, hanging on to life but not hanging on to their taste. That lobster in the tank could be ancient. The best thing to do is to go for cold food and simple desserts. Sliced cold beef, fruit, cheeses, and puddings with no crust. If you see anything being harvested on your travels- peas and strawberries for example – ask for them at mealtimes. You won’t get them though.

You will quiver in anticipation of your bill. Up to now, none of your food and drink has been priced on a menu; there were no menu with prices, just a final   handwritten account   and a total.  Travellers noted that is varied enormously, and not with the quality of the inn, but randomly. Some places where notorious; the Pelican at Speenhamland, named after pious bird who fed her babies with her own blood, was merely a place where you would get a large bill.  The Bear at Maidenhead was a place where travellers, weary of being robbed in the Maidenhead Thicket, were merely robbed in a different way. Some charged more by charging more, some by charging for  things that could reasonably be offered free . That stinking rush light they gave you to find your room in the dark? That will be 2d please.

One thing you could do is check the addition – a ‘6’ could look like a ‘9’ but not, apparently, the other way around. The worst thing about all of this? None of it may happen. The inn may be comfortable, welcoming with high quality food and drink. There is just no way of telling. If you went back 200 years, you would miss TripAdvisor, even if you don’t think you would! .

This blog is collated from my new social history of Britain 1780 to 1840. It focusses on transport and hospitality but covers lots of other subjects. My blog on the book. Publisher’s details

This would be an ideal book in any British library-please ask them to stock it .