Your 1816 Stagecoach Journey part three – Injury and Death.

By James Hobson ( @about1816)

There’s going to be death and serious injury on your 1816 stagecoach journey today. Yes, it will be you. We are not talking muscle strain, cuts and bruises when getting on and off, or the excessive heat and damp of the foetid metal box, or the damage cause by wind and rain if you are ‘on top’. This is about life- changing injury or life-ending death.

We are on board, and we are off, and you have ducked as you exited the stable yard of the coaching inn. Coaches have increased in height since the coaching inns were built. Everyone knows that one, and it is the only danger that the guard will warn you about. After this, you are on your own.

Your stagecoach- let’s call it the Quicksilver- looks absolutely fabulous, but it is an accident waiting to happen. The wheels are high, the luggage compartment is on the side and half way up, and the ‘on top’ passengers are eight foot in the air. It is ridiculously top heavy. Did the stagecoach operators know this? Yes they did, but they did nothing. It is not because they had spent money on the vehicles, as they are mostly leased, but because a coach with a low centre of gravity would be ugly, wide and squat, with luggage so near the ground that it would be dirtied and dusted by the roads. It was designed by the marketing department, not the health and safety one; indeed the latter did not exist.

How is your accident going to happen? There are two pieces of good news. One thing not to worry about is the head-on collision. People drive on the left-it was a social convention (until made law in 1834) , but for obvious reason it is popular-and you are the biggest thing on the road. The lamps are at the front, not the side, so coaches can see each other coming. Some routes are so reliable that coaches even know when another one is approaching them in the opposite direction.

Uphill- slow but safe

Secondly, your stagecoach will probably manage that tight corner despite its design, because both the driver and the horses have done it many times before, and the horses will not be full of alcohol and bravado.  Yes, your driver has been drinking, but then so have you, with that purl (ale, gin, sugar and spices) first thing in the morning. This is the Regency. Everybody has been drinking.

Your accident will be caused by your stagecoach stopping suddenly due to, in order, mechanical failure, reckless driving, obstacles on the road(including a poorly constructed one) or poor visibility caused by fog.

Wheels and axels are the weak point. If the lynchpin fell off, then the wheel would follow at the next sharp turn. Failure to grease the moving parts that came into contact with each other would lead to fires. Coaches were checked by those at the inn when horse was changed. They had neither time to do it properly or a vested interested in getting in right, as they were not the passengers and their lives did not depend on it.

If anything interfered with the horses, there would be problems. Stagecoaches had no brakes, and two of the four horses- the ‘wheelers’ – were trained to bring it to a halt. If they were spooked or injured, then the even the most experienced driver was powerless. If something went wrong, and the passengers panic, then the horse will do the same.

So now it is time for your accident. It is a much simpler one – you hit something on the road. Your coach is being driven too fast; it ploughs into something on the ground. If it’s in a city, it is a pile of horse manure a smooth road; if the country, it was a pile of soil pushed on the road by a flood.

Accidents were often regarded as a joke

Are you on top or in the box?  If you are on top, you will be thrown off, even if you had a second to anticipate the crash. If you are front facing, you may be thrown in front of the horses, who may well trample you to death. Moments afterwards the event they will rear up and lurch forward, with obvious implications if you have fallen in front of them. When faced with an accident, the experienced driver or guard would cut the horse free even before attending to the passengers.

Hertford Mercury and Reformer –  6 October 1835

If you are thrown out in any other way, a lottery follows. There could be good news if you are travelling on country roads with no fences, trees, and gravel to smash yourself against. In the town or city, the prospects are worse. You will remember that story of a coach overturn in Brighton when a man ‘of the Hebrew persuasion’ (as Georgian newspapers never failed to mention) impaled himself on the railings at the Steine. If you fell onto the rough stones that passed as road repairs, your will never be recognised again. You may smash your face, or jaw or your skull; each is more fatal than the last.

And if you  are inside? Well, don’t console yourself that you won’t be thrown about. You will move at the same velocity as those outside, but hit something a lot sooner. You have no seat belt or air bag, while those up top would be gripping something; you might even be going faster!  You will hit, in order or preference, a soft-bodied fat gentlemen, a cushioned wall, the door, or something attached to the inside of the coach. If a guard has left his copper horn attached the wall with a nail, and it smashes into your skull, you will be red head- for the rest of your life (or you could have the metal picked out of your bones in a hospital).

The glass in the windows will have smashed into shards, and if you do not fight the natural inclination to push down the panes to make an escape, then you will become your own guillotine. If you crawl out of a half opened window and the coach drops down as you do it, it will not just be your hands that get cut off.

If you have broken an arm of a leg you will need to go first to the local inn, and then to a hospital or surgeon. If they amputate, you may die a few days later of shock or blood poisoning. If you fracture your skull, you will never get further than the local inn and the newspapers will report that you ‘languished for hours’, which is shorthand for a lingering and painful death.

With the dead and injured all around, how will the survivors and the wider public react? They will be upset. What a melancholy incident!, they would say, and then they would move on, literally and metaphorically. The local newspaper would report the incident, unless they could be bribed or pressurized by the inn keepers and coach operators to keep quiet. They did this to protect their commercial reputation and not because they feared government action or claims for compensation.  Until 1846, any fines for injuring people went to the Crown and not the individual.

If today you live in a nanny state, or constrained by ‘elf and safety’, be thankful.

Part one and part two of this story are available.

My books are below.

PassengersMy blog and publisher’s details

Dark Days of Georgian BritainMy blog and publisher’s details

Your 1816 Stagecoach Journey, part two; when it all goes to plan…

James Hobson (twitter @about1816)

Coaching at its best, but not as it was very often

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.

Cary's New Itinerary: Or an Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, Both  ... - John Cary - 1817 | Wales england, Itinerary, Greatful

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.

Should have given him shilling in the first place.

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!

Part one of the story here. Part three here

This blog is inspired by my book, Passengers -Life in Britain in the Stagecoach Era. My blog about the book here. Publisher’s details here. Amazon ( Kindle and hardback here)

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A Social History of the Regency– The Dark Days of Georgian Britain


The Executioners of Charles I ; an unusual biography of Oliver Cromwell; a beginners guide to the English Civil War

Your 1816 Stagecoach Journey, part one; before the wheels move.

Not normally as bad as this

By James Hobson (@about1816 on twitter)

It is 1816. You are going on a journey by stagecoach. What will it be like?

Firstly, consult your Travellers Oracle guidebook or consult your local paper. All stagecoaches leave early yours leaves comparatively late-7am- it is better to be there at 6.50am at the very latest. This will enable you to get a seat, which is taken on a first come- first served basis.  Some people may put a coat down to reserve a place, but you can safely ignore it in theory, but you may find it prudent to look around first to make sure the coat does not belong to somebody who might threaten you.  This rule may not apply to the seat next to the driver.

You will have booked your ticket in advance; even when the railways arrived and you could buy a ticket on the spot, they were still sold at ‘booking offices’. You will have checked in your luggage. You will have made two lists of the contents, put one in the trunk and kept one on you. If you  had  to take  any valuables on to the stagecoach , they would be hidden. Those gold-rimmed glasses you like so much?- best to leave them at home, although the highway robber had more or less been defeated by 1816; but  it is still best not to advertise your wealth to the other passengers. You do not know who they are. More of that later.

If you are ‘inside’ of a six seater stagecoach, you will choose one of the corners. This is because the carriage wall will provide a measure of extra  cushioned support, and you will be rubbing up against (and this is not a metaphor) only one person instead of two. Once established in your place and moving, nobody would take your seat.

In 1816, you single fare ‘inside’ (say, London to Manchester) would cost you 2 guineas. When you get to Manchester you might meet whole weaving families for whom this is four week’s wages. If you are paying half the price and going ‘up top’, the difference in seating is not so great. The most  favoured seat is the one next to the driver – ‘Jehu’- and some stagecoach enthusiasts actively seek out the seat so that they can speak to the driver and pretend to be driving the coach. Stagecoach nerds might try to use bribery and intimidation to get the seat. It is best to avoid it. It’s the most dangerous seat on the coach if there is an accident.

Where the classes met, and the proletarian is the master

Who will be on this coach with you? Well. Coach travel is far too expensive for most people, but that is less of a guarantee of gentility that you think.  You have no idea who will be sharing your metal box. It depends a little where you are going, and when.

Are you travelling to Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge? Expect to see more skilled artisans around Brighton in the summer, servicing the luxury industries. There will be student types going to the two great universities; some may be rebels and want on travel on top, and the quality of discourse will be higher. Or it may not.

There may be servants; mostly domestics and nannies. They will not have paid their own fare. Their masters and mistresses would have hired a private carriage and would be leaving two hours later.  Very, very few of the unaccompanied females will be of the genteel class. If they are travelling alone, their brother or father will be at the other end waiting for them.

What’s the best it could be? It could be a businessman, possible a nonconformist or Quaker, a quiet middle class family visiting relatives, a fourteen year old  boy going to his public school, and  a pious curate.

What’s the worst it could be?  A sailor on his way to, or from, Deal, Portsmouth or Dover, who will swear, threaten violence and try to avoid his fare (or all three);a fat and talkative travelling salesman in the middle seat so he can crush two people, a servant with a howling baby, and a rosy faced landlord with a  horrible cough that will be your companion all day.

Your driver and guard will be the only guaranteed members of the working class on the stagecoach. My god, they fancy themselves. You may be a vicar, businessman or large tenant farmer, but today Jehu and his assistant are in charge.  The social order is turned on his head. The driver has the local and technical knowledge to get you home in one piece. He has  the whip hand, literally and metaphorically.

They will have been drinking; but you yourself may have had a purl – a warming mixture of beer, gin, nutmeg and sugar before the journey. There was no such thing as ‘wine o clock’ in the Regency; hopefully   they will not be drunk and incapable; if they are, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it except abandon your journey.

You could bring a book or newspaper so you don’t have to talk to anybody. If you are in London, you could already have a newspaper under your arm at 7am; outside the Home Counties it would have to be yesterday’s paper. Coaches now were now better sprung and the roads around London were much better than elsewhere, but it was too cramped to read a paper.  A book would be possible, but not enjoyable.

Your coach would probably look impressive. You are part of a highly efficient industry that knows about branding and marketing. It will have an appropriate name which will not have been chosen by accident.  A major war has just been won, so expect   Nelson, Waterloo,   and Wellington, but also expect a coach that honoured the allies- the Blucher. Unlike future generations and future wars, the people did not believe they done it all on their own.  Speed is a  popular theme- it might be the Greyhound, the Comet or the Rocket, or a fast bird – Hawk , Eagle or Swallow, or just general niceness- the Hope or the Good Intent.

Now you get on board. It is an eight foot climb to the top. You will either receive no help or a crude push, but you will not be told to mind because the Quality does not go on top anyway.  At least it will be clean, which it will not be when you get off. If you are ‘inside’, you do not need a step, so you will be offered one.

Its 7 a.m now. Have you left? If the coach is full, then certainly.  It’s a busy yard, and money has been spent on advertising that stresses punctuality.  A generation earlier the timetables would have said ‘God willing’ or  d.v ( deo volente)  but people were a bit more ‘sophisticated’ now. As it clatters out of the stable yard, you will approach the arched gateway, which would have been built forty years earlier when coaches were smaller. DUCK !  

Part two of the story is here.

If you liked this blog, then please consider my book on Georgian and Victorian Stagecoaches and ALL aspects of social history that went with them. My blog here. Publishers details here.

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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 .