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.

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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.

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