In the words of that Bob Dylan song, times they…
Devonshire men stopped and raised their hats, women bobbed their curtsies and small boys cried “Halloo!” whilst the whole county set its clocks by the passage of England’s most legendary coach, The Quicksilver – writes John Fisher
We need to start here, outside the Central Post Office in Lombard Street in the City of London. It is a little before eight in the evening in the early 1800s and we are looking to board one particular Royal Mail Coach, the legendary Quicksilver, bound for Exeter, then on to Devonport: that is, when we can find it amid this hullabaloo .
Because every Royal Mail Coach bound for any part of England starts from this place and at this precise time every evening – except Sundays. The Post Office has closed at seven o’clock, the letters and packages sorted and the leather mail pouches with their engraved brass destination labels are being hurried out to the coaches through the throng,
The day will soon come when the Royal Mail will open up some 47 routes across the country and a new starting point will need to be chosen. Then this Devonport Mail will leave from Piccadilly (still at 8 p.m.) to arrive in Exeter at 12.34 p.m next day; time, sixteen hours, thirty-four minutes. Going on to Devonport, it will arrive at that place at 5.14 p.m., or twenty-one hours, fourteen minutes from London, including no fewer than twenty-three changes of horses over the 216 miles.
Tonight there are a score and more coaches here, horses, ostlers, coach drivers, guards, passengers, luggage and tonight, like every other night a crowd of cheering, waving onlookers (including the usual handful of newspaper correspondents) come to see who is off to where and why.
For those fortunate enough to be able to travel first class, ‘inside’ tonight the cost will be £4 and the odd shilling or two. For this will include tips to the Coachman as well as the Guard. Second-class passengers seated ‘outside’ or on the ‘box seat’ next to the coachman will pay half that price and those on the roof itself even less. (This in an era when a labourer might earn eleven shillings (60p) a week, a governess – ‘all found’ – £25 a year).
Third class passengers are often sailors or soldiers or schoolboys and must cling on as best they can – only later are grab handles fitted, whilst in these early days a simple rope seems to satisfy health and safety requirements.
Most deaths from coach travel centre round these ‘outsiders’ being thrown off. Less frequently some are found to have frozen to death in transit – including a number of Guards themselves, in spite of their heavy, official-issue crimson greatcoats.
At steep hills or deep mud first class passengers will keep their seats, the seconds will climb down and walk alongside whilst the thirds will go to the back and push. It was ever thus.
These Guards are Post Office employees and men of importance: they will remain with the coach from start to finish of the journey. The Coachmen are contractors and will take the coach only as far as a designated inn on this outward journey and then wait there for the arrival of the next in-bound coach. But these men too are important and enjoy a reputation for knowing their stretch of road, quite literally ‘like the back of their hand ‘.
Starting from here with ‘a four in hand’ they hold all of the reins in their left hand, woven in and out of their fingers and around their wrist. Should they reach those parts of the road requiring a ‘a six in hand’ they will still hold the reins for all the horses in that same left hand. their whip is held in the right. A contemporary writer describes all coachman as having ‘biceps like cannon balls’. He controls his ’cattle’ as he calls them with the reins, the whip and his voice.
The Guard, who will be relieved of his responsibilities at Devonport, is issued with a chronometer which he carries in a pouch around his neck. It is wound and sealed in Lombard Street so that it cannot be tampered with. Should he reach Devonport to discover, for whatever reason, that there is no relief guard, he is duty bound to make the return journey, still in office.
He is not only the official time keeper he is also the man charged with collecting and delivering mail along the route and everything must run like clockwork. London time is 20 minutes ahead of the West Country but that time difference will cancel itself out on the return journey. Clocks will only be coincided with the coming of the railways. First applied in England by the Great Western in November 1840 and then taken up progressively by all railway companies in Great Britain over the next two to three years.
His small domain, seated where he is, ‘outside’ and in the lee of the third-class passengers on the roof, is lit by a small lantern which he uses to identify and sort the leather mail pouches as they are thrown up to him. It also keeps his hands warm.
In the box in front of him he carries two loaded pistols and a blunderbuss. There have been no attempts at highway robbery of a Royal Mail coach for more than ten years now but Government Regulations require that these guns are cleaned and re-loaded before every departure. (Which is probably no bad thing because there are reports of guards and coachmen pulling in briefly as they cross Salisbury Plain on this run, to bag a brace or two of bustards – birds famously nervous of the approach of humans but not, apparently, of Royal Mail coaches).
Now, at the stroke of 8p.m. the Postmaster himself signals the ‘off’ (at the drop of a hat) and twenty-and more Guards reach to the leather holster at the side of their seats, retrieve their “three feet of tin” to each give three long, shrill blasts on their post horns.
They will sound them again and again throughout the night should anyone get in their way or as a signal for toll gates to open at their approach (or face a fine of 40 shillings) or for the 23 coaching inns along the way to see to it that fresh horses are standing-by, waiting to receive them. If they fail in that duty they face losing their Royal Mail license.
This is Thomas Trollope (brother of Anthony Trollope) writing of one of these rapid changeovers of Mail coaches:
“It was a pretty sight to see the changing of the horses. There stood the fresh team, two on the off side, two on the near side, and the coach was drawn up with the utmost exactitude between them. Four ostlers jump to the splinter-bars and loose the traces; the reins have already been thrown down. The driver retains his seat, and, within the minute (more than once, within fifty seconds by the watch) the coach is again on its onward journey”.
And so they begin to roll onwards through the night at what was then thought to be break-neck speed (and quite rightly so) of nine, 10 or even 12 miles an hour. The coach’s lamps, two double-wicked road lamps to the front, showing that they are an approaching Mail, two double-wicked lanterns on either side which dimly illuminate the ground for a yard or so to left and right of the passenger doors.
This is Leigh Hunt, the early 19th century writer and journalist remembering the start of such a night journey – not by an express Mail coach this time but by a Stage – a ‘slow coach’ by comparison.
“‘Outside’ on the roof, passengers dozed uncomfortably throughout the night. ‘Inside’ the gradual decline of talk, the incipient snore, the rustling and shifting of legs and nightcaps, the cessation of other noises on the road, the sound the wind or the rain, of the moist circuit of the wheels and of the time-beating tread of the horses – all dispose the traveller who cannot sleep, to a double sense to observe. The coach stops, the door opens a rush of cold air before the door is clapped to again : the sound of everything outside becomes dim: and voices are heard knocking up the people of the inn, and answered by issuing yawns and excuses. Wooden shoes clog heavily about. The horses are heard swilling water out of tubs. All is still again, and someone in the coach takes a long breath. The driver mounts and we resume our way”.
What Hunt was too polite to mention is the smell of vomit, urine and general foul air of the interior, or the unbidden travelling companions living in the upholstery, the inevitable fleas and other vermin of the Georgian era.
Mail coaches travelled by night. Stage coaches countered by introducing fast day services and vied with each other to come up with names that would appeal to the public at large – or large parts of it.
For Sportsman: The Berkeley Hunt, The Beaufort Hunt, The Tally-Ho!, The Hie Over, The Rover, or The Tantivy.
For speed freaks: The Meteor, The Dart, The Vivid, The Highflier, The Rocket, The Express, The Lightning, The Rapid and The Alert
For Senior Citizens: The Life Preserver, The Good Intent, The Accommodation and The Reliance.
For Loyalists & Royalists: The Star of Brunswick, The Regent, The Royal Clarence, The Prince of Wales, The Princess Charlotte and The Royal William
For Patriots: The Duke of Wellington, The Lord Nelson, The Rodney, TheTrafalgar.
Some coaches might have been best avoided altogether considering the bitter rivalry that existed between them, such that many of them gave no quarter and thought nothing of running each other off the road in passing.
For the Foolhardy: The Spitfire, The Vixen, The Retaliator, The Defence, The Eclipse and The Fearless.
Finally the ‘slow coaches’: How different were these tearaways from the ‘slow coaches’ that went out of their way to avoid trouble by painting their names – not along their sides – but in large letters on their tailboards. Hence history tells of The Live and Let Live, The Give and Take and The Economy Without Monopoly.
Sometimes the coach crews fell out with one another, usually over time-keeping when it could easily come to blows but only if the timetable permitted. The Quicksilver being a full twenty minutes ahead of schedule on one occasion and somewhere on the road between Axminster and Honiton, the coach pulled over and rolling up their sleeves, coachman and guard resorted to blows, with the passengers looking on.
It may equally have been about name calling. A poor Coachman was called a Jarvey or a Spoon whilst an inexperienced Guard was a Shooter or a Sweater – the Central Post Office itself being known as the Sweating Shop.
But mainly they got on well together and when they could make up time they used it to their economic advantage by carrying goods to and fro in the luggage “basket” at the back of the coach. The contraband collected along the route was bound mainly for city markets This might be poached game, fish, or even bundles of fresh watercress – highly sought after in London.
One small but regular and profitable sideline involved The Green Dragon Inn in Axminster which employed a lady barber who would undertake to shave each and everyone of the male passengers during the Quicksilver’s change-over so that they would look their best for their arrival in Exeter. Whilst waiting their turn in the chair a hurried breakfasts also added to turnover – and tips for the coach that brought this regular bounty to their door.
In those final golden days of coach travel there were up to four Royal Mail coaches in each direction, to and from the far South West, and any number of stage coaches besides.
As roads had improved so did journey times but everything was to change with the harnessing not of horses but of steam and the coming of the railways.
Numbers of roadside inns closed forever and some only came back to life again in the Edwardian era with the coming of the motor car. The iron horse reached Exeter in 1844 and Plymouth a couple of years later. Coaches went down fighting but the days of long hauls were over as they adapted to meet train timetables and the lines of coaches at railways stations became the forerunners of today’s taxi ranks.
The cheapest National Express bus fare in this day and age from Victoria Coach Station to Plymouth (bought on-line) is £10.70 single and quickest journey time with stops is five hours fifteen minutes.
The cheapest walk-in-and buy-a-ticket-on-the-spot rail fare from Paddington to Devonport (Plymouth) is a breathtaking £133.50 (£204.50 first Class) but the shortest journey time is 3 hours and 51 minutes.
Then, as now, you pays your money and you takes your choice.