12th April 1742. The Era of the Stage-Coach.
Back in 1285 Edward I had written to the Prior of Dunstable regarding the bad state at the cross-roads of the old Roman Icknield Way and Watling Street. Today a Monday in 1742 when the first stage-coach ran through Dunstable, the roads would hardly have improved.(1)
The first coach route from London to Coventry ran in 1659 along the ancient Watling Street and by 1673 a regular schedule ran coaches with 6 inside.
The coaches were driven by at least four horses so by 1836 there were 54 plying the English routes with 10 in Scotland.
The government, responsible for the Royal Mail, kept close supervision over the whole system ensuring it ran to military precision.
One can only imagine the excitement of the incessant clatter day and night, the ringing of the ostlers’ bells announcing arrival and departure, the bustling landladies and chambermaids at inns such as at Old Stratford, Northants, on the Watling Street.
In 1734 the Derby to London wagon service began operating, with the Derby Mercury reporting that, ‘The Derby wagon begins on Tuesday the 14th May and sets out from the White Hart at Derby, every Tuesday morning…'(2)
Soon carriers such as Pickfords would be starting up as carriers of heavy goods, though later would come competition from the canals.
Roads at the time were in poor state with deep ruts requiring farm oxen to extricate coaches, though local landowners were keen to improve surfaces hoping to attract coaches to a particular route, later to be financed by Turnpike tolls.
Fares would have been outside the ability of the poor to pay as a Single Fare was 10 shillings inside and 5s outside. Stage-Coaches had twelve on top and Mail Coaches later allowed a maximum of four on top as too many ’Low Types’ might endanger security.
Introduction of the ‘flying machine’ with steel springs during the 1760.s improved services between Derby and London, travel being reduced to a day.
Coaches had varied names: Rockingham, Paul Pry, Star, Victoria etc and posters advertised: Cheapest and Safe Travelling, Day and Night, Bristol, Bath and Devizes, 4 inside, which keep good time, From the Saracen’s Head Inn, Skinner Street, London.
Trade grew along the routes: Joseph Huntley who sold biscuits and confectionery at 72, London Street, Reading was opposite the Crown on the main route from London to Bath and Bristol. He joined later with George Palmer into the famous Huntley & Palmer founded in 1822.
By 1840 change and decline came rapidly with railway competition and all towns on the London Chester Turnpike opposed the London North West Railway which was forced away from Stratford and Northampton, but railways were here to stay.
Inns closed, people ceased to sleep on journeys and no more were to be seen exciting scenes of the guards’ horn announcing arrival and change of horses, which took a few minutes, when with a crack of the whip off they went.
But as a writer philosophically observed, ‘Old Stratford remained a flourishing pleasant town and the contrast of silence went unobserved’.
Coaches in those days were the main sources of news such as Waterloo in 1815 being remembered much later by local folk memories recalling the Diss, Norfolk coach festooned with decorations celebrating the victory after filtering through from the continent.
(1) On December 8th 1733 London’s Weekly Register reported an alarming practice engaged in by unscrupulous operators: ‘the drivers are commissioned by their masters to annoy, sink and destroy all the single and double horse chaises they can conveniently meet with or overtake in their way’.
(2) In winter it set out from Derby every Monday at ten o’clock, carrying goods and passengers to Loughborough, Leicester, Market Harborough and places adjacent.
By 1750, similar services were being operated to Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and other towns throughout the region.
Ref: Journal of Rev J D Greaves 1829-93.