A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 8

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[ 51 ]



Whilst the Legislature had been actively engaged in endeavouring to adapt wheeled vehicles to roads, the number of vehicles of various types using the roads had greatly increased as the result of expanding trade and travel, combined with the further stimulus offered by that system of turnpike roads the story of which will be told in later chapters.

The vehicle that first performed in this country the functions of a public coach in transporting a number of passengers from one place to another was, of course, the long waggon, of which an account has already been given. Stage-coaches began to come into use about the year 1659, when, as shown by the "Diary" of Sir William Dugdale, there was a Coventry coach on the road. The three coaches a week between London and York, Chester and Exeter, spoken of by John Cressett as running in 1673, carrying their six passengers apiece on each journey, went, at that time, only in summer, on account of the roads; and even in the summer it was no unusual thing for the passengers to have to walk miles at a time because the horses could not do more than drag the coach itself through the mire. The usual speed was from four to four and a half miles an hour.

The first stage-coach between London and Edinburgh ran in 1658. It went once a fortnight, and the fare was £4. In 1734 a weekly coach from Edinburgh to London was announced. It was to do the journey in nine days, "or three days sooner than any coach that travels that road"; but either such rapid travelling as this was a piece of bluff on the part of the advertiser or the conditions of travel went from bad to worse since in 1760 the Edinburgh coach for London left only once a month, and was from fourteen to sixteen days on the way. The fact that one coach a month sufficed to carry all the [ 52 ]passengers is sufficiently suggestive of the very small amount of travel by land between London and Scotland that went on even in the middle of the eighteenth century. Fourteen days for the journey between London and Edinburgh was then considered a very reasonable time-allowance. In 1671 Sir Henry Herbert had said in the House of Commons, "If a man were to propose to convey us regularly to Edinburgh in coaches in seven days, and bring us back in seven more, should we not vote him to Bedlam?"[1]

In 1712 a fortnightly coach from Edinburgh to London was advertised to "perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey." The fare was £4 10s. with a free allowance of 20 lbs. of luggage. In 1754 the Edinburgh coach left on Monday in winter and on Tuesday in summer, arrived at Boroughbridge (Yorkshire) on Saturday night, started again on Monday morning, and was due to reach London on the following Friday.

In 1774 Glasgow had been brought within ten days of London. The arrival of the coach was then regarded as so important an event that a gun was fired off when it came in sight, to let the citizens know it was really there. A 10-day coach to London was also running from Edinburgh to London in 1779, an advertisement in the Edinburgh Courant of that year stating that such a coach left every Tuesday, that it rested all Sunday at Boroughbridge, and that "for the better accommodation of passengers" it would be "altered to a new genteel two-end coach machine, hung upon steel springs, exceedingly light and easy."

York was a week distant from London in 1700; but on April 12, 1706, there was put on the road, to run three times a week, a coach which, said the announcement made respecting it, "performs the whole journey in four days (if God permits)." The time of starting on the first day was five o'clock in the morning.

The proprietors of a coach that ran between London and Exeter in 1755 promised their patrons "a safe and expeditious journey in a fortnight"; though this record was improved on before the end of the century, the time being reduced to [ 53 ]ten days. Exeter is a little over 170 miles from London, and the journey can be done to-day, by rail, in three hours.

From London to Portsmouth took, in 1703, fourteen hours, "if the roads were good."

The Oxford coach in 1742 left London at 7 a.m., arrived at High Wycombe at 5 p.m., remained there for the night, and reached Oxford the following day.

By 1751 travelling between London and Dover had so far improved that it was accomplished in two days by stage-coach, instead of three or four days by long waggon. The coach left London every Wednesday and Friday at four in the morning; the passengers dined at Rochester, stayed for the night at Canterbury, and were due at Dover "the next morning, early." The announcements made in respect to this coach state that "there will be a conveniency"—that is, a basket—"behind, for baggage and outside passengers."

The advancement made by the stage-coach over the long waggon was, however, satisfactory for a time only. By about 1734 the stage-coach itself began to find a rival in what was called "the flying coach," otherwise a stage-coach which travelled at accelerated speed. Thus the advent of a "Newcastle Flying Coach" was announced in the following terms:—

"May 9, 1734.—A coach will set out towards the end of next week for London or any place on the road. To be performed in nine days, being three days sooner than any coach that travels the road, for which purpose eight stout horses are stationed at proper distances."

In 1754 a "flying coach" between Manchester and London was started by a group of Manchester merchants who, with the developing trade of those times, doubtless felt the need for improved facilities of travel. It was announced that "incredible as it may appear, this coach will actually arrive in London four days and a half after leaving Manchester."

If the person who wrote this advertisement could only come to life again, what would he be likely to say to the fact that London and Manchester are to-day only four hours apart, and that a London merchant, after doing a morning's work in the City, can leave Euston at noon, lunch in the train, be in Manchester by four o'clock, have two hours there, leave again at six, dine in the train, and be back in London by ten? On the other hand, what does the London merchant who can [ 54 ]do these things (besides having the further advantages of the telegraph and the long-distance telephone) think of the business conditions in 1754, when the quickest communications between London and Manchester were by a coach doing the journey in the then "incredible" time of four days and a half?

The enterprise of Manchester naturally stimulated that of Liverpool, and three years later it was announced that from June 9, 1757, "a flying machine on steel springs" would make the journey between Warrington and London in three days. The roads between Liverpool and Warrington being still impassable for coaches, the Liverpool passengers had to go on horseback to Warrington the day previous to the departure of the coach from that town. Manchester got a three-day coach to London in 1760. Seven years later communication by stage-coach was opened between Liverpool and Manchester, six or even eight horses being required to drag through the ruts and sloughs a heavy, lumbering vehicle which, going three days a week, then took the whole day to make the journey. In 1782 the time between Liverpool and London was 48 hours.

Down to the middle of the eighteenth century there was no direct communication by coach between Birmingham and London. The Birmingham merchant or resident who wanted to travel to London by coach, instead of on horseback, had to go four miles by road to Castle Bromwich, and there await the coach from Chester to London. In 1747, however, Birmingham got a coach of its own, and this vehicle, it was announced, would run to London in two days "if the roads permit,"[2] but the roads around Birmingham were still in a deplorable condition when William Hutton published his "History" of the town. He says that from Birmingham, as from a grand centre, there radiated twelve roads to as many towns; but on most of them one could not travel with safety in times of floods, the water, owing to the absence of causeways and bridges, flowing over the road higher than the stirrup of one's horse. At Saltley in the year 1779 he had had to pass through what was really a dangerous river. A mile from Birmingham, on the Lichfield road, a river remained [ 55 ]without a bridge until 1792. The road to Walsall had been "lately made good," and that to Wolverhampton was much improved; but he speaks of the road to Dudley, twelve miles in length, as "despicable beyond description," and says the "unwilling traveller" was obliged to go two miles about, through a bad road, to avoid a worse. The roads to Stratford and Warwick were "much used and much neglected," and the one to Coventry could "only be equalled by the Dudley Road."

"A flying machine on steel springs" from Sheffield to London was started in 1760. It "slept" at Nottingham the first night, at Northampton the second, and arrived in London on the third day. Leeds showed equal enterprise.

The Bath coach, "hung on steel springs," was in 1765 doing the journey in 29 hours, the night being spent at Andover. The improvement of the Bath road allowed of Burke reaching Bristol from London in 24 hours in the summer of 1774; but his biographer mentions, by way of explaining how he accomplished this feat, that he "travelled with incredible speed." By 1795, however, Bath had been brought within a single day's journey of London, the traveller who started from the Angel, at the back of St. Clements Danes, at four o'clock in the morning, being due at Bath at eleven o'clock at night. The journey between Dover and London was also reduced to one day, a "flying machine" leaving at four a.m. and reaching its destination in the evening.

By 1784, in fact, flying coaches had become quite common, and their once incredible speeds even came to be regarded as far from satisfactory for travellers to whom time was of importance.

The immediate reason, however, for the next development arose through the defective postal arrangements. Hitherto the mails had been carried either by post-boys, whose contract time was five miles an hour, or, in the case of short journeys, by veterans on foot whose rate of progress was much less, though it was then a common practice to make up urgent letters as parcels, and send them by the coaches. John Palmer, manager of a theatre at Bath, finding the mail was taking three days over a journey to London which he himself often did in one, submitted to Pitt, in 1783, a scheme [ 56 ]for the running of mail coaches at the then equivalent to "express" speed. The permanent officials of the Post Office naturally regarded such a scheme, proposed by a rank outsider, as impracticable, if not absolutely absurd, and Palmer had a sturdy fight before he got his way. The experimental service started in 1784 was an immediate success, and when it became known that letters were being carried between Bristol and London in sixteen hours, every other important town or city in the country (Liverpool being one of the first to petition) wanted to have its own postal arrangements improved in the same way. Thus there was inaugurated a "mail-coach era," which was to continue unchecked until the first despatch of mails by railway in 1830.

The earliest of the mail-coaches travelled at a rate of about six miles an hour; but, as the roads were improved, the speed was increased to eight, nine, ten or even twelve miles an hour. The time for the Liverpool-London journey, for example, was eventually reduced to 30 hours in good weather and 36 hours in bad.

The running of these mail-coaches had a powerful influence on the whole question of road improvement, since the attainment of the best possible speed and the avoidance of delays in the arrival of the mails came to be regarded as matters of supreme importance; while more and more of the ordinary stage-coaches were put on for travellers to whom the lower fares[3] were of greater concern than high rates of speed.

Mail coaches had the further good effect of stimulating great improvements in coach construction. The use of springs, in particular, allowed of a more compact vehicle, carrying luggage and outside passengers on the roof instead of relegating them to a basket "conveniency" behind. The competition, or, at least, the example of the mail-coaches had the further result of increasing the speed of the "flying" coaches, [ 57 ]which now generally aimed at doing their eight or nine miles an hour; but here, again, much depended on the state of the roads.

Supplementary to the coaching there was the system of "posting," favoured by those who did not care to patronise public vehicles, and could afford the luxury of independent travel. In the earliest form of the posting system, that is, in the days when wheeled vehicles had not yet come into general use, and people did their journeys on horseback, travellers hired horses only at the recognised posting places; and Fynes Moryson, in his "Itinerary," narrating the conditions in 1617, says a "passenger" having a "commission" from the chief postmaster "shall pay 2½d. each mile for his horse and the same for his guide's horse; but one guide will serve the whole company, tho' many ride together." Travellers without a "commission" had to pay 3d. a mile. The guide, presumably, brought back the horses, and, also, really guided the traveller—a matter of no slight importance when the roads were often simply tracks over unenclosed spaces with no finger-posts to point the way.

Another form of posting was the hire from place to place of horses for use in private carriages; but the more general form was the hiring of both horse and post-chaise—a four-wheeled vehicle, accommodating, generally, three persons, and having a roof on which luggage could be strapped. Posting was a costly mode of travelling, only possible for people of wealth and distinction. Harper calculates that to "post" from London to Edinburgh must have cost at least £30; but it was no unusual thing, about the middle of the eighteenth century, for the Scotch newspapers to publish advertisements by gentlemen who proposed to "post" to London, inviting others to join them with a view to sharing the expense.

The condition of the streets in the towns being often no improvement on that of the roads in the country, the development of vehicular traffic, even there, was but slow. It was the example of Queen Elizabeth in riding in a "coach" through the streets of London that led to private carriages becoming fashionable, since, following thereon, "divers great ladies" had coaches made, and went about in them—much to the admiration of the populace, but much, also, to the concern of the Thames watermen, who regarded the [ 58 ]innovation as one that foreshadowed for them a competition which did, indeed, become formidable, and even fatal, to their own occupation.

In those days and for long afterwards the Thames was the highway by means of which people of all classes went, whenever practicable, from one part of London to another, the main incentive to this general use of the river being the deplorable condition of the streets and roads. In his book on "England in the Fifteenth Century" the Rev. W. Denton tells how the King's serjeants-at-law, who dwelt in Fleet Street, and who pleaded at Westminster Hall, gave up an attempt to ride along the Strand because the Bishop of Norwich and others would not repair the road which ran at the back of their town houses. It was safer and more pleasant for lawyers to take a boat from the Temple stairs and reach Westminster by water. The Lord Mayor, on his election, not only went by water from the City to Westminster, to be received by the judges, but down to 1711, when a "Lord Mayor's Coach" was provided for him, rode on horseback from the Guildhall to London Bridge, where he embarked on the City barge, accompanied by representatives of the Livery Companies in their barges.

Transport on the Thames constituted a vested interest of great concern to the watermen, who had hitherto regarded as their special prerogative the conveyance of Londoners along what was then London's central thoroughfare; and the story of the way in which they met the competition of vehicular traffic in the streets is worth the telling because it illustrates the fact that each successive improvement in locomotion and transport has had to face opposition from the representatives of established but threatened conditions.

The great champion of the watermen was John Taylor (1580-1654), the "Water Poet," as he called himself. When the private carriages began to increase in number he expressed his opinion of them thus:—

"The first coach was a strange monster, it amazed both horse and man. Some said it was a great crab-shell brought out of China; some thought it was one of the pagan temples, in which cannibals adored the devil....

"Since Phaeton broke his neck, never land hath endured more trouble than ours, by the continued rumbling of these [ 59 ]upstart four-wheeled tortoises.... A coach or carouch is a mere engine of pride, which no one can deny to be one of the seven deadly sins."

In 1601 sympathisers with the watermen succeeded in getting a Bill passed in the House of Commons "to restrain the excessive and superfluous use of coaches." It was thrown out by the House of Lords, though in 1614 the Commons, in turn, refused to pass a "Bill against outrageous coaches." In 1622 the Water Poet published a work, "An Errant Thief," etc., in which he dealt at length with the great injury that was being done to the watermen by the coaches, saying, among other things:—

"Carroches, coaches, jades and Flanders mares,
Do rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares;
Against the ground we stand and knock our heeles,
Whilst all our profit runs away on wheeles.
And whosoever but observes and notes
The great increase of coaches and of boates,
Shall find their number more than e'er they were
By halfe and more, within these thirty yeare;
Then watermen at sea had service still,
And those that stay'd at home had worke at will;
Then upstart hel-cart coaches were to seek,
A man could scarce see twenty in a weeke;
But now I think a man may dayly see
More than the wherrys on the Thames can be."

In the following year he published another work, "The World Runnes on Wheeles," in which he dealt further with the woes of the watermen. But the coaches continued to increase alike in number and in public favour, and the position of the watermen became still worse in 1625, when the already numerous private carriages were supplemented in London by hackney carriages let out for hire, though these did not, at first, exceed twenty in number, while they had to be hired direct from the stables of their owners.

In 1633 it was found that the river traffic was being prejudiced more and more by the greater use of vehicles in the streets. Whether or not in sympathy with the watermen, the Star Chamber issued an Order which said:—

"As to a complaint of the stoppage of the streets by the carriages of persons frequenting the play-house of the [ 60 ]Blackfriars, their lordships, remembering that there is an easy passage by water unto that play-house, without troubling the streets, and that it is much more fit and reasonable that those which go thither should go by water, or else on foot, do order all coaches to leave as soon as they have set down, and not return till the play is over, nor return further than the west end of Saint Paul's Church Yard, or Fleet conduit; coachmen disobeying these orders to be committed to Newgate or Ludgate."

Opposition to the innovation of the coaches was, however, wholly unavailing, even when supported by Star Chamber intimations that people ought to be content to "go by water or else on foot"; and in 1634 permission was obtained for hackney coaches to ply in the streets for hire, instead of their having to remain, as heretofore, in the stables. The first public stand, for four carriages, with drivers in livery, was set up in the Strand, near Somerset House. A month or two later the watermen presented to Charles I. a petition in which they said:—

"The hackney coaches are so many in number that they pester and incumber the streets of London and Westminster, and, which is worst of all, they stand and ply in the terme tyme at the Temple gate, and at other places in the streets, and doe carry sometymes three men for fourpence the man, or four men for twelvepence, to Westminster or back again, which doing of this doth undoe the Company of Watermen."

The same year (1634) saw still another innovation, that of the sedan chair, which was to play so important a rôle in social life until towards the end of the eighteenth century, and was, in fact, not to disappear until even later, since there was a stand for sedan chairs still to be seen in St. James's Square in 1821. How the sedan chair came to be introduced is shown by a Royal Order issued as follows:—

"That whereas the streets of our cities of London and Westminster and their suburbs, are of late so much incumbered with the unnecessary multitude of coaches that many of our subjects are thereby exposed to great danger, and the necessary use of carts and carriages for provisions thereby much hindered; and Sir Sanders Duncombe's petition representing that in many parts beyond sea people are much carried in chairs that are covered, whereby few [ 61 ]coaches are used among them; wherefore we have granted to him the sole privilege to use, let and hire a number of the said covered chairs, for fourteen years."[4]

On January 19, 1635, there was issued a Royal Proclamation which said that—

"The great number of Hackney Coaches of late seen and kept in London, Westminster, and their suburbs, and the general and promiscuous use of coaches there, are not only a great disturbance to his Majesty, his dearest consort the Queen, the nobility, and others of place and degree, in their passage through the streets, but the streets themselves are so pestered and the pavements so broken up that the common passage is thereby hindered and made dangerous, and the price of hay and provender, &c., thereby made exceeding dear, wherefore we expressly command and forbid that no Hackney or hired coach be used or suffered in London, Westminster, or the suburbs thereof, except they be to travel at least three miles out of the same; and also that no person shall go in a coach in the said streets except the owner of the coach shall constantly keep up four able horses for our service when required."

Vigorous efforts were made to enforce this proclamation, and the Water Poet was especially active in the matter, in the interests of his protégés, but all to no purpose. Two years later the King, "finding it very requisite for our nobility and gentry, as well as for foreign ambassadors, strangers and others" that the said restrictions should be withdrawn, was graciously pleased to sanction the licensing in London of fifty hackney coaches. Such attempts at limitation must, however, have been equally of no avail, since in 1652 there was another order, which set forth that not more than 200 should ply in the streets. In the following year the watermen sent a further petition to the House of Commons, and in 1654 the Protector issued an order limiting to 300 the number of hackney coaches to ply in London and Westminster and six miles round, while the number of hackney coach horses was not to exceed 600. Two years or so after this the watermen sent still another [ 62 ]petition to the House of Commons. This petition of "the Overseers and Rulers of the Company of Watermen, together with their whole society," declared that their "trade or art of rowing on the water hath been long reputed very useful to the Commonwealth"; that the Company had, "ever since their incorporation, been a nursery to breed up seamen"; that, after serving "the Commonwealth's special service at sea," they found that "the art affordeth but a small livelihood to them, and that with hard labour"; and—

"That of late your petitioners' art is rendered more contemptible than formerly, and their employment much lessened and impoverished, by reason of the strange increase of hackney coaches, which have multiplied from about three hundred to a thousand, in eleven years last past, whereby people are discouraged from binding their sons apprentice to the trade of a waterman, and if remedy be not speedily had, there will not be a sufficient number of watermen to supply the service of the Commonwealth at sea,[5] and also your petitioners and families utterly ruined.

"That of late some rich men about the city, keep very many hackney coaches to the great prejudice, as your petitioners humbly conceive, of the Commonwealth, in that they make leather dear, and their horses devour so much hay and corn; and also they do so fester the streets as that by sad experience divers persons are in danger of their lives, by reason of the unskilfulness of some of them that drive them, besides many other inconveniences which are too large to be here inserted."

Therefore the petitioners humbly prayed that Parliament would limit the number of such coaches.

No immediate action seems to have been taken; but, continuous complaints being made as to the obstructions caused by the hackney coaches, a proclamation was issued on November 7, 1660, by Charles II., to the effect that hackney coaches should no longer come into the streets to be hired. The proclamation had so little effect that on July 20, 1662, the watermen sent a petition to the House of Lords, once more recounting their grievances. The House named certain Lords who were to consider the matter and report; but Henry [ 63 ]Humpherus, author of the "History of the Origin and Progress of the River Thames," has been unable to find that any report was made thereon. Soon after this the number of hackney coaches was increased (14 Chas. II., c. 2) to 400. In 1666, more complaints coming from the watermen, the House of Commons appointed a committee of inquiry.

In the winter of 1683-4 the disconsolate watermen had to suffer the indignity of seeing the Thames itself—their own special province—invaded by the drivers of hackney coaches! So severe was the frost that, as told by John Evelyn in his "Diary," the Thames was frozen over "so thick as to bear, not only streets of booths in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses," so that "coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets."

By 1685 the hackney coaches seem to have established their position as successful competitors of the watermen, an Act of Parliament which placed them on a recognised and regulated footing being passed in that year, while the number to be licensed was increased in 1694 to 700, in 1711 to 800, and in 1771 to 1000.

A still further blow was given to the interests of the watermen by the introduction from Paris, in 1820, of the "cabriolet," or "cab" as it came to be called; and yet another was dealt to them when, on July 4, 1829, Mr Shillibeer, the coach proprietor, ran the first omnibus from the Yorkshire Stingo, Paddington, to the City, and thus began a further new era in urban locomotion, supplanting, thereby, a good many of the hackney coachmen, just as they themselves had to so considerable an extent already supplanted the Thames watermen.

  1. Passengers are to-day regularly conveyed between London and Edinburgh by train in eight and a quarter hours.
  2. The journey between Birmingham and London can now be done by train in two hours.
  3. The fares by the stage coaches generally worked out at 2½d. to 3d. a mile outside, and 4d. to 5d. a mile inside; and those by mail-coach at 4d. to 5d. a mile outside, and 8d. to 10d. a mile inside. An outside place on the Edinburgh mail-coach cost about 7½ guineas, and an inside place 11½ guineas, exclusive of tips to coachmen and guards at every stage, and meals and refreshments en route. C. G. Harper, in "The Great North Road," estimates that the total cost of a journey from London to Edinburgh by mail-coach was, for an outside traveller, 11 guineas, and for an inside traveller 15 guineas.
  4. By an Act of Parliament passed in 1710 the number of sedan chairs allowed to ply for hire in London was fixed at 200, but the limit was raised in the following year to 300. This was, of course, independent of the private sedan chairs, of which every mansion had at least one.
  5. So numerous were—or had been—the Thames watermen and lightermen that, according to Stow, they could at any time have furnished 20,000 men for the fleet.