Before the bus and train
Ever given thought to how people travelled before the age of the train or the bus?
In the medieval period, people had two basic options – they either walked, or rode on horseback. Shakespeare travelled between London and Stratford on Avon – probably by foot in his early years, and later, when he could afford it, probably hiring horses from the Hostler at the Bell Inn in Carter Lane who operated the waggon that took messages and parcels to and from Warwickshire, and who would have had arrangements with Inns on the route for looking after the horses.
But from the 1600s the concept of the stage-coach emerged. These were heavy vehicles, pulled by four horses, and operated fixed routes. They would travel at about 5 miles per hour, and made regular stops at coaching inns to exchange horses every 10-15 miles. Passengers would be able to get out and buy refreshments before the journey would commence again. A typical coach might have 6 inside passengers and as many as 10 passengers on the outside. Travel using coaches was expensive (3d a mile inside, half that outside), so was mainly an option for the wealthy, and was considered fairly dangerous – people were advised to make sure that their wills were up to date, and coaches were subject to accidents as roads were poorly maintained (over-turning was common, and pot-holes could be as large as the coaches), and highwaymen were also a danger. Early stage-coaches didn’t operate in the winter months as the ground was too hard to travel over.
Despite the difficulties, a network of stage-coaches between London and most provincial towns developed. A coach from London to Edinburgh would take at least 10 days (‘God willing’).
Coach technology improved with the introduction of springs, which allowed for lighter and faster carriages, although it wasn’t until the early 1800s that effective braking systems were introduced. The major breakthrough was the introduction of Turnpike Trusts – starting in the late 1600s, but really taking off in the mid 1700s. Before the turnpikes roads were supposed to be maintained by the parish – but Parliament-approved turnpike trusts introduced turnpike gates that charged tolls for using the road which were used to maintain the road. Road building techniques also improved, particularly through the introduction of John Loudon McAdam’s Macadam process in 1816, which introduced cambered roads built from crushed stone and gravel on a base of larger stones to allow water to drain away.
Turnpikes and spring technology allowed stage-coaches to travel faster. Faster, lighter coaches (often called Fly’s) were introduced that could travel up to 10 miles per hour. In 1782 entrepreneur John Palmer introduced the mail coach to modernise the mail service. Mail coaches only carried four passengers inside, and were optimised for speed. Passengers were not allowed off the coach when the horses were exchanged at inns, and coaches travelled through the night. The guard who carried the mail was heavily armed with a blunderbuss and two pistols (and as a result highwaymen didn’t attack mail coaches). Guards also carried post-horns that were used to announce their arrival (mail coaches had priority over over coaches, and the turnpikes had to open the gates in advance so the coach didn’t need to stop). The first London to Bath mail service managed to complete the journey in 15 hours, which was under half the time that the mail had previously taken to be delivered.
The mail coach service developed in England became the envy of the world, and people visiting England would seek to see the mail coaches leaving the General Post Office early in the morning – up to 40 coaches would leave in succession, each travelling to a different part of the country.
The peak age of the stage-coach was in the early 1800s – and in 1835 over 8,000 services a week operated from London. By this point coaches were introduced operating cross-country, and the London to Provincial routes were increasingly owned by a small number of entrepreneurs that operated hubs based in huge coaching inns in the City of London or in Westminster. Some of these operations had more than 800 horses available for services. And as well as the long-distance services, many short-stage services were introduced allowing wealthy people to live in London’s suburbs and travel to and from work.
But the introduction of buses (from 1829) and trains (from around 1837) introduced faster, more reliable and cheaper services, and the last long-distance stage-coach from London closed in 1850.
Camden links with stage-coaches
Old coaching inns
Most coaching inns were in the City of London, and Westminster, but two of the larger coaching inns were in Holborn – the Old Bell at 133 Holborn, and the Bell and Crown at 138 Holborn (frequented by the Duke of Wellington). Photographs exist of the Old Bell before it was demolished, and like many coaching inns it was a wooden galleried building which also had many stables. Other Camden coaching inns existed in Gray’s Inn Road, and also around the St Giles area (including the Angel, which continues to exist although in a rebuilt form).
Turnpikes built in Camden
- Islington to Highgate 1716
- Highgate Gatehouse to Hampstead 1716
- New Road (the first bypass around London), Paddington to Islington 1756
- Highway Archway 1810
- Kentish Town to Holloway Road 1811
- Camden Town to Holloway in 1824
- Marylebone to Finchley 1826
Turnpikes would have originally had toll houses by the gates. I’m not sure any of these have survived in the borough (there are pictures of the Archway toll bar) but the other survival is the milestone. All turnpikes had to have milestones every mile, and the existence today of a milestone is a fairly good indication that the road was turnpiked (not 100% – occasional non-turnpiked roads were provided with milestones).
Camden Town, Highgate and Hampstead were all served by short stage-coaches.
Coach builders in Camden
Leather Lane in Holborn specialised in coach building (alongside Long Acre in Covent Garden). Two famous coach builders were Joseph Berry of Leather Lane (who built the very grand Lord Mayor’s Coach), and William Felton, celebrated by a plaque in Leather Lane (he wrote the best known book about the art of coach making, and is also known for building one of the first steam coaches in London). Coach building also took place in other areas of Camden – perhaps the most important works were those of Wright and Horne who were based at 1 Calthorpe Street and built most of the mail coaches used by the Post Office. They moved away to Birmingham, transitioning to build coaches for railways, and if you look at a tube carriage today you might see that it was built by a company called Metro-Cammell, and the Metro part of the name comes from Wright and Horne’s business.
- Victoria County History, MIddlesex Volume 9, communications https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp3-8
- Stage-coach and mail in days of yore, by Charles G Harper, 1902
- A book about travelling past and present, by Thomas A Croal 1877
- Royal Mail Coaches – An Illustrated History, by Frederick Wilkinson, 2007
- A guide to stage coaches, diligences, waggons, carts .. 1785?
- Historic UK on The Stagecoach
- Great North Road on London Coaching Inns
- see turnpikes.org.uk for lists and maps of turnpikes particularly http://www.turnpikes.org.uk/Inn%20Summary.htm for list of coaching inns in London
Featured image is The ‘Tally-Ho’ London – Birmingham Stage Coach Passing Whittington College, Highgate 1836 by James Pollard 1792-1867 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03435, Tate CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.