The following post is the fifth of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!
Traveling in Style
When the elegant and accomplished Barry Lyndon, about the 17th of May, 1773, and shortly after his marriage with the widow of the late Right Honourable Sir Charles Lyndon, K.B., set out to visit his estates in the West of England, where he had never yet set foot, he and his Honoria and suite left London in three chariots, each with four horses; an outrider in livery went before and bespoke lodgings from town to town; the party lay in state at Andover, Ilminster and Exeter; and the fourth evening arrived in time for supper, “before that antique baronial mansion of which the gate was in an odious Gothic taste that would have set Mr. Walpole wild with pleasure.”
The “Flying Machines”: “a slow form of lingering death”
For travelers who could not afford three carriages pulled by twelve horses and outriders, there were the “Flying Machines,” stagecoaches whose owners boasted could convey you to your destination in the shortest time possible. The following flyer is from around 1670:
“All those desirous to pass from London to Bath, or any other Place on their Road, let them repair to the Belle Savage on Ludgate Hill in London and the White Lion at Bath, at both which places they may be received in a Stage Coach every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which performs the whole journey in Three Days (if God permits), and sets forth at five in the Morning.
“Passengers to pay One Pound five Shillings each, who are allowed to carry fourteen Pounds Weight—for all above to pay three halfpence per Pound.”
You have noticed, of course, the disclaimer that should your journey take more than three days, the fault lies with God and not with stagecoach company itself. Our illustrious author, Mr. Tristram, seems to be of the opinion that such claims were exaggerated and that the travelers in Mr. Lyndon’s large retinue would not only arrive before the so-called “Flying Machines,” but in a great deal more comfort as well. Poor roads, snowdrifts and highwaymen were common hazards for all travelers, but Mr. Lyndon’s retinue was more prepared to deal with them than the vehicle that was described as “six cart horses harnessed to a diving bell.”
Before Apsley House was constructed across from Hyde Park Corner by Robert Adam between 1771 and 1778, the site was occupied by an inn called Hercules’ Pillars, where coachmen would stop for a drink. Hercules’ Pillars played a prominent part in a very naughty book by Henry Fielding called The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or simply Tom Jones. I suppose the drinks gave them courage to head into Knightsbridge, two furlongs away, which was known “as a place of bogs and highwaymen.”
Indeed, what better place for highwaymen to ply their trade than “a great impassable gulf of mud” as could be found in Knightsbridge!
An Amiable Outlaw Meets His Match
Into this great impassable gulf of mud the Exeter Fly presently descended, and after desperate flounderings which only made matters worse, stuck fast. To it, when thus safely anchored, entered a gentleman in a vizor and riding a dark chestnut mare, who good naturedly recommended the coachman to alight, and offered to relieve the passengers of their purses. The first to take advantage of this amiability and give up his purse was the [formerly boastful] warrior from Dettingen, who had been loud in his contempt for highwaymen ever since the Fly left the city, and had sketched, with an elaborate garnishing of oaths, the horrid fate to which any marauder would be subject who ventured to bar the way. He spoke no more now of Dettingen, and of the standard he had taken from the musketeer of the French guard. Far from it. He gave his little all to the gentleman who asked for it, counselled submission to his companions, and disappeared to eat straw in the bottom of the coach. The highwayman now asked the ladies to oblige, parenthetically observing that time pressed. The words were hardly out of his mouth when Mirabel [the name assigned by Tristram to the young man of the party], who had been biding his time, obliged him with a sudden blow on that jaw which he had somewhat ostentatiously intruded upon the company, and at the same moment jumped from coach and seized the bridle of the chestnut mare. The highwayman now said, “Zounds”! and discharged his pistol; but as the chestnut mare reared and fell back with him just as he was firing it, the aim was not so true as the intention; in point of fact, instead of shooting Mirabel through the head, he shot the guard through the hat, who announced in stentorian tones that he was a dead man, and left off his blunderbuss at the morning star. Meanwhile, the highwayman and Mirabel had closed and were wrestling in the mud, the ladies viewing the progress of the strife in a state of pleasing suppressed excitement, and the coachman flogging his horses with a view of driving off and leaving Mirabel and his antagonist to decide their interesting difference in solitude and peace. This genial intention was frustrated by the mud which held the coach fast and by the guard, who, mounting one of the leaders, succeeded in waking some watchmen, who, by way of performing their patrol between Kensington and Knightsbridge, were lying in graceful sleep at The Half-way Public House. They came upon the scene just as Mirabel was binding the highwayman’s hands behind his back, the man having yielded himself for worse when he felt eleven stone and a half kneeling on his chest and saw that the chestnut mare had run away. The watch now with great intrepidity took charge of the bound prisoner, helped the Exeter Fly out of the ditch, and Mirabel into the coach, who joined his companions in a somewhat mud-stained, flushed, and exhausted state, but not inwardly unpleased at what he had done.”
At the time, such stagecoach robberies were nearly a daily occurrence along that road.
The Half-way House
Half-way between Knightsbridge and Kensington (until it was demolished in 1846) a disreputable inn frequented by footpads and highwaymen. Needless to say, coachmen generally tended to scramble past it as quickly as possible rather than stopping for a pint.