Nicola here, and today I am thrilled to welcome Louise Allen back to the Word Wenches! As well as being a hugely popular and award-winning author of historical romance, Louise is a lover of London history and especially the Georgian period, and is the author of Walking Jane Austen's London. Today Louise is talking about how her research has led to her writing two other non-fiction books that are a must for both authors and history-lovers alike: Stagecoach Travel and Following the Great North Road. I can recommend both books very highly indeed and it's a great pleasure to hear from Louise about the background to the books.
Over to Louise:
One of the joys of writing historical romance is the research – and, of course, it is one of the worst temptations as a displacement activity. You look up which inns served the stagecoach route to Bath for one sentence in the novel and the next thing you know it is four hours later, you’ve bought a book of stagecoach timetables (expensive), an 1812 route map (even more expensive) and you are side tracked into wondering what the food was like at the inns in Newbury.
This happens to me all the time and one day, wrestling with plotting a journey north from London, I wondered what the experience of stage and mail coach travel was really like. The sentimental Victorian prints show it as a fun outing with rosy-cheeked parsons, jolly dames, winsome schoolboys, pretty young ladies and the occasional romantically handsome highwayman on his big black stallion, hoping to steal a kiss from the young ladies. Somehow I doubted that was accurate, so I set out to investigate using as many original sources as I could. The result was Stagecoach Travel (Shire Publications). http://www.louiseallenregency.com/books/stagecoach.php
In the mid 18th century, when the first stagecoaches lurched along the dreadful roads, a traveller would
be wise to make their will before they set out and to allow, for example, six days (“God willing” as the advertisements put it) for the 182 miles from London to Chester. Few towns were connected by stagecoach and the roads were truly dreadful – in 1770 Arthur Young wrote, ‘To Wigan. I know not in the whole range of language terms sufficiently expressive to describe this infernal road… [It has] ruts, which I actually measured four feet deep.’
But by the early 1800s things had changed. Turnpike trusts had improved the roads, patrols and vigorous action by magistrates had tamed the highwaymen (although in Ireland things were different - as late as 1808 a copper-lined coach on the Cork-Dublin road was advertised as bulletproof). Coaching had become an industry employing thousands of people and covering the country in a network of timetabled routes served by hundreds of inns stabling the horses and feeding the passengers.
With prices in the early 19th century at 4d to 5d a mile inside, 2d a mile outside, there was little competition on price, so the traveller’s choice depended on timings, reputation and advertising. The unwary had to take care that booking clerks did not send them on a roundabout, expensive, route. Thomas Carlyle warned in 1830, ‘There are men in Liverpool who will book you to go by any Coach you like, and to enter London at any place and any hour you like; and send you thither by any Coach or combination of Coaches they like.’
If you were new to the experience you might do well to arm yourself with a guidebook such as William Kitchener’s The Traveller’s Oracle or, Maxims for Locomotion. He offered such advice as, ‘Secure a Place a Day or two before you set off…It is necessary to be at the place in due Time; for, as the saying is, “Time and Tide,” and it may be added, “Stage Coaches, stay for no Man.” As clocks vary, you will do wisely to be there full five minutes before what you believe to be the true Time.’ He also explained the etiquette of seating – first come, first choice and once you had ‘bagged’ a seat you should expect to keep it for the length of the journey.
The departure of a stagecoach from one of the London termini, such as the Belle Sauvage on Ludgate Hill or The White Horse Cellar in Piccadilly, was a scene of apparent confusion and a major tourist attraction. William Cobbett wrote, ‘Next to a fox hunt the finest sight in England is a stage coach just ready to start…The vehicle itself, the harness, all so complete and so neatly arranged, so strong and clean and good; the beautiful horses, impatient to be off; the inside full and the outside covered, in every part, with men, women and children, boxes, bags, bundles…’
Once on the road the comfort and safety of passengers was a minor consideration for the operators and, as far as comfort was concerned, depended to a large extent on your fellow passengers, their size, sobriety and standards of personal hygiene. I measured one of the few genuine surviving stage coaches, the Old Times, in Birmingham Museums’ store. It is forty one inches wide inside, which meant that the six passengers, bundled up in outdoor clothing, had just under fourteen inches of lateral space each. They perched on seats only thirteen and a half inches deep with an eighteen inch share of the knee room and could only hope that their fellow passengers were both skinny and short.
The Hon. John Byng complained that being, ‘…box’d up in a stinking coach, dependent on the hours and guidance of others, submitting to miserable associates and obliged to hear their nonsense, is great wretchedness!’ A German traveller, J. H. Campe, found his journey from Great Yarmouth to London a ‘veritable torture’. They covered a hundred and twenty four miles in fifteen hours with only one rest stop of half an hour. ‘Even the most urgent demands of nature had to be suppressed or postponed in order that there might not be a minute’s delay in changing horses…If a traveller wished to get down for a moment, he was faced with the danger that his luggage might be carried on to London without him. The coachman seemed to recognise no other duty than to arrive punctually.’
But for some people the journey was a pleasure. Sporting gentlemen rode beside the driver in the hope of taking the ribbons and “waggoning it” – which often led to accidents. The Romantic movement, which stimulated an interest in picturesque scenery, coincided with the development of reliable stage routes, so the coaches became transport for tourists who would prefer to sit on the roof in good weather to better admire the view. Coaches on the London-Brighton run in the summer would be loaded with young bucks, their lady friends and picnics to eat as they went.
The view and the fresh air were better outside (if it was warm and dry weather) but you were seated outside with the luggage and could have some unpleasant company. Body-snatchers sent corpses in boxes labelled as books; caged hunting hounds travelled by stage to a gentleman’s hunting box; live turtles might be strapped on their backs on the roof and one mail coach guard was found to be smuggling live veal calves in the box under his seat.
With the arrival of the railways in the 1840s the collapse of the stage and mail coach industry was rapid and devastating. Entire small towns became villages, inns closed, farmers lost income supplying horses, fodder and food for the inns, which also often had to close. Not only did drivers and guards find themselves out of work but so did grooms, feed merchants, farriers, harness and coach makers, whip and livery makers, inn servants… Thousands were affected and the roads became quiet again, merely carrying local and agricultural traffic until the arrival of the bicycle and then the car at the beginning of the 20th century.
And that led me to follow, literally, the route of one of the major coaching routes, the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh. These days, if you mention the Great North Road, people say, ‘Oh, that’s the A1.’ But it is only a small part of the original route and over several expeditions my husband and I followed every yard of the old route that we could, guided by early maps, stagecoach timetables and the writings of the Victorian travellers who were enchanted by the “romance of the road” and who were able to talk to the old drivers and guards.
Often the GNR is lost under concrete and dual carriageways, and in one place becomes a railway footbridge, but we traced it through Hatfield Park, over lethal bridges, along woodland bridleways and in and out of picturesque towns and villages now by-passed by the main roads. We found old coaching inns, the locations of gruesome executions, murders and romantic elopements and even the inn where the Lord Chancellor Eldon (who had himself eloped when a young and reckless student) used to go for his holidays to drink bottle after bottle of port with the landlord.
The result was Following the Great North Road: a guide for the modern traveller http://www.louiseallenregency.com/books/greatnorthroad.php which combines directions for a car driver with a description of what the early 19th century traveller would have encountered. I’ve been told that it is ideal to use with Google Street View – and uses much less petrol!
Many thanks to Louise for joining us on the Word Wenches today with such a funny and fascinating insight into travel in the early 19th century. We're offering a e-copy of Following the Great North Road to one lucky commenter today so do ask Louise anything you would like about her research into stagecoach travel. To get the ball (or the coach) rolling, how would you have enjoyed travel in the early 19th century? What would have interested you most about the experience? Would you have chose to sit outside and watch the view, or inside and chat to your fellow travellers? Would you have taken a picnic or would you prefer to sample the food at the inns?
You can find Louise online in the following places:
Scandal’s Virgin – shortlisted for the RNA RoNA Rose Award 2015 http://www.louiseallenregency.com/books/scandalsvirgin.php