Charles G. Harper

The Bath Road

History, Fashion, & Frivolity on an Old Highway
Published by Good Press, 2019
EAN 4057664594709

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The great main roads of England have each their especial and unmistakeable character, not only in the nature of the scenery through which they run, but also in their story and in the memories which cling about them. The history of the Brighton Road is an epitome of all that was dashing and dare-devil in the times of the Regency and the reign of George the Fourth; the Portsmouth Road is sea-salty and blood-boltered with horrid tales of smuggling days, almost to the exclusion of every other imaginable characteristic of road history; and the story of the Dover Road is a very microcosm of the nation’s history. Nothing strongly characteristic of England, Englishmen, and English customs but what you shall find a hint of it on the Dover Road. As for the Holyhead Road, it traverses the Midland territory of the fox-hunting and port-drinking squires, and reeks of toasts and conjurations of “no heel-taps;” the great North Road is an agricultural route pre-eminently; the Exeter Road the running-ground of some of the fleetest and best-appointed coaches of the Coaching Age; while the Bath Road was at one time the most literary and fashionable of them all.

The best period of the Bath Road was peculiarly the era of powder and patches; of tie-wigs, long-skirted coats, and gorgeous waistcoats; of silk stockings and buckled shoes; when the test of a well-bred gentleman was the making a leg and the nice carriage of a clouded cane; when a grand lady would “protest” that a thing which challenged her admiration was “monstrous fine,” and a gallant beau would “stap his vitals” by way of emphasis. It was a period of rigid etiquette and hollow artificiality; but a period also of a grand literary upheaval, and an era in which people were not, as now, merely clothed, but dressed.

Bath at this time was the most fashionable place in all England. Did my lady suffer from that mysterious eighteenth-century complaint “the vapours,” she journeyed to “the Bath.” Did my lord experience in the gout a foretaste of the torments of that place popularly supposed to be paved with good intentions, he also went to Bath, in his private carriage, cursing as he went; while the halt, the lame, the afflicted of many diseases, came this way; some posting, others by stage-coach, and yet more riding horseback. Every invalid, hypochondriac, and malade imaginaire who could afford it went to Bath, for continental spas had not then become possible for English people, and the nauseating waters of Aix, Baden, and other places simply trickled unheeded away.


Every invalid, in fact, who could afford it, went to Bath, and the mentally afflicted, who could not go, were sent thither; so that the saying which is now become proverbial (and whose origin and subtle innuendo seem in danger of being lost) arose, “Go to Bath,” with the rider, “and get your head shaved;” the lunatics who were sent to those healing waters usually being thus tonsured. This derisive phrase was used toward any one who propounded a more than ordinarily crack-brained project. It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to say that it has no sort of connection with the modern music-hall vulgarism, “Get your hair cut!”

Another theory—but one more ingenious than acceptable—has it that the phrase derives from Bath having always been a resort of beggars. What, then, more natural, we are asked, than for one accosted by a mendicant to recall this topographical notoriety, and bid the rogue “go to Bath”? For, according to Fuller, that worthy author of the “Worthies,” there were “many in that place; some natives there, others repairing thither from all parts of the land; the poor for alms, the pained for ease. Whither should fowl flock in a hard frost but to the barn-door? Here, all the two seasons, being the general confluence of gentry. Indeed, laws are daily made to restrain beggars, and daily broken by the connivance of those who make them; it being impossible, when the hungry belly barks and bowels sound, to keep the tongue silent. And although oil of whip be the proper plaister for the cramp of laziness, yet some pity is due to impotent persons. In a word, seeing there is the Lazar’s-bath in this city, I doubt not but many a good Lazarus, the true object of charity, may beg therein.” The road, then, to this City of Springs must have witnessed a motley throng.




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The history of travelling, from the Creation to the present time, may be divided into four periods—those of no coaches, slow coaches, fast coaches, and railways. The “no-coach” period is a lengthy one, stretching, in fact, from the beginning of things, through the ages, down to the days of the Romans, and so on to the era when pack-horses conveyed travellers and goods along the uncertain tracks, which in the Middle Ages were all that remained of the highways built by that masterful race. The “slow-coach” era was preceded by an age when those few people who travelled at all went either on horseback, with their women-folk clinging on behind them, or else were wealthy enough to be able to afford the keep or hire of a “chariot,” as the carriages of that time were named. That sinful old reprobate, Samuel Pepys, lived in the last days of the “no-coach” period, and saw the arrival of the slow coaches. He was one of those who used a chariot, and his “Diary” is full of accounts of how, on his innumerable journeys, he lost his way because of the badness of the roads, which then ran through vast stretches of unenclosed, uncultivated, and sparsely inhabited country, and were so fearfully bad that in many places the drivers did not dare to attempt such veritable “sloughs of despond,” but drove around them over the hedgeless fields, thus making new tracks for themselves. In this way the origin of the winding character which many of our roads still retain is sufficiently accounted for.


The “slow-coach” era was, absurdly enough, that of the “flying machines,” and in that era, with the year 1667, the coaching history of the Bath Road may be said to begin, when some greatly daring person issued a bill announcing that a “flying machine” would make the journey. It is not to be supposed that this was some emulator of Icarus or predecessor of the ambitious folks who for the last hundred years, more or less, have been trying to navigate the air with balloons or mechanical flying machines. Not at all. This was simply the figurative language employed to convey to those whom it might concern the wonderful feat that was to be attempted (“God permitting,” as the advertiser was careful to add), of travelling by road from the “Bell Savage,” on Ludgate Hill, to Bath in three days. But here is the announcement:—


“All those desirous to pass from London to Bath, or any other Place on their Road, let them repair to the ‘Bell 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 permit), and sets forth at five o’clock 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.”

The rush of fashionables to take the waters, and see and be seen, had obviously not then commenced, since one crawling “flying machine” sufficed to accommodate the traffic; and it was not until thirty-six years later that it did begin, when Queen Anne (who, alas! is dead) resorted to “the Bath” for the benefit of the gout. What says Pope?

“Great Anna, whom Three Realms obey,
Does sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tay.”

If she had taken tea more consistently and drank less port, she would have been just as great and not so gouty—and Bath would have remained in that semi-obscurity in which it had long languished. No crowds of fashionables, no truckling statesmen, no wits, would have hastened down the road and peopled it so brilliantly had not Anne’s big toe twinged with the torments of the damned; and it seems likely enough that this book would never have been written. Under the circumstances, therefore, the most appropriate toast for the author and the Mayor and Corporation of Bath to honour is that favourite old one, “High Church, High Farming, and Old Port for Ever,” especially the last, “coupling with it,” as they used to say before the custom of giving toasts died out, the honoured memory of Queen Anne.

Another three-days-a-week coach then began to ply between London and Bath. In 1711 it had a rival, and five years later saw the establishment of the first daily coach from London. Thomas Baldwin, citizen and cooper of London, saw money in the venture, and, like the hero of one of Bret Harte’s verses, who “saw his duty a dead sure thing,” he “went for it, there and then.” He would seem to have secured it, too, for he held the road for many years against all rivals, and was, moreover, landlord of one of the foremost hostelries on the road—the “Crown,” at Salt Hill.


COACHING MISERIES. (After Rowlandson.)


His rivals were many, and, considering the popularity to which Bath soon attained, they must all have done well. Indeed, the establishment of a new coach to Bath would now appear to have been a favourite form of speculation, and Londoners found many such advertisements as the following:—

Daily Advertiser. April 9, 1737.
“For Bath.

“A good Coach and able Horses will set out from the ‘Black Swan’ Inn, in Holborn, on Wednesday or Thursday.

“Enquire of William Maud.”


The invalid who trusted himself to the stage-coach of that period had, however, many risks to run. Doctors might recommend the waters, but before the patient reached them he had to endure a two days’ journey, and even at that to bear a very martyrdom of bumps and jolts. For that was just before the time when coach-proprietors began to announce “comfortable” coaches “with springs,” just as, a little earlier, they had laid great stress on their conveyances being glazed, and (to skip the centuries) as railway companies nowadays advertise dining and drawing room cars. Here are some coaching woes:—

“Just as you are going off, with only one other person on your side of the coach, who, you flatter yourself, is the last—seeing the door opened suddenly, and the landlady, coachman, guard, etc., cramming and shoving and buttressing up an overgrown, puffing, greasy human being of the butcher or grazier breed; the whole machine straining and groaning under its cargo from the box to the basket. By dint of incredible efforts and contrivances, the carcase is at length weighed up to the door, where it has next to struggle with various obstacles in the passage.”

The pictorial commentary upon this text is appended, together with a view representing passengers refreshed by being overturned into a wayside pond.

The first mail-coach that ever ran in England ran between London and Bristol, and set out on Monday, August 2, 1784. Hitherto the letters had been conveyed by mounted post-boys, often provided with but sorry hacks, and always open to attack at the hands of any bad characters who might think it worth their while to intercept the post-bags. This risk led the more cautious persons, and those whose correspondence was of particular importance, to despatch their letters by the stage-coach, although the cost in that case was 2s. as against the ordinary postal charge of only 4d. for places between 80 and 120 miles distant.


A clever and enterprising man resident at Bath had noted these things. This was John Palmer, the proprietor of the Bath Theatre. He not only noted them, but devised a plan by which the post was rendered swifter and more secure. The stage-coaches of that time took thirty-eight hours to accomplish the journey between London and Bath, and, although safer for the carriage of correspondence than by post-boy, were not so speedy. Palmer had frequently travelled the roads, and he rightly conceived thirty-eight hours to be too long a time to take for a journey of 106 miles. He drew up a scheme for a mail-coach to carry four inside passengers, a coachman, and a guard, and to be drawn by four horses at the rate of between eight and nine miles an hour. In this manner, he argued, the journey between Bath and London should be accomplished, including stoppages, in sixteen hours. This plan, which he made as an instance, to be extended, if successful, to the other main roads throughout the kingdom, he communicated to the General Post Office. Two years passed before Palmer could get his proposals tried, but arrangements were eventually made, agreements entered into with five innkeepers along the London, Bath, and Bristol Road, for the horsing of the coach, and the first mail despatched from Bristol to London, August 2, 1784. The mounted post-boy’s day was nearing its close, and by the summer of 1786, the trunk roads knew him and his post-horn no more.

The mail-coaches enjoyed great privileges, of which the greatest was their exemption from all turnpike tolls, and the right exercised by the Post Office of indicting roads which might be out of repair or in any way dangerous. By the year 1810, mail-coaches had increased so greatly that the estimated annual loss of the various turnpike trusts on this exemption was £50,000. And all the while the postal business was increasing by leaps and bounds, although the price of postage was increased from time to time to help supply the Government, which speedily came to recognize the Department as a milch cow, and to demand increasing annual payments from it, to help pay the costs of waging Continental wars.

Let us see what the postage between London, Bath, and Bristol was at different periods. The charges were regulated by distances, and one of the schedule measurements, “exceeding 80 miles and not exceeding 150 miles,” just includes these two towns. We find, then, that it was possible to get a letter conveyed that distance in 1635 for 4d., while a bulky package weighing one ounce cost 9d. in transmission; not extravagant charges for that far-off time, even allowing for the greater purchasing power of money in the first half of the seventeenth century. Twenty-five years later the scale was altered, and one could despatch a note for a penny less, although it cost 3d. more for an ounce weight. From 1711 to 1765, the scale was—

Letter.   One ounce.
4d.   1s. 4d.

and from 1765 to 1784 the charges were again raised, to 5d. and 1s. 8d. respectively. Matters then went from bad to worse. In the beginning of 1797, the figures were 7d. and 2s. 4d.; while the climax was finally reached at the beginning of this century, for on July 9, 1812, it cost 9d. to send a note between London, Bath, or Bristol, and 3s. for one ounce. A singular fact, in face of these repeated increases, was the growth of the Post Office revenues. In 1796, the net profit was £479,000; ten years later it had risen to considerably over one million sterling. The Bristol profit on Post Office business was £469 in 1794–5, and at that time the postmaster received a salary of £110 per annum. The Bath postmaster’s billet was the best in the service, for he received £150, and, moreover, had the assistance of one clerk and three letter-carriers.




Meanwhile the stage-coaches had increased greatly. It was about 1800 that the “Sick, Lame, and Lazy”—a sober conveyance so called from the nature of its passengers, invalids, real and imaginary, on their way to Bath—was displaced by the new post coach that performed the journey in a single day; and thus the comfortable, and expensive, beds of the “Pelican” at Speenhamland, where “the coach slept,” began to be disestablished.




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Our forefathers of the coaching age were properly pious. Desirous, when they travelled, of a “happy issue out of all their afflictions,” as the Prayer-book has it—which in their case included such varied troubles as highwaymen’s attacks, being upset, or finding themselves snowed up, with the extreme likelihood in winter-time of being severely frostbitten—they made their wills, and fervently committed themselves to the protection of Providence before starting and putting themselves in the care of the coachman. Coach proprietors, for their part, always advertised their conveyances to run “D.V.;” and the more slangy among our great-grandparents were accordingly accustomed to speak of these coaches as “God-permits.” Express trains, which stop for nothing in heaven above or the earth beneath, short of a cataclysm of nature, have relegated that joke to the domains of archæology. Then, however, it had its poignant side.

“The perils of the road in winter and foul weather,” says one who braved them, “were formidable. On one occasion I rode sixteen hours under a deluging downpour of rain that never ceased for a single minute, and was so crushing in its effect as to disable every umbrella on the roof before the first hour had elapsed. On another occasion I started at six on a winter’s morning outside the Bath “Regulator,” which was due in London at eight o’clock at night. I was the only outside passenger. It came on to snow about an hour after we started—a snowstorm that never ceased for three days. The roads were a yard deep in snow before we reached Reading, which was exactly at the time we were due in London. Then with six horses we laboured on, and finally arrived at Fetter Lane at a quarter to three in the morning. Had it not been for the stiff doses of brandied coffee swallowed at every stage, this record would never have been written. As it was, I was so numbed, hands and feet, that I had to be lifted down, or rather, hauled out of an avalanche or hummock of snow, like a bale of goods. The landlady of the ‘White Horse’ took me in hand, and I was thawed gradually by the kitchen fire, placed between warm pillows, and dosed with a posset of her own compounding. Fortunately, no permanent injury resulted.”


That was as late as 1816. Happily, although the term “an old-fashioned winter,” is one frequently employed nowadays to denote one of exceptional severity, there is no reason to believe that such winters were less exceptional then than they are now. But the great frosts and snowstorms of those times belong to history, and although they only occurred (as they do now) at considerable intervals, they bulk largely in the records of the past.

The great snowstorm of December 26, 1836, dislocated the coach service all over the country. The drifts on Marlborough Downs varied in depth from fourteen to sixteen feet. The Duke of Wellington, who was travelling down the road to the Duke of Beaufort’s place at Badminton, arrived at Marlborough on the Monday night, in the thick of it, and put up at the “Castle.” He was journeying in a carriage and four, with outriders, and started again the next morning, to be promptly stuck fast in a wheatfield. A number of labourers were procured, who dug him out.

On that memorable occasion, the Bath and Bristol mails, which were due at those places on the Tuesday morning, were abandoned eighty miles from London, the mail-bags being brought up by the two guards in a post-chaise with four horses. For seventeen miles they had to come by way of the fields.

Three outside passengers died of the cold when one of the stage coaches reached Chippenham, and frostbites were innumerable.

But if all the untoward coaching incidents were recounted that befell upon the Bath Road, this would resolve itself into a dismal record, and it might then be supposed that coaching was invariably dangerous and uncomfortable, which was not the case. One of the most singular of these happenings was that in which a home-coming sailor was killed. A gunner named John Baker was wrecked on board the frigate Diomede, off the coast of Trincomalee, and narrowly escaped being drowned. Being picked up, he recovered sufficiently to be able to take a part in the storming of that place, and was sent home with the ship bearing the despatches. When he set foot again in England, he must naturally have thought all dangers past; but, coming up from Bath in January, 1796, the coach capsized at Reading, and the unhappy gunner, who had survived all perils of battle and the breeze, was killed.

A not dissimilar accident happened in July, 1827, when the Bath mail was overturned between Reading and Newbury, through the horses bolting into a gravel-pit. A naval officer was killed, and most of the passengers injured.


Although the latter accident happened in an age of very fast coaches, it is a fact that disasters were actually fewer than they had been in more leisurely times. The reasons for this increased safety in times when speed was vastly greater may be found in the facts that the roads were better kept, and the coaches better built. A whole series of Turnpike Acts had been passed in the course of the previous fifty years, resulting in roads as nearly perfect as roads can be, while the coachbuilder’s trade had become almost an exact science. Had it not been for the occasional recklessness or drunkenness of drivers, and the winter fogs, there would be little to record in the way of accidents. As it was, coachmen sometimes (but very rarely) took a convivial glass too much; or, more often, raced opposition coaches to a final smash; and then there were the “pea-soupers” of fogs, which led the most experienced astray.

The following story belongs to the first quarter of this century, and is told by one of the old drivers: “I recollect,” he says, “a singular circumstance occasioned by a fog. There were eight mails that passed through Hounslow. The Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, and Stroud took the right-hand road; the Exeter, Yeovil, Poole, and ‘Quicksilver’ Devonport (which was the one I was driving) went the straight road towards Staines. We always saluted each other when passing with ‘Good night, Bill,’ ‘Dick,’ or ‘Harry,’ as the case might be. I was once passing a mail, mine being the fastest, and gave my wonted salute. A coachman named Downs was driving the Stroud mail. He instantly recognized my voice, so said, ‘Charley, what are you doing on my road?’ It was he, however, who had made the mistake; he had taken the Staines instead of the Slough road out of Hounslow. We both pulled up immediately; he had to turn round and go back—a feat attended with some difficulty in such a fog. Had it not been for our usual salute, he would not have discovered his mistake before arriving at Staines.”




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One of the most striking differences between the coaching age and these railway times lies in the altered relations between passenger and driver. No railway passenger ever thinks of the man who drives the engine. He, in fact, rarely sees him. The coachman, on the other hand, was very much in evidence, and was not only seen, but expected to be “remembered” as well. And “remembered” the old coachmen were, too: for half a crown each to driver and guard was the least one could do in those times. How great a tax this was upon the traveller may be guessed when it is said that the coachman was generally changed about every fifty miles or so. The guard would probably accompany the coach all the way to Bath, but on the longer journeys there were at least two. There was a very simple formula used, as a hint to passengers that a tip should be forthcoming. “I go no further, gentlemen,” the coachman would observe, putting his head in at the window. A simultaneous dipping of the hands into fobs on the part of the passengers resulted from this piece of information, and the coachman would depart, richer by considerably over half a sovereign. Imagination does not go to the length of picturing the driver or the guard of a train doing the like.


It is not, however, to be supposed that coach passengers greatly delighted in the practice, even in those fine open-handed days. There were many who could not afford it, and others who regarded it as an imposition. But they tipped all the same, because, as Mr. Chaplin, the great coach proprietor in those palmy days, observed, if they did not the guard and coachman “would look very hard at them.” Better to face a lioness robbed of her cubs than a coachman defrauded of his tip. Passengers, therefore, resigned themselves with a sigh to the expenditure, and travelled as little as they possibly could. There can, indeed, be no doubt that tipping, grown to a regular system, injured the coach proprietors’ business; and it was eventually, if not abolished entirely, at least shorn of its more grandiose proportions. The first man to tackle the question was Thomas Cooper. He was proprietor of a line of coaches running between London and Bristol from 1827 to 1832. “Cooper’s Old Company,” he called his business. He had originally been landlord of the “Castle Hotel” at Marlborough, but gave it up and removed to Thatcham, where he took a cottage and built stables for his coaching stud. Here he was practically halfway between London and Bristol, and his day and night coaches stopped to dine and sup at “Cooper’s Cottage,” as, with a sense of the value of alliteration, he called it. All his advertisements bore the announcement, “No fees,” and the same pleasing legend was writ large on the backs of his coaches.

Cooper paid his coachmen and guards considerably higher wages, to compensate them for the loss of their tips. He became bankrupt in 1832, and sold his business to Chaplin, who afterwards, through his interest in the railway world, obtained him the post of stationmaster at Richmond, near London. From this position he eventually retired on a pension, and died about fifteen years ago.

We all know the cantankerous passenger in the railway carriage who makes himself objectionable in a variety of ways, but a coach was a much more fruitful source of contention. Fortunately, however, it was not often that the incident of the strong man in the Bath coach bound for London was repeated. A corpulent person of prodigious strength tried to secure a place in the mail, but, all the seats being booked, he was told that it was impossible to convey him that night. Relying upon his strength and the unlikelihood of any one daring to disturb him, he got in while the coach was still standing in the stable yard, and waited. He had to wait so long, and had dined so well, that he fell asleep, and the coachman, finding him there, snoring, put his team into another coach, leaving the fat man in peaceable possession of his seat. He awoke in the middle of the night, still, of course, in the stable yard of the “White Lion” at Bath, while the road echoed with the laughter of the coachman and his friends all the way up to London.





In that incident the passengers were fortunate. The “insides” were less to be congratulated who bore a part in the memorable journey down to Bath from Piccadilly with an extra passenger. It is of the Bath mail that the story is told. Mail coaches carried four inside. One night, when the mail was ready to start from Piccadilly, full up, inside and out, a gentleman who wanted to go to Marlborough came hurrying up. He was well known to coachman and guard as a regular customer; but, although they did not want to leave him behind, there seemed to be no alternative. He solved the difficulty himself by squeezing in as the coach started; and so, packed as tightly as herrings in a barrel, they rumbled away, amid the muttered curses of the original occupants. The misery of that journey may be better imagined than described, and when the coach halted at the “Bear” at Maidenhead, it might be supposed that the “insides” would have been only too pleased to get out for a momentary relief when the guard appeared at the door and made what was usually the pleasant announcement, “Time to get a cup of coffee here, gentlemen.” Did they get out? Oh no! They were so tightly wedged that they dared not move, afraid lest they should not be able to get in again. So they endured to the bitter end, and there can be no doubt whatever that when Marlborough was reached, they “sped the parting guest” with exceptional heartiness.




The inn from which this coach started was the “White Bear,” Piccadilly, which stood, until about the year 1860, on the site now occupied by the Criterion Restaurant. It was a curious old place, chiefly of wood, and had a great effigy of a polar bear on its frontage. This “White Bear” sign is still in existence, but rusticated to the lonely hamlet of Fickles Hole, near Croydon, where it stands in the little garden of the “White Bear” inn.




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A very swagger stage-coach, the “York House,” was started between Bath and London in 1815, followed by a rival, the “Beaufort Hunt.” The first-named started from the “York House Hotel” at Bath; the “Beaufort Hunt” from the “White Lion.” Both were fast day coaches; and, perhaps because of racing, the “Beaufort Hunt” was upset twice in a fortnight, soon after it had been put on the road. It was a sporting age, but not so sporting that passengers were prepared to risk life and limb in taking part in this keen rivalry. Accordingly, the “Beaufort Hunt” fell upon evil times, and the proprietor had to dismiss his too zealous drivers. He was, however, fortunate in his new coachman, who was exceptionally civil and obliging, and eventually regained the position of the coach, which, although it kept up a furious pace of eleven miles an hour, remained for years a prime favourite with the more dashing travellers along the road.

This and the other crack coaches, which continued running until the Great Western Railway finally took them away on trucks, quite cut out the mails, which, from being the fastest coaches on the road, soon came to occupy a very middling position.