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COACHING IN EXETER FIFTY YEARS AGO ( c. 1820 - 25)

by James Cossins

 

Reminiscences of  a characterful Exeter citizen which were published in the local newspaper over many years in mid-Victorian times. These Reminiscences were collected together in book form nnd published in 1877. Cossins did not write in the formal style adopted by many Victorians - his style is quite chatty and informal - almost as though he was in the room speaking to us.

James Cossins who was born in Exeter in 1823, had a tobacconist shop at 36  Paris Street, Exeter. Presumably, they all smoked, but he seems to have been on nodding terms with all the dignitaries of the City and  enjoyed a very special position as an "insider" who knew what was going on around him.. He drops names into all of his pieces freely and seems to have been on familiar terms with all the key people in his parish of St. Sidwel, especially the coaching fraternity. In this piece, he is recalling events which took place within sight of his own front door. His pieces in the local paper took the form of letters which were well-received by the readership. He died in 1883 aged 60.    

 

Coaches leaving the London Inn Square
Coaches waiting to leave from The London Inn Square in Exeter

From an etching by George Townsend

 

"New London Inn was kept by Mr. Clench, who succeeded Mr. Land in 1816. Average mails and coaches about seventy daily - Sundays excepted. The mails all started from the NewLondon Inn Square. The London mail - one direct (The Quicksilver) - which was said to be the fastest in England, doing the distance (1) in 20 hours, arriving in Exeter about four o'clock in the afternoon. Letters delivered about six; in winter; during fogs, letters were not delivered until the following morning. Other mail came via Dorchester. One hour was allowed for sorting, then the Falmouth and Plymouth mails were dispatched. On 23rd August 1836, the speed was increased, the distance being travelled in sixteen hours and a half. Several  coaches, also left the Old London Inn (Mr. Pratt's, now the Bude Haven Hotel - one, the "Favourite" Subscription to London and Plymouth; also the fast coach "Defiance" to London from the Clarence Hotel (2) with a team of four greys (which I have seen driven through St. Martin's Lane(3) also the "Balloon" and "Traveller" coashes, thirty hours to Lond and licensed to carry six inside and fourteen out, the fare being less - 25 shillings outside, 35 shillings inside; other coaches 35 shillings and £3 10 shillings, mails extra. To insure places, parties booked the day before with a deposit of half the fare. Gentlemen were so anxious for the box seat that porters were tipped to retain it for them. Coaches also left the Half Moon. the White Lion, the White Horse etc. It was computed that in the parish of St Sidwell alone, 3000 persons derived theri maintenance in connection with the above occupations.

 

The Falmouth mails were of importance at that time, the foreign letters &c. being landed and forwarded from that port. Should a packet (4) arrive and find the mails not leaving for London, the heavy bags were at once forwarded by chaise and four horses, and important Government despatches were forwarded by a messenger on horseback, having always a relay in each town he had to pass through. The contractor in Exeter was Mr. Mugford of Paul Street yard, adjoining Mr. Jury's Museum Hotel, now Queen Street, where man and horses were always ready by night and day, their destination being Honiton up and Crockernwell (5) down. The New London Inn proprietor contracted for the posting - four horses always harnessed and two post boys waiting for any emergency. On the debate on Sugar Duty in the Commons in 1848, the West India packet was delayed at Falmouth four days to take out Parliament's decision. The bags were forwarded and despatched from Exeter at the usual time. On Smith, the porter, going to lie down (he slept in the outer office) he acquainted the clerk, Mr, Rickard, of the presence of a large portmanteau. On examination , it was found to be the despatches for the different foreign agents. The mail had left 4½ hours previously. A man was immediately despatched on horseback to have chaises and horses ready on the road to take the portmanteau, which arrived in Falmouth about half an hour after the packet left her moorings. Not being out of sigh thought, a signal was hoisted; it was answered and the boat stopped.  The heavy specie (6), consisting of dollars, &c. packed in very strong boxes about one foot square, was sent from Falmouth to London by Russell's waggon, which took twelve days, a guard (Mr. Garry), armed, accompanying it. The money boxes were placed at the bottom and other goods were stacked on top.

 

When about nine years of age, I rode from South Street in one of the waggons. It left about eight o'clock in the evening, arriving at Honiton at four o'clock. I remember the waggon stopping many times and some small kegs being put in and taken out, which I heard afterwards contained spirits &c; they were bought across the lanes by smugglers whose horses had stockings over their shoes to deaden the sound.

 

Looking back at Exeter from the Marypole Toll Gate
   Looking back on Exeter from the heights of Marypole Toll Gate  

 

Previous to railways, many gentlemen would take a trip to London, Falmouth, Plymouth &c. for the purpose of being allowed to drive a portion of the journey; on one occasion, a Devonshire  baronet took the reins of the Falmouth mail from the New London Square. On turning Mr. Franklin's corner, the wheels not clearing the kerb, the coach was upset. Amongst the inside passengers was the Inspector of Mails; fortunately he was enabled to put his head out on the right side, but from that time, no one was allowed to drive but the authorised coachman. Mr T. Burch was also in the coach at the time of the upset, but was not much injured. The Bath and Bristol coaches (via Tiverton) ran by the old Stoke road. The hill was so steep that the trustees allowed two extra horses to be put on without extra toll, a post being erected at the bottom of the hill and another at the top, with the words painted thereon "put on" and "take off". In 1814, the road was made over Marypole Head to avoid the steep hill; and in 1829 the road was cut from Cowley Bridge to avoid the latter ascent. The same privilege was also allowed to the Falmouth coaches just above the Okehampton Turnpike gate. The fish from Torquay for Bristol and Bath, was forwarded by coach, which left the London Inn every evening about six o'clock, drawn by six horses as far as the milestone on Maypole Head. Very few passengers travelled by it, owing to the high flavour of the contents.

 

Three or four days previous to Christmas Day, the various London coaches were loaded with hampers as presents, frequently four or five feet high on the roof. On one occasion a coach, driven by Mr.Beavis, being top-heavy, overturned about midway between Exeter and Salisbury. The coachman was killed on the spot, and a subscription was started for his widow, between £800 and £900 being collected.

 

About twenty-six coaches passed through Heavitree daily. Presuming the present generation never saw a mail coach, I will endeavour to to give an idea of it. The weight was about one ton, painted red, with royal coat of arms on the panel of the door. They were built to carry only four passengers in and four out, with a bag or a box for their luggage, the roof being reserved for large mail bags. A round seat behind, covered with a skin, and a pocket on each side for pistols for the guard. The smaller country bags were put in the boot under his seat, which was opened by a trap door. A long box in front of the guard held a blunderbuss, whilst there was another box or bag for the  brass horn, which was about thirty inches long. When heavily laden, two extra horses, with postillion, were attached to the mail. I have often heard the late Mr. Warren, attorney, speak of the journey to London, whivch took three days from Exeter. Four parties would take the inside of the coach, provide themselves with lamp and cards and play whist nearly the whole way.

 

The London - Exeter Mail Coach

The London to Exeter Royal Mail Coach

from a painting by Henry Alken snr.

Copyright owner not known

 

For Plymouth, the coach would leave Exeter at six in the morning, stop at Chudleigh for the passengers to breakfast, when a cock fight might be witnessed; then on to Totnes to dinner and another cock fight would follow; then start for Plymouth, arriving there about six in the evening. The return journey was similarly diversified. High Street in those days was a busy scene, either carriages, post chaises or coaches every few minutes having to pass through it, going east or west. In connection with the New London Inn, there were in the stables from 150 to 200 horses daily.

 

Previous to the road being cut under Northernhay, the stables and coach-houses extended; there were also stables the other side of Longbrook Street, and on Fridays, if fine, and anything particular was going on, they could scarcely find room for horses and carriages; also the same with other hotels and inns in the neighbourhood."

 

End of the day

Posting horses in the stables

For the horses, it was a very hard life and there were many instances of horses dying in harness. All posting houses had to keep four horses saddled and ready to go in case they were needed on urgent Government business.

 

1  Approximately 169 miles

2 In the Cathedral Close and still open for business

3 A very narrow thoroughfare now closed to traffic

4 A packet was a vessel which carried passengers on long-haul trips

5 Stage points at which the horses were changed.

6 Bullion - i.e the common currency in the country of origin representing the duty and taxes paid there and bound for the Exchequer as cash.

 

 

 
 
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