Heitage: Before railways, Havering’s inns were geared to stagecoaches
The 19th century Havering elite travelled to London on the Norwich Phenomena and the Ipswich Quicksilver, writes Prof Ged Martin
On a July morning in 1826, Prittlewell doctor Jonas Asplin rose at 3.30am to catch The Monitor, Southend’s stagecoach to London, which passed his house half an hour later.
It was a fine morning, so he rode outside until rain started to fall at Billericay.
Stagecoaches generally changed horses every nine miles, so there would have been another stop in Romford.
He reached the terminus, a Whitechapel inn, at 9.30, in time for a late breakfast.
Later that month, he travelled up and down to London in a single day.
Romford and Brentwood inns were geared to the stagecoach trade. The guard announced their approach by blowing his posthorn. Ostlers and chambermaids sprang into action, changing horses and providing food, with the speed and efficiency of a Formula 1 pit stop.
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The smartest coaches had fancy names, like the Norwich Phenomena and Ipswich Quicksilver. (The Phenomena was a grammatical error. It should have been The Phenomenon, but the owner didn’t know ancient Greek.)
The Yarmouth Star came “down” from London on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, returning “up” on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Railways later borrowed the terms “up” and “down” for travelling to or from London.
Smaller coaches ran to Braintree, Burnham-on-Crouch, Coggeshall, Maldon and Sudbury.
When a mansion was offered for sale at South Weald in 1821, the advertisement claimed that coaches passed within half a mile every hour between 6am and 8pm.
On a March day in 1838, 17 coaches passed through Shenfield from London, carrying 133 passengers, with 15 taking 116 people in the other direction.
Drivers, like “Brandy George” of the Norwich Times, were “characters”, who sometimes broke the rules. The driver of the “Rumford” stagecoach was fined in 1794 for carrying more than the permitted six passengers on the roof.
When the Southend coach crashed near Rayleigh in 1824, a witness claimed it was “going at the prodigious rate of between 18 and 20 miles an hour.”
The driver, James Palmer, denied he was drunk. He simply stated that he’d stayed up so late the previous evening with friends that it hadn’t seemed worth going to bed.
Two rival drivers exchanged abuse as they passed at Ingatestone in 1826. One flicked his whip painfully across the hands of his competitor, risking that he would lose control of his coach and cause an accident.
Maintenance could be an issue. In August 1801, the “iron-work” (probably the axle) of the Billericay coach broke just west of Romford. All seven passengers were badly hurt, five of them sustaining broken arms and legs.
A strap holding a horse’s collar snapped on the Colchester Eclipse at Brentwood in 1816. The coach overturned and a passenger suffered a broken leg.
Stagecoach travel was for the elite. Poorer people rode on slow goods waggons, or just walked long distance.
At the 1838 Shenfield survey, the Colchester Wellington carried most passengers – but only 15 of them, four inside and 11 perched outside.
A single train could move far more people, faster and cheaper. When the railway reached Romford, in 1839 and Brentwood, in 1840, coaching collapsed.
High Street Romford, location of the town’s main coaching inns, never recovered its glory days.
Brentwood struggled on for a few years, with stagecoaches operating as a “feeder” to the railway system. We know of a Southend service, because that coach crashed near Brentwood station in 1841 when a bolt snapped.
In 1848, there was just a daily coach from Brentwood to Bury St Edmunds, collecting passengers from towns like Dunmow that still lacked railway communications.
But by the 1850s, it ran only as far as Chipping Ongar. Small boys cheered as it sped along Ongar Road at 5.30 every afternoon.
When the railway extended from Epping in 1856, the coachman became Chipping Ongar’s stationmaster.
The familiar phrase, that he’d “changed horses”, goes back to stagecoach days!