Imagine you are a traveller in Jane Austen’s day. Unless you own a carriage, you’ll travel by stage- or mail-coach, post-chaise or hired horse, breaking your journey where necessary at an inn. A busy coaching inn is never quiet; doors open and slam shut, bells ring (to summon service), and guests are constantly coming and going.
You’ll find that all roads lead to London: the centre of the fashionable world. When the city first comes into view, you’ll see the huge dome of St Paul’s towering over its neighbours. ‘Town’ is often wreathed in thick smoke in winter; it looks more cheerful in spring and summer. After your coach passes the green glades of Hyde Park, you’ll whizz past Hyde Park Corner, through Piccadilly and into the bustling capital.
There are an incredible number of travellers on the road: horsemen, footmen, waggons, carts, stagecoaches, chaises, gigs, buggies, curricles and phaetons, ‘the sound of their wheels ploughing through the wet gravel…continuous and incessant as the roar of waves on the sea beach’ (Robert Southey, Letters from England (1807)).
Accidents and delays are common. In a letter to Cassandra from London (25 April 1811) Jane Austen wrote: ‘Eliza [her cousin] caught her cold on Sunday in our way to the D’Entraigues; the Horses actually gibbed [sic] on this side of Hyde Park Gate – a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable hill to them, and they refused the collar… there was a sore shoulder to irritate. Eliza was frightened, & we got out – & were detained in the evening air several minutes…’
Each coach has the owner’s name, and the number of passengers it’s allowed to carry inside and out, painted on the outside. When Parson Woodforde and his niece Nancy set off for Bath from the Angel Inn, London in June 1793, their coach only held four passengers, but was very cramped: ‘We had a very fat Woman with a Dog and many bandboxes, which much incommoded us, and also a poor sickly good kind of a Man’ as fellow passengers. They breakfasted at Maidenhead on coffee and tea; Woodforde’s servant Briton rode on top of the coach.
Large vehicles can be stiflingly crowded. Poet Robert Southey journeyed from Worcester to Birmingham in 1807, in a coach designed to take sixteen:‘ There were twelve passengers already seated when we got in… one woman exclaimed that she was almost stewed to death already…I never before passed five hours in travelling so unpleasantly.’
Stagecoaches halt several times to take on and drop off passengers. Louis Simond travelled from Richmond to London in the early 1800s: ‘We stopped more than twenty times on the road – the debates about the fares of way-passengers – the settling themselves – the getting up, and the getting down, and damsels shewing their legs in the operation, and tearing and mudding their petticoats – complaining and swearing – took an immense time’.
When you travel by stagecoach or mail-coach, you must tip the coachman and guard usually a shilling (5p) each for twenty miles. If going by stagecoach, book in advance, or you may not get a seat. When you join the coach, stow your parcels and luggage under the seat or in the boot unless you want them to get soaking wet.
An inside seat is more expensive than one ‘outside’ on stagecoaches, but preferable if the weather is cold. In February 1808 two female ‘outside’ passengers on the Portsmouth coach froze to death when it got lost in a snowstorm.
Coaches and coachmen are national names, especially mail-coach drivers. Dashing young ‘whips’ dress as coachmen; they love to sit next to the coachman on the box-seat and handle the ‘ribbons’ (reins). On special occasions like May Day the mail-coaches and horses are festooned with ribbons and decorations.
You’ll endure some privations when far off the beaten track. In remote places like the Scottish Highlands, some smaller stages have no privy; even the inns in little towns often have no conveniences where you can relieve yourself except a ‘dirty exposed place’ (Monthly Magazine (1 May 1820).
When travelling, you’ll often see the bodies of executed malefactors. Criminals’ corpses are hanged up in chains near the crime scene, and their bones left dangling in the breeze for years. Finchley Common, a notorious highwaymen’s haunt near London, is often covered with gibbets. Gentlemen travellers carry a gun with them when crossing areas infested by mounted robbers. But the age of the highwayman is drawing to a close; coaches are now faster and better protected, so robberies are decreasing.
Although travel is safer nowadays, genteel ladies do not normally travel alone on stage-coaches unless they have no alternative. If Jane Austen wanted to make a long journey, she usually waited until her father or one of her brothers could take her.