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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History



Eric Houlder was born in Knottingley in 1940, and lived in Ferrybridge from 1944 to 1947. He now lives in Carleton, and is well known as a one-time Head of History at the King’s School, an archaeologist, a popular public speaker, and Dalesman contributor. This series of articles is based on his popular two-screen slide presentation which many readers will have seen. The first article deals with the coaching system itself. Subsequent articles will deal with Ferrybridge and its inns in more detail.



The Rockingham stage coach

[above] The Rockingham coach, which was horsed from The Greyhound. This is a good example of a privately run stage coach. Mail coaches can always be distinguished on old engravings because the guard was never allowed passengers on the rear of the vehicle. 
Tom Bradley.

The coaching era proper began in 1786, when for the first time the Royal Mails began to travel by coach. Previous to this, the mails had been carried by Post Boys on horseback. Travellers who could afford it rode in coaches (their own, or public stage coaches) and on horseback, whilst those of slender means walked.

The first stage coaches to run regular services began in the seventeenth century, and by the first decade of the eighteenth a more or less regular service was available from York To London via Ferrybridge. More or less means just that, for it did not run at all in winter when the roads were so bad that hardly anything moved on them! The trip took four days each way (if you were lucky!), and each passenger was allowed 14½ pounds weight in baggage. This latter was carried in a huge canvas or leather bag on the back; it was not unknown for impoverished travellers who could afford slightly more than to walk, to ride in the bag, though such accommodation was notorious for providing bruises and even broken limbs! Horses were changed regularly at inns, and quite early on Ferrybridge became important for a number of reasons:

  • Travellers from the Humber ports and the West Riding could join their coaches here
  • There were a number of excellent inns with sufficient stabling for the relays of animals needed
  • It was a useful trans-shipment point for packets and people coming up river

In the middle of the eighteenth century the roads were privatised when Parliament set up the Turnpike Trusts. Each Trust was in effect a company which took over a stretch of road, or the roads in one area. Turnpikes, or bars were set up, the road was repaired using newly-developed technology (based on the Roman system!) devised by either John Metcalfe (Blind Jack of Knaresborough), Thomas Telford, or John Macadam, and the tolls collected provided not only a profit for the company, but funds to keep the road in repair and pay the road-gangs and turnpike keepers.

We still have reminders of this system in surviving names like Barnsdale Bar, Peckfield Bar, Leeming Bar, and even The Bar House on Knottingley Road, Pontefract. Like the latter, many of the old bar-keepers’ cottages have survived too, as rather cosy homes often now too near a busy road.

Barnsdale Bar toll house

The toll house at Barnsdale Bar.
To the left, through the gate is the Pontefract Road, whilst the Great North Road goes straight ahead and slightly right to Ferrybridge. Tom Bradley.

It was the new roads that inspired John Palmer, a theatre owner in Bath to suggest to the GPO that it begin carrying the mails by coach in 1786. The idea was so good that within a couple of years all the main cities of the realm were served by Royal Mail coaches, which left the General Post Office in London at intervals throughout the night.

The mails were noted for their speed and punctuality, for the guard on each carried a sealed watch (like a naval chronometer) and was empowered to fine his driver if he was late. The guard also carried a bugle, to signal bar-keepers to have the gate open in time, and inn staff to have the next change of horses ready. He also kept a loaded blunderbuss, a cutlass and two heavy pistols to guard the mails - not the passengers - from robbers.

The design of the vehicles only changed twice throughout the coaching era; after about thirty years the body of the coach was lowered on its chassis for better cornering, and shortly afterwards elliptical steel springs, an English invention, were added to improve comfort and stability.

The coaches had two boots: the rear boot carried the mails and could only be accessed if the guard dismounted, for the door was fastened to his metal seat, which was usually draped with a tiger or bear skin for comfort; the front boot was for packets and the drivers’ personal goods. Only the guard was allowed access to the rear boot, and some took advantage of this, for they were accused of smuggling game out of private estates which the roads traversed.

From the beginning, the Royal Mail took great pride in its coaches and horses. Vehicles were washed before each journey, and teams of carefully matched horses (called cattle in the slang of the period!) pulled them in the daytime, though at night unmatched teams were not unusual. The strain on the horses was incredible, for each team of four had to pull the heavy coach with two crew and up to sixteen passengers a stage consisting of fifteen to twenty miles, depending on the terrain, once per day. After each stage, the team was rubbed down, watered and fed, and stood overnight ready for the return working over the same stage the following day. Some stages were notorious. One of these was from the New Inn at Robin Hood’s Well to the Angel at Ferrybridge, and included the descent into and the rise out of Wentbridge. The return working from Ferrybridge south was just as bad, especially in winter. Today we drive up Gallows Hill, from Ferrybridge Crossroads to Darrington, without leaving top gear. In heavy snow, of which there was a lot in the early nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for the mails to tow a ‘cock-horse’ behind, ready to hitch to the front of the team to assist up Gallows hill. incidentally, my late grandfather, William Houlder of Womersley Road, Knottingley, remembered the gallows still existing at the centre of the crossroads at the end of the nineteenth century.

After three or four years with the mails, horses were sold on, the main dealer being a Londoner called Hobson, who gave purchasers little choice, hence the saying ‘Hobson’s Choice.’ Used mail horses were still valuable for the private coaches which maintained less trying schedules and were cheaper, and even city cab drivers.

Old Fox Inn Brotherton

A post chaise passing the Old Fox Inn (Brotherton Fox to us) coming south. It has two pairs and two postboys, so the occupants must have been in a hurry. Tom Bradley

With the success of the mails, private coach companies sprang up linking towns that were not on the mail coach routes. Inns began specialising in supplying post chases for the more affluent travellers, and the teams and post boys which maintained this service. Again Ferrybridge was a vital link in this system with cottages around the square housing the ‘boys’ who were actually grown men of diminutive build. Yorkshire postboys wore red and blue jackets trimmed at the collar and wrist with braid, and having two rows of close-set buttons down each side. The Blue jackets were for state occasions and in winter, whilst the red being made of cheaper cloth were everyday wear. Each boy owned an ankle-length buff greatcoat for use in cold or wet weather. The waistcoat was generally buff with stripes according to the owner’s home town; Ferrybridge and Wetherby lads wore red stripes, whilst Doncaster boys preferred blue ones. All wore the cravat, made of two yards of fine linen slit down the middle to make it twelve feet long! Head gear was a long stove-pipe hat with a square brim in either black or white, the black ones denoting the lads from the ‘superior’ establishments like the Angel or the Swan. The Greyhound lads wore white hats. In really cold weather, like the winters of 1811 and 1812, it was not uncommon for the hat to be frozen onto the lad’s head. It was removed by pouring boiling water into the rim! White cords and black boots with yellow tops completed the outfit. When working, each boy wore a ‘false-leg’ of wood and canvas on the off-side to protect his own leg and clothing from the shaft of the chaise when turning.

The Crown Bawtry

Two postboys stand in the entrance to The Crown at Bawtry, which, incidentally, is unchanged. Note the slightly bent-legged stance which was so typical. Tom Bradley.

Postboys were not paid, receiving only board and lodging. However, they did well from tips and got a good deal of free drink too. Their system of working was to take a post chaise (pronounced poshay) with its passengers to the next posting house. From Ferrybridge this would be an inn in either Doncaster to the south, Wetherby to the north, or perhaps Tadcaster if heading for York. The boy would present a ticket or pass to the gate keeper of any bar he passed through, and on reaching his destination would settle up with his passengers (fee and toll, plus tip) and pass on the chaise and people to another boy. He would receive a free meal and drinks at the destination inn (where the custom of PSV drivers receiving free meals originated) and walk his team back home, paying the toll for both directions on the way. At busy times, like York or Doncaster races, a single boy could travel almost a hundred miles in twenty four hours!


When Bradley visited Ferrybridge whilst researching his book, he found two old postboys still surviving. James Terry was only 85, whilst George Barker was 87, pictured here. It would be interesting to see if any local people are descended from either. Tom Bradley.

The inns themselves developed throughout the coaching era. As passenger numbers increased, some added waiting rooms and booking offices. The concept of ‘booking’ a seat originated in the coaching inns, where some private coach companies used an actual book with a printed plan of the coach on each page, on which the passengers’ names were written on payment. The larger inns maintained ‘up’ waiting rooms for those travelling towards London, and ‘down’ waiting rooms for those going away from London. This terminology is still in use on the railways which inherited it direct from the coaches. Meals were provided for coach passengers, though the times allowed must have encouraged indigestion; ten minutes for breakfast, and twenty for dinner, which incidently was at dinner time, and not, as is becoming common today, at supper time. In winter one could hire an earthenware hot water-bottle, and hand it in at the end of the stage. Snacks and newspapers could be purchased in the inn yards during changes.

Thoughout the coaching era, times were improving. By the 1820s the Royal Mails were striving to average ten miles per hour, though horses died trying to maintain this over the hilly stages. It was possible to travel from London to York in 22 hours. A German visitor to England complained that he could not appreciate the scenery because of the velocity of the coach!

Other countries copied our technology, and the coaching and posting systems became almost universal in Europe and the colonies. Private carriages, or chariots, were built for the really affluent who could ‘post’ all over Europe from inn to inn, as tourists. These vehicles were similar to post chaises, but were more luxurious, and had seating for staff on the rear outside.

Like everything else, it seemed as if the life of the road would last forever, but already people like Matthew Murray in Leeds, and George Stephenson on Tyneside were working on the new technology of steam. Ten miles per hour over long distances was recognised as the absolute limit of horse-powered vehicles, but the people of whom we speak here on the whole did not think that the new ‘steam kettles’ would ever catch on. Nevertheless, whilst it lasted the open road had a romance about it which we enjoy finding out about, as I hope you will agree in forthcoming sections.

Eric Houlder

Continued in part two....

Ferrybridge in the Coaching Days is copyright ©Eric Houlder

In Ferrybridge Coaching Days Part Two we take a look at Ferrybridge and its Inns during the coaching era.
Readers who would like to read more on the coaching era will find
The Old Coaching Days in Yorkshire, by Tom Bradley, 1889, invaluable. It was reprinted by Smith Settle in 1988, ISBN 1 870071 23 9.


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