FERRYBRIDGE COACHING DAYS
by ERIC HOULDER
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 COACHING ERA
[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.
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
- 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.
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
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
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.
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.
Continued in part two....
Ferrybridge in the Coaching Days is copyright ©Eric Houlder
In Ferrybridge Coaching Days Part Two we
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.