Changes in Travelling on the Road between Exeter and Plymouth during the last Sixty Years (1885)


Author(s): Hawker. John Manley Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): atmospheric railway, coaches, horses, and roads Year published: 1885
Location(s): Pages: 450-457
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By the late Rev. Treasurer Hawker, M.A. (Read at Seaton, July, 1885.)

Not very far short of sixty years ago the writer of this sketch, when a small child, took his first journey on the outside of a stage-coach from Plymouth to Chudleigh with his father. There, as fresh horses were being put in for the remaining ten miles to Exeter, he remembers that the driver of the “Defiance”, the coach by which he had travelled, asked how many passengers there had been on the rival coach, the “Subscription”, commonly called, as he called it, the “Scrippy”. “Two”, was the answer. It was winter time, I believe. “Ah!” returned our coachman, a burly, powerful specimen of the old style of drivers, called Harvey, “then we’ve got two and a half”, the “half” being my diminutive self. That, my first journey by such a conveyance, was the more deeply impressed on my memory by one of the leaders falling whilst descending a steep hill between Brent and Ashburton, and, from the harness happily breaking, turning up behind by the time the coach was stopped. He was only slightly cut and was forthwith reharnessed and driven to the end of the stage with, I own, a good deal of thonging – the whole proceeding taking so little time, and apparently being a matter of such profound indifference to the coachman, that I almost questioned in my youthful mind whether it was not the right sort of entertainment for those who travelled by coaches.

Devonians then, if we may judge from the passengers on that day by the “Defiance” and “Subscription”, both of which left Devonport about 9 or 10 a.m., and reached Exeter in about six or seven hours – one going by Totnes and Newton, the other by Ashburton – were not great travellers. There was a slower, heavy coach called the “Herald”, which left Devonport in the afternoon, and took its passengers, mostly of the humbler kind, to Exeter in time for a night coach, which left for London at 9 p.m., and went a somewhat circuitous route. There were heavy waggons for goods, which were allowed to carry passengers if they did not travel more than four miles an hour. These were of great size, and lumbered along with six or eight powerful horses – the leading ones having bells; the waggoner, in his smockfrock, frequently riding by the side on a small pony to save his legs, and make each horse do his fair share of work. They were used by persons who never dreamed of travelling twenty miles an hour by parliamentary trains at probably similar fares, and were no doubt a great boon to the poorer classes. Indeed, for those who were obliged to say, as an old North Devon crone once said, “What’s the use of being in a hurry? There’s plenty of time forrard”, the conveyance was safe, snug, and inexpensive, except for the necessity of eating and drinking during the protracted hours of a long journey. “I’ve come twenty miles since I had anything inside me,” was the somewhat inelegant observation of an elderly female on the top of a coach that did its nine or ten miles an hour; “and, coachman, I must have summat to eat.” Those of us who were more accustomed to fast travelling were highly amused at this excessive slavery to material wants or devotion to regularity.

The opportunities, however, for refreshments of the inner man on the old “Quicksilver” or “Devonport Mail” – when it was one of the fastest in England,(*) performing the 219 miles between Devonport and London in 21 ¼ hours, and keeping its time punctually (O si sic omnes!) – were scanty; about ten minutes at Exeter, and thirteen at Andover for supper at one in the morning.

(*) The “Bristol Mail” was slightly the fastest, doing its 122 miles in 11h. 45m. with thirteen changes, the rate being 10. 6 ¼. The “Devonport” 219 miles in 21h. 14m., with twenty-three changes, and breakfast 20m., at the rate of 10, 5 5/6. (From the Post-office Books.) See Quarterly Review, October, 1877. Article on “Carriages, Roads, and Coaches”: “On many roads the time kept was so exact that the labourer in the fields knew the hour by the colour of the coach that passed.”

See Nimrod’s The Road, p. 23. “Half a mile in the hour faster than most in England”; “one stage four miles and twelve minutes is the time.”

A story is told of a man who contrived to prolong the time on one occasion by asking the waiter for a spoon or fork when the other passengers had left the room. The waiter to his astonishment could not find one, although there had been plenty on the table just before. It was delicately hinted that perhaps some of the passengers had pocketed them. Out flew the responsible servant, and detained the mail whilst he investigated the matter. In the midst of the hubbub the astute individual, who had finished leisurely his meal, appeared, and saying quietly, “You’ll find them all hid away under the hearthrug”, mounted the coach.(*)

* See Old Coaching Days, by Stanley Harris, p. 150.

The forty-four miles – mostly hilly ones – between Exeter and Plymouth by the shortest road, through Ashburton, were done, and done punctually, day after day, in four and a half hours, under the skilful driving of a cheery little man called Gillard, who was the first coachman to leave off bearing-reins. He was presented for his enlightened humanity and common-sense with a silver-mounted whip by some gentlemen, who understood the value of the change. He had iron nerves, which served him well in getting over the ground at such a pace, especially in the gallop, as I remember at one time, over the five hilly miles between Ivybridge and Brent in twenty-five minutes. It was found later on better for the horses to do longer distances at less speed, and the first change from Devonport was made four miles from Ivybridge; but I have known myself the nine mile stage between there and Brent done in forty-five minutes. In my Oxford days an elderly man, of large stature, called Blight – by no means answering to Queen Mab’s waggoner, a small, grey-coated gnat (act i. scene iv.) – drove the mail from Devonport to Ashburton every day and back, with always a fancy team – not of atomies – out of Devonport; not the “three pyebalds and a roan” of Tennyson’s Walking to the Mail, but four greys, which, I have been told (Major Hare, of Plymstock), in those halcyon days for purchasers of horses, did not average above £25 each. Blight was asked by an old Waterloo officer once, whilst driving at the rate of ten and a quarter miles an hour, and changing horses in three or four minutes, whether he remembered in former days on a North Devon coach stopping at a roadside inn and having a game at all-fours for half an hour. He laughed and said, “Times are changed, sir. I recollect it, and a good many things more of the same sort.” He was an ignorant man beyond his calling, and on one occasion expressed a confident opinion that wherever else railroads were made, they would never be made in Devonshire “Why not, Blight ?” I said. “Because the rivers all run the wrong way.” He lived to drive an omnibus between Devonport and Laira (two miles from Plymouth), where the South Devon Railway halted for a long while, before it was carried to its present terminus – Millbay. I remember hearing Mr. Tennyson, on the only occasion (a white day) I ever met him, relate a somewhat similar anecdote of a still earlier date. He was travelling from Dover to London, and the question of railroads was discussed amongst the passengers, when the coachman, in an oracular tone, said, “There’ll never be no railroads in England; there’ll be riots first.”

People often do stand in their own light, but the people who could make riots were those who have benefited above all by the increased facilities of travelling. Now a sovereign will clear a person from Plymouth to London, with something to spare for refreshment. In the old coaching days three or four sovereigns were spent by an outside passenger even; what with the fare, fees to porters, coachmen, and guards, and meals on the road in the course of the twenty-four or twenty-five hours.

There was one other coach in the days I have been speaking of – the “Bath Mail” – which passed through Newton, leaving Exeter about five in the evening, and reaching Plymouth about 10.30, and vice versa. It was driven for some years by an ex-gentleman commoner of Oxford, who took his fee with much grace of manner, and was a very agreeable companion on the box. Before his time, but within my recollection, about 1830, this mail arrived safely at Plymouth without coachman or guard, the horses having gone over the difficult road – seven miles – from Yealmpton to Plymouth at their “own sweet will”. There were two inside passengers, and one – a Mrs. Cox – outside. She was an immense woman, weighing about twenty stone, and kept a fish stall in Devonport market. It was a cold night, and the coachman and guard, leaving the ostler at the horses’ heads, went into the inn to refresh themselves. In their kindness they sent out a tumbler of something hot to Mrs. Cox; the ostler put his foot on the roller-bolt, to hand it up to her. The horses, hearing his step, thought no doubt that it was their driver getting up, and started. Mrs. Cox had the sense not to scream, but spread out her plump arms and held on to the irons grimly. It was wonderful that the four animals should have rounded the corners, passed vehicles, and got through two or three turnpike gates, and over Laira Bridge, without any mishap. They arrived at the King’s Arms, Plymouth, where they first stopped, rather under their regular time. The coachman and guard followed them on horseback in some twenty minutes afterwards. An old hand – one well-known on the Devonport mail, Charles Ward, now of Paxton Stables, London – records the facts in his Hints on Driving.

A similar occurrence took place not many years since to a summer coach running over Dartmoor between Tavistock and Moreton. The horses started not far from Princetown by themselves, trotted down the hill to Merivale Bridge, got safely over the bridge, and halted on the other side, where they were generally pulled up. Those who know the locality will understand the marvel of the performance.

When the rail came pushing on, first to one point, and then to a further one, travelling of course received a great impetus, and a host of new coaches competed for the increased traffic between Exeter and Plymouth. The loads became very different from my “two and a half” on the “Defiance”, which gave the advantage of a half passenger over the “Subscription”. There were all sorts of new names too: the “Vivid”, “Telegraph” – the latter worked by men who had been on the old celebrated “Telegraph”,(*) the first day coach between Exeter and London – and a coach called the “Nonpareil”. Whilst it lasted there were good pickings for those interested, and great competition. The “Telegraph” and “Nonpareil”, or “Tally Ho!” which was the name latterly, were long in opposition; and, starting at the same hour from Exeter, went an amazing pace over the hills between there and Devonport. The forty-seven miles were several times done in three hours and twenty-eight minutes, and for months together four hours were never exceeded. (See C. Ward’s Hints on Driving p. 6.) He himself drove the “Telegraph”, horsing part at least of the way. The coachman of the “Tally Ho!” was William Harbridge, a first-class man. Ultimately he drove an omnibus in London, and the following curious coincidence about him occurred: One of the partners in Messrs. Tattersall’s firm was talking to Mr. Ward at his stables opposite, and asked him what had become of Harbridge, with whom he had often driven for amusement in the West. “There he is, on that omnibus just passing down by Hyde Park Corner”, was the answer. A few days afterwards the gentleman got on the omnibus, and when he left handed Harbridge a sovereign. “What’s this for?” he said, surprised. The gentleman recalled old times to his memory, and wished him “good-day”. Within a couple of days Harbridge was dead.

(*) For that admirably-appointed coach seventeen hours were allowed to do the journey (165 miles), twenty minutes for breakfast at Bagshot, thirty for dinner at Deptford Inn, on Salisbury Plain; and from Exeter to London, twenty minutes at Ilminster, and thirty at Andover.

However, ultimately the parties settled their differences, and were both at last extinguished, as the rail reached Teignmouth, Totnes, and Laira, and finally the present station at Plymouth. There was much lamentation among the fraternity of coachmen and guards, mostly improvident men; and many dying speeches, dirges, and bad verses were written on the occasion. Even the divine William was parodied, and Othello’s soliloquy put into requisition, to express the feelings of those with whom the times were out of joint.

                                                  “O now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,
Farewell the loaded coach and full way-bill
That makes ambition virtue! O farewell!
Farewell th’ impatient steed and the shrill horn,
The ready running rein, the well-poised bar,
The rattling pole-chain, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious roads,
Farewell! the coachman’s occupation’s gone.”

These notices might be multiplied, but, except as illustrations of the changes in locomotion, they are hardly worth quoting. The following sonnet on Steam, by an under-ostler, in Hood’s Own, is about the best that I am acquainted with:

“I wish I liv’d a Thousen year ago,
Wurking for Sober six and seven milers,
And dubble Stages runnen safe and slo.
The orses cum in Them days to the Bilers.
But now by means of Powers of Steem forces
A-turning Coches into Smoakey Kettels;
The Bilers seem a-Cumming to the orses,
And Helps and Naggs will sune be out of Vittels.
Poor Bruits ! I wunder How we bee to Liv
When sutch a change of orses is our Faits.
No nothink need be sifted in a Siv;
May them Blowd ingins all blow up their Grates,
And theaves of oslers crib the Coles and Giv
Their blackguard Hannimals a Feed of Slaits!”

There was no doubt a momentary triumph among the deposed satellites of the old coaching system over the failure of the atmospheric working; but the railway interests engaged were too large for “their ineffectual feuds and feeble hates”,(*) and it was merely a temporary check, although, no doubt, a considerable loss was incurred by the capital sunk. The railway was opened to Newton on December 30th, 1846, being at first worked by locomotives. On September 8th, 1847, four passenger trains commenced to run each way between Exeter and Newton, which would be the date of the working of passenger trains by atmospheric power. The system was discontinued on September 9th, 1848. The great difficulty was the leathern valve on the top of the atmospheric pipe or cylinder, which was laid between the rails. It could not be kept air-tight from the deterioration of the leather and other causes. Much leakage and loss of economical power was the result. It was found at the end of a twelvemonth’s trial that the valve required to be renewed throughout the whole length of the line, and as it cost over £1000 per mile, the Directors declined to incur the cost. Since then the loss has been largely compensated by the enormous increase of traffic, more, I am told, than fourfold. I remember travelling by the atmospheric from Newton to Exeter. The motion was very smooth and pleasant; no screaming whistle, but a melodious horn was sounded on nearing the stations, reminding one of the coaching days of old; no puffing or labouring up the inclines, but a swift, silent, even progress – unhasting, unresting; no coke dust or sulphurous smell from the engine. I think, however, that there was a difficulty in stopping the train at the platforms, which was inconvenient.

(*) Arnold’s Bolder Dead, p. 194.

The picturesque engine-houses, built after the fashion of Italian campaniles, at intervals of six miles along the line, have either been pulled down or utilized. The lecture and reading-rooms of the admirable Mechanics’ Institution at the Newton Abbot Station are the boiler and engine-rooms of one of the stationary steam-engines, used to form a vacuum in the tube by pumping the air out.

I suppose it must be allowed that the return to locomotive power by steam alone was a retrograde movement. Be that as it may, a new-town (No. 2) has been brought into existence by the increased facilities for travelling, which the railroad, as worked at present, has afforded for its inhabitants and neighbourhood. What our posterity will possess in the way of accelerated speed I am not going to prophesy, for I am not sure. Possibly the power of electricity may double the present speed of travelling, or the day will come when any elderly gentleman may ring his bell after breakfast, and say to his servant, “John, bring round the balloon; I am going to Paris, but I shall be back to dinner.”

“I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.”