Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Four-in-Hand Club


Gentleman-coaching has scarcely been known in England seventy years. The Anglo-Erichthonius, the Hon. Charles Finch, brother to the Earl of Aylesford, used to drive his own coach-and-four, disguised in a livery great-coat. Soon after his début, however, the celebrated "Tommy Onslow," Sir John Lacy, and others, mounted the box in their own characters. Sir John was esteemed a renowned judge of coach-horses and carriages, and a coachman of the old school; but everything connected with the coach-box has undergone such a change, that the Nestors of the art are no longer to be quoted. Among the celebrities may be mentioned the "B. C. D.," or Benson Driving Club, which held its rendezvous at the "Black Dog," Bedfont, as one of the numerous driving associations, whose processions used, some five-and-thirty years ago, to be among the most imposing, as well as peculiar, spectacles in and about the metropolis.

On the stage, the gentlemen drivers, of whom the members of the Four-in-Hand Club were the exclusive élite, were illustrated rather than caricatured in Goldfinch, in Holcroft's comedy The Road to Ruin. Some of them who had not "drags" of their own, "tipped" a weekly allowance to stage coachmen, to allow them to "finger the ribbons," and "tool the team." Of course, they frequently "spilt" the passengers. The closeness with which the professional coachmen were imitated by the "bucks," is shown in the case of wealthy young Ackers, who had one of his front teeth taken out, in order that he might acquire the true coachman-like way of "spitting." There were men of brains, nevertheless, in the Four-in-Hand, who knew how to ridicule such fellow-members as Lord Onslow, whom they thus immortalized in an epigram of that day:—

"What can Tommy Onslow do?

He can drive a coach and two!

Can Tommy Onslow do no more?

He can drive a coach and four."

It is a curious fact, that the fashion of amateur charioteering was first set by the ladies. Dr. Young has strikingly sketched, in his satires, the Delia who was as good a coachman as the man she paid for being so:—

"Graceful as John, she moderates the reins,

And whistles sweet her diuretic strains."

The Four-in-Hand combined gastronomy with equestrianism and charioteering. They always drove out of town to dinner, and the ghost of Scrope Davies will pardon our suggesting that the club of drivers and diners might well have taken for their motto, "Quadrigis, petimus bene vivere!"[31]

There is another version of the epigram on Tom Onslow:—

"Say, what can Tommy Onslow do?

Can drive a curricle and two.

Can Tommy Onslow do no more?

Yes,—drive a curricle and four."

This is the version current, we are told, among Onslow's relations in the neighbourhood of Guildford.

Lord Onslow's celebrity as a whip long preceded the existence of the Four-in-Hand Club (the palmy days of which belong to the times of George the Fourth), and it was not a coach, but a phaeton, that he drove. A correspondent of the Athenæum writes: "I knew him personally, in my own boyhood, in Surrey, in the first years of the present century; and I remember then hearing the epigram now referred to, not as new, but as well known, in the following form:—

'What can little T. O. do?

Drive a phaeton and two.

Can little T. O. do no more?

Yes,—drive a phaeton and four.'

"Tommy Onslow was a little man, full of life and oddities, one of which was a fondness for driving into odd places; and I remember the surprise of a pic-nic party, which he joined in a secluded spot, driving up in his 'phaeton and four' through ways that were hardly supposed passable by anything beyond a flock of sheep. An earlier exploit of his had a less agreeable termination. He was once driving through Thames-street, when the hook of a crane, dangling down in front of one of the warehouses, caught the hood of the phaeton, tilting him out, and the fall broke his collar-bone."

The vehicles of the Club which were formerly used are described as of a hybrid class, quite as elegant as private carriages and lighter than even the mails. They were horsed with the finest animals that money could secure. In general, the whole four in each carriage were admirably matched; grey and chestnut were the favourite colours, but occasionally very black horses, or such as were freely flecked with white, were preferred. The master generally drove the team, often a nobleman of high rank, who commonly copied the dress of a mail coachman. The company usually rode outside, but two footmen in rich liveries were indispensable on the back seat, nor was it at all uncommon to see some splendidly attired female on the box. A rule of the Club was that all members should turn out three times a week; and the start was made at mid-day, from the neighbourhood of Piccadilly, through which they passed to the Windsor-road,—the attendants of each carriage playing on their silver bugles. From twelve to twenty of these handsome vehicles often left London together.

There remain a few handsome drags, superbly horsed. In a note to Nimrod's life-like sketch, "The Road,"[32] it is stated that "only ten years back, there were from thirty-four to forty four-in-hand equipages to be seen constantly about town."

Nimrod has some anecdotical illustrations of the taste for the whip, which has undoubtedly declined; and at one time, perhaps, it occupied more attention among the higher classes of society than we ever wish to see it do again. Yet, taken in moderation, we can perceive no reason to condemn this branch of sport more than others. "If so great a personage as Sophocles could think it fitting to display his science in public, in the trifling game of ball, why may not an English gentleman exercise his skill on a coach-box? If the Athenians, the most polished nation of all antiquity, deemed it an honour to be considered skilful charioteers, why should Englishmen consider it a disgrace? To be serious, our amateur or gentlemen-coachmen have done much good: the road would never have been what it now is, but for the encouragement they gave, by their notice and support, to all persons connected with it. Would the Holyhead road have been what it is, had there been no such persons as the Hon. Thomas Kenyon, Sir Henry Parnell, and Mr. Maddox? Would the Oxford coachmen have set so good an example as they have done to their brethren of 'the bench,' had there been no such men on their road as Sir Henry Peyton, Lord Clonmel, the late Sir Thomas Mostyn; that Nestor of coachmen, Mr. Annesley; and the late Mr. Harrison of Shelswell? Would not the unhappy coachmen of five-and-twenty years back have gone on, wearing out their breeches with the bumping of the old coach-box, and their stomachs with brandy, had not Mr. Warde of Squerries, after many a weary endeavour, persuaded the proprietors to place their boxes upon springs—the plan for accomplishing which was suggested by Mr. Roberts, nephew to then proprietor of the White Horse, Fetter Lane, London, but now of the Royal Hotel, Calais? What would the Devonshire road have been, but for the late Sir Charles Bamfylde, Sir John Rogers, Colonel Prouse, Sir Lawrence Palk, and others? Have the advice and the practice of such experienced men as Mr. Charles Buxton, Mr. Henry Villebois, Mr. Okeover, Sir Bellingham Graham, Mr. John Walker, Lord Sefton, Sir Felix Agar,[33] Mr. Ackers, Mr. Maxse, Hon. Fitzroy Stanhope, Colonel Spicer, Colonel Sibthorpe, cum multis aliis, been thrown away upon persons who have looked up to them as protectors? Certainly not: neither would the improvement in carriages—stage-coaches more especially—have arrived at its present height, but for the attention and suggestions of such persons as we have been speaking of."

A commemoration of long service in the coaching department may be related here. In the autumn of 1835, a handsome compliment was paid to Mr. Charles Holmes, the driver and part proprietor of the Blenheim coach (from Woodstock to London) to celebrate the completion of his twentieth year on that well-appointed coach, a period that had elapsed without a single accident to his coach, his passengers, or himself; and during which time, with the exception of a very short absence from indisposition, he had driven his sixty-five miles every day, making somewhere about twenty-three thousand miles a year. The numerous patrons of the coach entered into a subscription to present him with a piece of plate; and accordingly a cup, bearing the shape of an antique vase, the cover surmounted by a beautifully modelled horse, with a coach and four horses on one side, and a suitable inscription on the other, was presented to Mr. Holmes by that staunch patron of the road, Sir Henry Peyton, Bart., in August, at a dinner at the Thatched House Tavern, St. James's-street, to which between forty and fifty gentlemen sat down. The list of subscribers amounted to upwards of two hundred and fifty, including among others the Duke of Wellington.

[31] Athenæum, No. 1739.

[32] Written, it must be recollected, some thirty years since. Reprinted in Murray's 'Reading for the Rail.'

[33] Perhaps one of the finest specimens of good coachmanship was performed by Sir Felix Agar. He made a bet, which he won, that he would drive his own four-horses-in-hand, up Grosvenor-place, down the passage into Tattersall's Yard, around the pillar which stands in the centre of it, and back again into Grosvenor-place, without either of his horses going at a slower pace than a trot.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. I
London, 1866