The Perils of Coach Travel
London to Richmond
Richmond, 21st June, 1782.
Yesterday afternoon I had the luxury for the first time of being driven in an English stage. These coaches are, at least in the eyes of a foreigner, quite elegant, lined in the inside; and with two seats large enough to accommodate six persons; but it must be owned, when the carriage is full, the company are rather crowded.
At the White Hart from whence the coach sets out, there was, at first only an elderly lady who got in; but as we drove along, it was soon filled, and mostly by ladies, there being only one more gentleman and myself. The conversation of the ladies among themselves, who appeared to be a little acquainted with each other, seemed to me to be but very insipid and tiresome. All I could do was, I drew out my book of the roads, and marked the way we were going.
Before you well know that you are out of London you are already in Kensington and Hammersmith; because there are all the way houses on both sides, after you are out of the city; just as you may remember the case is with us when you drive from Berlin to Schoneberg; although in point of prospect, houses and streets, the difference, no doubt, is prodigious.
It was a fine day, and there were various delightful prospects on both sides, on which the eye would willingly have dwelt longer, had not our coach rolled on past them, so provokingly quick. It appeared somewhat singular to me, when at a few miles from London, I saw at a distance a beautiful white house; and perceived on the high road, on which we were driving, a direction post, on which were written these words: "that great white house at a distance is a boarding-school!"
The man who was with us in the coach pointed out to us the country seats of the lords and great people by which we passed; and entertained us with all kind of stories of robberies which had been committed on travellers, hereabouts; so that the ladies at last began to be rather afraid; on which he began to stand up for the superior honour of the English robbers, when compared with the French: the former he said robbed only, the latter both robbed and murdered.
[ a description of British criminals given here has been moved to its own section on Crime. ]
But to return to our stage, I must observe, that they have here a curious way of riding, not in, but upon a stage-coach. Persons to whom it is not convenient to pay a full price, instead of the inside, sit on the top of the coach, without any seats or even a rail. By what means passengers thus fasten themselves securely on the roof of these vehicles, I know not; but you constantly see numbers seated there, apparently at their ease, and in perfect safety.
This they call riding on the outside; for which they pay only half as much as those pay who are within: we had at present six of these passengers over our heads, who, when we alighted, frequently made such a noise and bustle, as sometimes almost frightened us. He who can properly balance himself, rides not incommodiously on the outside; and in summer time, in fine weather, on account of the prospects, it certainly is more pleasant than it is within: excepting that the company is generally low, and the dust is likewise more troublesome than in the inside, where, at any rate, you may draw up the windows according to your pleasure.
In Kensington, where we stopped, a Jew applied for a place along with us; but as there was no seat vacant in the inside, he would not ride on the outside, which seemed not quite to please my travelling companions. They could not help thinking it somewhat preposterous that a Jew should be ashamed to ride on the outside, or on any side, and in any way; since as they added, he was nothing more than a Jew. This antipathy and prejudice against the Jews, I have noticed to be far more common here, than it is even with us, who certainly are not partial to them.
Of the beautiful country seats and villas which we now passed, I could only through the windows of our coach gain a partial and indistinct prospect, which led me to wish, as I soon most earnestly did, to be released from this movable prison. Towards evening we arrived at Richmond. In London, before I set out, I had paid one shilling; another was now demanded, so that upon the whole, from London to Richmond, the passage in the stage costs just two shillings.
Leicester to Northampton
I went up a long street before I got to the house from which the post-coaches set out, and which is also an inn. I here learnt that the stage was to set out that evening for London, but that the inside was already full; some places were, however, still left on the outside.
Being obliged to bestir myself to get back to London, as the time drew near when the Hamburg captain, with whom I intend to return, had fixed his departure, I determined to take a place as far as Northampton on the outside.
But this ride from Leicester to Northampton I shall remember as long as I live.
The coach drove from the yard through a part of the house. The inside passengers got in in the yard, but we on the outside were obliged to clamber up in the public street, because we should have had no room for our heads to pass under the gateway.
My companions on the top of the coach were a farmer, a young man very decently dressed, and a blackamoor.
The getting up alone was at the risk of one's life, and when I was up I was obliged to sit just at the corner of the coach, with nothing to hold by but a sort of little handle fastened on the side. I sat nearest the wheel, and the moment that we set off I fancied that I saw certain death await me. All I could do was to take still safer hold of the handle, and to be more and more careful to preserve my balance.
The machine now rolled along with prodigious rapidity, over the stones through the town, and every moment we seemed to fly into the air, so that it was almost a miracle that we still stuck to the coach and did not fall. We seemed to be thus on the wing, and to fly, as often as we passed through a village, or went down a hill.
At last the being continually in fear of my life became insupportable, and as we were going up a hill, and consequently proceeding rather slower than usual, I crept from the top of the coach and got snug into the basket.
"O, sir, sir, you will be shaken to death!" said the black, but I flattered myself he exaggerated the unpleasantness of my post.
As long as we went up hill it was easy and pleasant. And, having had little or no sleep the night before, I was almost asleep among the trunks and the packages; but how was the case altered when we came to go down hill! then all the trunks and parcels began, as it were, to dance around me, and everything in the basket seemed to be alive, and I every moment received from them such violent blows that I thought my last hour was come. I now found that what the black had told me was no exaggeration, but all my complaints were useless. I was obliged to suffer this torture nearly an hour, till we came to another hill again, when quite shaken to pieces and sadly bruised, I again crept to the top of the coach, and took possession of my former seat. "Ah, did not I tell you that you would be shaken to death?" said the black, as I was getting up, but I made him no reply. Indeed, I was ashamed; and I now write this as a warning to all strangers to stage-coaches who may happen to take it into their heads, without being used to it, to take a place on the outside of an English post-coach, and still more, a place in the basket.
About midnight we arrived at Harborough, where I could only rest myself a moment, before we were again called to set off, full drive, through a number of villages, so that a few hours before daybreak we had reached Northampton, which is, however, thirty-three miles from Leicester.
From Harborough to Leicester I had a most dreadful journey, it rained incessantly; and as before we had been covered with dust, we now were soaked with rain. My neighbour, the young man who sat next me in the middle, that my inconveniences might be complete, every now and then fell asleep; and as, when asleep, he perpetually bolted and rolled against me, with the whole weight of his body, more than once he was very near pushing me entirely off my seat.
We at last reached Northampton, where I immediately went to bed, and have slept almost till noon. To-morrow morning I intend to continue my journey to London in some other stage-coach.
Northampton to London
London, 15th July, 1782.
The journey from Northampton to London I can again hardly call a journey, but rather a perpetual motion, or removal from one place to another, in a close box; during your conveyance you may, perhaps, if you are in luck, converse with two or three people shut up along with you.
But I was not so fortunate, for my three travelling companions were all farmers, who slept so soundly that even the hearty knocks of the head with which they often saluted each other, did not awake them.
Their faces, bloated and discoloured by their copious use of ale and brandy, looked, as they lay before me, like so many lumps of dead flesh. When now and then they woke, sheep, in which they all dealt, was the first and last topic of their conversation. One of the three, however, differed not a little from the other two; his face was sallow and thin, his eyes quite sunk and hollow, his long, lank fingers hung quite loose, and as if detached from his hands. He was, in short, the picture of avarice and misanthropy. The former he certainly was; for at every stage he refused to give the coachman the accustomed perquisite, which every body else paid; and every farthing he was forced to part with, forced a "G-d d--n" from his heart. As he sat in the coach, he seemed anxious to shun the light; and so shut up every window that he could come at, except when now and then I opened them to take a slight view of the charms of the country through which we seemed to be flying, rather than driving.
Our road lay through Newport Pagnell, Dunstable, St. Albans, Barnet, to Islington, or rather to London itself. But these names are all I know of the different places.
At Dunstable, if I do not mistake, we breakfasted; and here, as is usual, everything was paid for in common by all the passengers; as I did not know this, I ordered coffee separately; however, when it came, the three farmers also drank of it, and gave me some of their tea.
They asked me what part of the world I came from; whereas we in Germany generally inquired what countryman a person is.
When we had breakfasted, and were again seated in the coach, all the farmers, the lean one excepted, seemed quite alive again, and now began a conversation on religion and on politics.
One of them brought the history of Samson on the carpet, which the clergyman of his parish, he said, had lately explained, I dare say very satisfactorily; though this honest farmer still had a great many doubts about the great gate which Samson carried away, and about the foxes with the firebrands between their tails. In other respects, however, the man seemed not to be either uninformed or sceptical.
They now proceeded to relate to each other various stories, chiefly out of the Bible; not merely as important facts, but as interesting narratives, which they would have told and listened to with equal satisfaction had they met them anywhere else. One of them had only heard these stories from his minister in the church, not being able to read them himself.
The one that sat next to him now began to talk about the Jews of the Old Testament, and assured us that the present race were all descended from those old ones. "Ay, and they are all damned to all eternity!" said his companion, as coolly and as confidently as if at that moment he had seen them burning in the bottomless pit.
We now frequently took up fresh passengers, who only rode a short distance with us, and then got out again. Among others was a woman from London, whose business was the making of brandy. She entertained us with a very circumstantial narrative of all the shocking scenes during the late riot in that city. What particularly struck me was her saying that she saw a man, opposite to her house, who was so furious, that he stood on the wall of a house that was already half burnt down, and there, like a demon, with his own hands pulled down and tossed about the bricks which the fire had spared, till at length he was shot, and fell back among the flames.
At length we arrived at London without any accident, in a hard rain, about one o'clock. I had been obliged to pay sixteen shillings beforehand at Northampton, for the sixty miles to London. This the coachman seemed not to know for certain, and therefore asked me more earnestly if I was sure I had paid: I assured him I had, and he took my word.
I looked like a crazy creature when I arrived in London; notwithstanding which, Mr. Pointer, with whom I left my trunk, received me in the most friendly manner, and desired me during dinner to relate to him my adventures.