Nostalgia: A perilous journey in stages

If Miss Jane Austen had chosen Scarborough rather than Bognor Regis in Dorset for her seaside holiday, she would have had to make a very long, uncomfortable and perilous journey from Hampshire to Yorkshire by road. During her lifetime, there were no passenger trains: the only railed ways that then existed carried coal, timber and other heavy cargoes, not yet human passengers. Scarborough did not welcome its first steam train locomotive until 1845.

Tuesday, 14th March 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 9:45 am
The Coachman at Snainton dates from the 1770s and was at the time of Jane Austen a turnpike inn.
The Coachman at Snainton dates from the 1770s and was at the time of Jane Austen a turnpike inn.

Those privileged visitors who journeyed by road from the south to Scarborough had to be hardy (or foolhardy) as well as rich enough to pay the high fares. The speed of road travel had scarcely improved much in centuries: it was still no faster than the fastest horse(s), even for those who had private carriages. We still measure motor car engines in horsepower.

Even after Charles I had founded the Royal Mail in 1635, letters and packets sent “post haste” still took nearly two and a half days from London to Scarborough. Leaving Westminster at 2am on day one, they arrived at Scarborough’s posthouse on Sandside no earlier than 11am on the third day.

The route remained much the same for mounted horses as for horse-drawn coaches, whether taken privately by the Hobys in 1600, by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, in 1732, or by public transport by William Hutton in 1803. The ancient Roman highways were dangerously decayed by chronic neglect and the increasing weight of wheeled vehicles, but they were still preferred to country lanes which in winter became quagmires. Heading towards Scarborough from the south and passing through Huntingdon, Stamford and Lincoln, coaches might then pass through Doncaster and Tadcaster to York or take the Humber ferry at Barton and reached their destination via Beverley.

Jane Austen lived through the golden age of the stagecoach, then the most common form of public transport for those who could afford it. The term “stage” referred to each stopping place of the journey, where horses were changed or stabled and passengers refreshed themselves or stayed overnight. Major staging posts such as York, Beverley and Malton, profited from the need to provide stables, coach houses and inns for the travel business; and such was the reliability of the stagecoaches that during the 1780s the royal mail was progressively transferred to their care.

The attraction of the public stagecoaches had been much increased by the introduction of turnpikes. For centuries past the maintenance of highways was by law the responsibility of the local community supervised by justices of the peace. Yet though several days a year of unpaid labour, repairing, resurfacing and draining, were required by statutes, they were often ignored.

The “solution” was privatisation. From the mid-18th century, by individual Acts of Parliament, stretches of public roads were licensed to private trusts which were permitted to levy tolls in return for their maintenance. They were called “turnpikes”, the old name for road barriers made from spikes, because each length of road was entered by way of a tollhouse gate.

As the transport of both people and goods multiplied, the tolls on some turnpikes became very profitable. For instance, in 1815 alone, the takings at three gates between Malton and Scarborough, most of them from travelling spawers, came to £1,264.

What later became the A64 from Leeds to Scarborough, then turned off northwards at West Heslerton and passed through Yedingham and Snainton to join the road from Pickering. A turnpike inn, the Coachman at Snainton, dates from the 1770s.

First licensed in 1747, the York-Scarborough turnpike was one of the earliest and best of its kind in Yorkshire, a county already esteemed for the quality of its river crossings. At Malton, Yedingham and Ayton, it crossed the river Derwent three times with new, strong, stone bridges. The alternative route to Scarborough from the south was turnpiked only from Spital house in Staxton and was often flooded and made impassable in winter by the 40-acre mere in Burtondale.

Though stagecoaches were protected against highway robbers by armed guards, the chief threats to their passengers were bad drivers, pot-holed road surfaces and overloading. A magazine of the time noted that “coachmen driving furiously” were subject to a magistrates’ fine of £10. Since the coaches had no brakes, the driver alone had to control his four horses by his strength and skill on the reins. At the top of steep hills such as those on the Wolds, wheels were fitted with chains.

The same magazine recorded that ten passengers were allowed on the outside of a carriage drawn by four horses, one only to sit on the box next to the driver and guard, three at the front of the roof, and six behind them! There was a penalty of £10 for each passenger above that number. Luggage was not to exceed two feet in height on the roof and a passenger who sat on the luggage was liable for a penalty of fifty shillings.

Travelling inside a coach was warmer and drier than on the roof and therefore more expensive, but not necessarily any safer if the vehicle turned over. Of the 21 sketches drawn by James Green illustrating his visit to Scarborough in the summer of 1812, and published the following year in his Poetical Sketches, the first in the series shows a stagecoach turning on its side and disgorging all its passengers into the roadside ditch. This disaster was imaginary, not factual, but given the state of even turnpikes, the extremes of weather in those days, and the unreliability of drivers and their vehicles, something of this kind happened more than once on the road to Scarborough.

The safest and most punctual way to journey by road to Scarborough was by the royal mail coach which left York every morning at seven and arrived there at noon. Inside passengers paid eight shillings (40p) and outsiders five shillings (25p). It carried a maximum of only five inside and three on the roof. During the season however from May to October, there were no fewer than eleven services every day except Sundays, from Leeds, Hull, and Whitby. From Leeds via York there were two rival coaches, one to the Bull hotel, the other to the Blue Bell or Talbot. From Hull, via Bridlington, Filey, Driffield and Beverley, the royal mail also made daily runs during the season to link up with steam packets by sea from London and the Barton ferry across the Humber.