The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

dust jacket

The following post is the twenty-second of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is replete with commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!

london-st albans

As soon as 1742, the North-western Roads were already famous for speed.

…it came to pass in 1754 that a company of Manchester merchants, having considered how Time flew, and to what a degree the success or non-success of commercial speculation coincided with the flight of Time, bethought them how most nearly in their passage to and from London they might fly themselves. To which end they started a new sensation called a “Flying Coach.” And they carefully put forward in a well-weighed prospectus the claims of their invention to the title, stating that there was non nonsensical pretence about the thing this time, but that in point of honest fact they seriously contemplated running their machine at the accelerated speed of five miles an hour; and that however incredible it might appear, the coach would actually, barring accidents, arrive in London four days and a half after leaving Manchester!

Before the days of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving)


Bar-room Scene, William Sidney Mount, 1835

The first casualty to be noticed on the North-western Road occurred… so near to London indeed as Finchley Common (which is about a mile and a half beyond Highgate Archway), though the cause of the accident, the first cause, originated at a place called Redbourn, twenty-one miles down the road. And in this wise: Owing to an obstruction below Dunstable—in point of fact to heavy snow-drifts—four or five coaches started together thence. They all went at a fair pace, not racing, but passing each other at the different stages, till they reached the Green Man at Fincley, where according to immemorial prescription the four coachmen alighted for a drink, or rather for four. And now “a change came o’er the spirit of the scene.” In other words, one “Humpy,” so called either from his driving the Umpire (but I hope not) or from his having a hump on his back, which is more probably, was discovered to have taken too much spirits. For he was very noisy and shouted and hallooed at the top of his voice, though at what it is impossible to conjecture. However, the old coachman who tells the story… suspected that something would happen. So he kept behind, and waited to see what he would see. He first of all saw one of the three coaches by a fence opposite a public-house… he saw a coach lying on its side—the Manchester Umpire in fact—the coach of the too demonstrative Humpy… The forepart of the coach was broken, the luggage was scattered all over the road, also the passengers, who, thus agreeably circumstances, improved the shining hour by bewailing their bruises and cursing the conduct of Humpy. This was rather unchivalrous of them as it turned out, thus to rail against; for Humpy was also on his back perfectly helpless, “like a large black beetle,” moaning and groaning most hideously, and certainly more injured that anybody else… From Humpy himself therefore no explanation of how things had occurred was naturally forthcoming. But there were not wanting men unkind enough to allege that this complete turnover resultted from now more intricate a fact than that of the miserable Humpy having his leaders’ reins wrongly placed between his fingers, which was done when he took them from his box-passenger, after the last, the fatal, brandy and water. The natural but very embarrassing consequence was that when Humpy suddenly discovered that he was too near the fence, he pulled the wrong rein, and there they were—on their backs in the road.

No speed limits either?

'The Opposition Coaches', 1837 (1927).Artist: Charles Cooper Henderson

The Opposition Coaches, 1837, Charles Cooper Henderson (1927)

A more serious accident than this, inasmuch as one of the unfortunate passengers was killed, happened to the Holyhead Mail, a little further down the road, a mile indeed on the London side of St. Albans. This arose from the exciting but highly dangerous pastime of racing. The Holyhead Mail, via Shrewsbury, attempted to pass the Chester Mail by galloping furiously by on the wrong side of the road. The coachman of the Chester Mail resented the indignity, and pulled his leaders across his rival’s—a heap of stones conveniently placed by the road side did the rest of the business, and in a moment converted two spick and span turn-outs, full of passengers more or less alive and alarmed, into a mass of struggling horseflesh, splintered wood and groaning wounded. The inquest on the victim of this rivalry among coachmen was held at the Peahen inn in St. Albans, and a verdict of manslaughter was returned against both artists. Abundant subsequent opportunity was afforded them of meditating on their sins, for they were kept in irons in St. Albans for six months before they were tried at Hertford—in which town they enjoyed a further twelve months’ imprisonment in the county gaol.

Duty wins over heroism (unless the ladies are attractive)

The Louth Mail Accident

The Louth Mail Accident

A snow effect is the next coaching incident to be chronicled in this neighbourhood of St. Albans, richer surely in its agreeably diversified crop of casualties than any other place in England. The North-western coaches… seem to have got the full benefit of the historic snow-storm of 1836. This visitation lasted the best part of a week and has never been equalled in England before or since. The drifts in some hollows were said to be twenty feet deep—which caused some passengers not unnaturally to report that they were “mountains high,” and some coachmen to state that the snow in some places was higher than their heads as they sat on the box. “Never before,” writes a correspondent of the Times of that day (quoted by Captain Malet in his Annals of the Road)—“never before within recollection was the London Mail stopped for a whole night at a few miles from London, and never before have we seen the intercourse between the southern shores of England and the metropolis interrupted for two whole days.”

White Hart Inn, St. Albans

White Hart Inn, St. Albans

…many mails and coaches remained hopelessly stuck, able neither to get up the road nor down it—a state of affairs which must have caused many passengers to use srange words, and the landlords of the Angel, White Hart, and Woolpack to make hay while the snow fell. And some people were not so fortunate as to be stuck fast in a picturesque place where there was something eat, as Burdett, the guard of the Liverpool Mail, was able to testify. For on Tuesday, December 27, of this memorable year, this guard from his vnatage point, beheld a chariot buried in the snow and without horses, safely at anchor at about a mile on the London side of St. Albans. And he had no sooner seen it—and two elderly ladies inside it, who rent the welkin with clamorous cries for help—than he found, by being suddenly precipitated head firstinto twelve feet of snow, that his coach had got into a drift too. Having recovered his perpendicular, and emptied his mouth, a natural curiosity prompted Burdett to cross-examine the ladies on their somewhat forlorn position. They told him that their post-boy and left them for St. Albans to get fresh cattle, and had been gone two hours—no doubt having elected to get brandy for himself instead. Meanwhile, there they were—and in a very deplorable plight surely. But will it be believed that this heart-moving vision of beauty in distress did not move the guard of the Liverpool Mail in the least! No! He proceeded stolidly in the plain path which is duty’s—a fact whih tends to the suspicion that the ladies cannot have been beauties. But whether they were or no, Burdett, after having heard their story, turned a deaf ear to their appeals for help. He just helped his coachman, his passengers, and his four horses on to their feet—(for the horses too had assumed a recumbent position)—and having extricated his mail, by the help of his tools, curses, and other expedients not mentioned in the text, pursued his journey to London, leaving the chariot and the ladies to their fate.

Mail Coach in a Snowstorm c.1835-40 by Charles Cooper Henderson 1803-1877

Mail Coach in a Snowstorm c. 1835-40, Charles Cooper Henderson


 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion

4 thoughts on “The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

  1. Very interesting article, Susana. My heart goes out to the horses of that era that were wounded or killed in coaching accidents. So much of it seems preventable – much like the car accidents of today.


  2. Fascinating stuff, Susana. Poor passengers! Seems things were not much better on the roads than they are now. Wonder if the percentages of accidents were actually much the same, given the number of vehicles on the roads.


  3. Pingback: Assembly Rooms, May 2015

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