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

dust jacket

The following post is the twenty-third 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!

The Holyhead Road enters Buckinghamshire at Brickhills… forty-five miles from London. …I must not leave these forty-five miles behind me without noting a curious sight which was often to be seen on this stretch from the topics of coaches before the legislature forbade the use of dogs as animals of draught. This sight was an old pauper, born without legs but with a sporting turn of mind. This natural bias led him to contrive a small waggon—very light, as may well be imagined since it had nothing but a board for the body. It was however fitted with springs, lamps, and all necessary appliances, and was drawn by a new kind of team in the form of three fox-hounds harnessed abreast.

In this flying machine of his own contriving, Old Lal, for such was the name of the old pauper born without legs—no name having been given him by his Godfathers and Godmothers at his baptism—Old Lal used to make the most terrific times. His teams were well matched in size and pace, cleverly harnessed, and he dashed by coaches making even their twelve miles an hour like the shot out of a gun, and with a slight cheer of encouragement to his team; but not in any spirit of insolence or defiances, as Captain M.E. Haworth (who in his Roaa Scrapings has preserved this episode of the North-western Road) is careful to tell us, but merely to urge the hounds to their pace.


This pace in the end proved fatal to Old Lal, after having lived for many years on the alms of passengers by coaches between the Peacock at Islington and the Sugar Loaf at Dunstable. For one winter, when according to the ostler of the Sugar Loaf’s version, “the weather was terrible rough, there was snow and hice, and the storm blowed down a-many big trees, and them as stood used to ‘oller and grunt up in the Pine Bottom so that he’d heerd folks say that the fir-trees was a-rubbing themselves against one another—”one such winter as this Old Lal had not been seen for three weeks. This fact did not cause any anxiety to his friend the ostler. But one Sunday afternoon, when he had “four o’clocked his horses” and was putting a sack over his shoulders, preparatory to going down to his cottage, who should come up to him but one Trojan—a fox-hound and a respected member of Old Lal’s team. The fact that Trojan had part of his harness on, set the ostler thinking that he had cut and run, and that perhaps he had left Old Lal in trouble.



This supposition proved correct; but it was never believed that old Trojan was the cause of Old Lal being found dead on the side of the road some distance off his waggon which was found stuck fast between two fir-trees, with one of the hounds still in harness lying dead beside it. No! It was believed by the ostler that the guilt of Old Lal’s death lay at the door of another of the dogs—one Rocket, who turned up at the Sugar Loaf shortly after the arrival of Trojan. For this Rocket, according to the ostler, possessed many traits calculated to give rise to suspicion. In the first place, he was “a younger and more ramblier dog;” in the second place, “he never settled nowhere;” and in the third place, the last that the ostler heard of him was that, “being allers wondering fond of sport,” he had joined a pack of Harriers at Luton. …All three which considerations put together induced in the ostler the very probable belief that Rocket was the instigator of the poor old man’s death; that he (Rocket) must have caught a view of a fox, or at any rate have crossed a line of scent and bolted off the road and up through the wood, and “after he had throwed the old man out, continued the chase till the waggon got hung fast to a tree and tied them all up.” The jury, it may be remarked in conclusion, who sat on Old Lal’s remains, did not rise to this very lucid explanation of the cause of their session; for according to the ostler, they contented themselves with observing “That Old Lal was a pauper wagrant, that he had committed accidental death, and the coroner sentences him to be buried in the parish in which he was last seen alive.” He was buried in a square box accordingly, and the ostler and Trojan the fox-hound were the sole assistants at the rite.

Click here for a vintage advertisement for the Sugarloaf Inn



Another Version of the Tale

Tales From Tring Brewery

In this version, it was Thomas Pickford, Chairman of the Turnpike Trust who built the cart for Old Lal—who had been an ostler until losing his legs in an accident—so that he could earn money running errands and such. However, Pickford didn’t expect that the cart would be used to race coaches for the passengers’ entertainment, and in doing so, prove to be a danger to travelers. According to this source, Old Lal’s death was caused by a fox enticing the hounds to chase after him “over fields and ditches,” before getting the cart caught between the two trees and causing Old Lal’s death.


 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

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