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

dust jacket

The following post is the twenty-fourth of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana 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!

Poor Jack Matthews

…to begin with—speaking of coachmen’s fate—few I should surmise have met a more ignobly ironical one from a coachman’s point of view than did poor Jack Matthews, who drove the Oak and Nettle coaches from Welshpool to Liverpool, which were run in opposition to the Holyhead Mail and were often too fast to be safe. For poor Jack fell no willing victim to his own indiscretion, but was killed—it is with a blush for the departed that I write it—in a railway accident. In a foolish moment he took it into his head to go to Liverpool for a day’s outing, in a foolisher moment, if there be such a word, he got on the railway which was only half finished. He got on to this railway at Wrexham, intending to go as far as Chester. This feat the unfinished railway accomplished him, only however to throw him off a bridge (unfinished too, I suppose) when he got there. Well may his biographer exclaim, “Poor Jack! He would have been safer driving the Nettle Coach, in all probability!” (which “in all probability” gives us a very fair idea of the safety of the Nettle Coach! But this is a digression.) And Jack was as pretty a coachman as ever had four horses in hand. “A good workman in all respects, smart as a new pin.”


Dick Vickers: “fell a victim to agriculture”

Another celebrated coachman on this road met as sad, but more consistent a fate, this was Dick Vickers, who drove the Mail between Shrewsbury and Holyhead. He fell a victim to agriculture. That is to say that though in stature he was so little “that he had to get on to six-pennyworth of coppers to look on to the top of a Stilton cheese” yet the deluded man pined to be a farmer. And he was fond of fishing too, a much more profitable pastime. However, a farmer Vickers became, in spite of his friends’ entreaties, who after a reasonable interval of anxiety found him sus per coll [hung by the neck]. This Vickers, not content with the lack of judgment he displayed while on earth, is said to haunt the scene of his indiscretion still. Though the Mail which he used to drive has long ceased to exist, they do say that at times a rambling is heard—and so on. Mr. Birch Reynardson, to get to something more tangible about Vickers, knew him well, as he seems to have known most of the crack coachmen on the Holyhead Road, through Shrewsbury, and has described them as well as he knew them in his Down the Road. The ill-fated Vickers, he writes, was a good little fellow, always civil, always sober, always most obliging, and a friend of every one along the road. And Mr. Reynardson had some opportunity of studying his model’s characteristics, particularly I should conceive on that one celebrated occasion chronicled, when he sat by him on the box-seat and saw him deal with a team comprised of the engaging attributes of “Three blind ‘uns and a bolter”, or in the coachman’s own words “Four horses, but they’ve only got two eyes among ’em, and it would be quite a well if that horse had not any so far as I know—for he makes shocking bad use of ’em at all times I can tell you.”


Old John Scott: “Hit ’em sly—hit ’em sly!”

A differently organized team was equally successfully coped with by one known to fame as Old John Scott. He drove the Chester and Holyhead Mail, and remarked to Mr. Reynardson, who was using all his art to boil up a trot going up Penmaenmawr (thirty-six miles from Holyhead), “Hit ’em sly—hit ’em sly!” And on being asked the reason for this dark advice alleged that if this particular team heard the whip before they felt it, they would never be got up Penmaenmawr at all. Nor was “hitting ’em sly” with the whip the ingenious Old John Scott’s sole method of dealing on heavy ground with this extremely sticky lot. No. He was accustomed, when the crisis came, and the coach threatened to come to a full stop where there was no proper halting place, to play a sort of rat-tat-tat with both feet on the foot-board—and lo! the sticky ones sprang up to their collars at once, as if the author of all evil was behind them. Much exercised by this extraordinary phenomenon, Mr. Reynardson with a praiseworthy impulse to arrive at the dark truth, remarked, “Well! that’s a curious dodge! What do they think is coming?” Upon which Old John Scott, saying, “Wait a pit. I’ll soon let you see what they think is coming,”—stooped down and produced from the boot a most respectable and persuasive looking “Short Tommy”. This sounds rather like a case for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—did we not have it on the best authority that Old John Scott was a worthy, good little, stout-made fellow, whose B was sounded like a P, and who when he said “Shall” pronounced it like Sall.

Next week: more noteworthy coachmen on this noteworthy road

Down the Road: Reminiscences of a Gentleman Coachman, by C.T.S. Birch Reynardson


 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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