The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

dust jacket

The following post is the fourteenth 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!

Note: Comment to enter the contest for Susana’s September Giveaway, a lovely necklace from London’s National Gallery (see photo at right).

Blackheath: Dark-Colored Heathland

The area of Blackheath is about seven miles from London Bridge. Originally the name of an open space for public meetings of the ancient hundred of Blackheath, this name was also given to the Victorian suburb that was developed later in the 19th century. While this area was certainly used for burial pits for the victims of the Black Death in the 14th century, it was only one of many used for such a purpose in London and was not the source of the name. Blackheath comes from Old English, “dark-colored heathland,” undoubtedly referring to the color of the soil.

Besides a queen devoted to junketings [Queen Caroline, who lived at Montague House], a letter-writing father, bent on directing his son to the deuce [Lord Chesterfield], and a great warrior [Major General James Wolfe, conqueror of Quebec], rebellion has in the good old days…raised its head on this celebrated spot; and it raised its head in the person of Wat Tyler, who was here in 1381 at the head of one hundred thousand other heads (which was wise of him seeing that he had previously cracked a poll-tax collector’s head at Dartford, after drinking too much ale, I suppose, at the celebrated Bull Inn). Another rebel was here, at Blackheath 1497. Lord Audley to wit, who went through the somewhat aimless exercise of bringing troops all the way from Cornwall, pitching their tents, and immediately afterwards suffering defeat at the hands of Henry the Seventh.

Montague House, residence of Queen Caroline

Montague House, residence of Queen Caroline

The Predecessor of Rotten Row?

For this celebrated spot occupied in the annals of England much the same sort of position apparently as Rotten Row occupies in the annals of contemporary fashion. It was the place where kings and ministers met casually on their way to or from London, and babbled of the weather, the price of corn, the latest hanging, the odds on the next bear-fight, the state of the unemployed, or any other kindred subject which might suggest itself to medieval brains, in an open space, where it was not too windy.


Henry the Fifth a Spoilsport?

On his return to London, “The Victor of Agincourt” was greeted here by “the mayor and five hundred citizens of London. The mayor and aldermen had prepared an elaborate reception, with wine and scarlet and gold robes and all the trappings. But Henry “nipped all the worthy mayor’s preparations in the bud,” refusing to accept the praise and thanks that should go to God.

A pious decision, but one which must have been extremely unsatisfactory to town councillors who had launched forth in the way of dress and decorations, and to the thousands of Londoners who had flocked out to Blackheath to see the show.

Henry V: not in a proper mood to be fêted

Henry V: not in a proper mood to be fêted

Henry the Eighth: A Guilty Conscience?

It was here on Blackheath that the already muchly married king publicly received his fourth wife, with all due decency and decorum, having already made up his royal mind to put her away privately. For Henry on this occasion did not play fair; and though he pretended to Anne of Cleves herself that it was at this meeting on Blackheath that he had first seen here—in saying so, he said that which was not; for he had already privately inspected her at the Crown Inn at Rochester. It was on this occasion it may be remembered that the bluff Tudor gave way to a regrettable license of speech at first sight of the goods the gods had provided for him, and said many things unfit for publication; which shocked the onlookers, and made Cromwell put his hands to his head to feel if it was still in his shoulders.

Alas, Cromwell, as the advocate for this marriage, paid for his folly with his head. Anne of Cleves, however,

was content to forego the dubious joys of married life for the possession of the several manors in Kent and Sussex that her grateful late lord bestowed upon her. The number of these manors exceeds belief, and at the same time gracefully gauges Henry’s conception of the magnitude of the matrimonial peril past. Indeed, it seems to me that…whenever he had nothing villainous on hand, and was disinclined for tennis, he gave Anne of Cleves a manor or two simply to while away the time.


The Manor Gatehouse is all that is left of the manor Henry VIII presented to Anne of Cleves as “one of the first manors granted to this little-married but much-dowered lady.”

Charles II’s Triumphant Procession

…it was in 1660 no doubt that the grandest of its historical pageants was to be seen: when the long reaction against Puritanism had suddenly triumphed, and all England went mad on a May morning at the Restoration of her exiled king; when through sixty-one miles as it were of conduits running wine, triumphal arches, gabled streets hung with tapestry—through battalions of citizens in various bands, some arrayed in coats of black velvet with gold chains, some in military suits of cloth of gold or silver—Charles, who had slept at Rochester the night before, rode on to Blackheath between his brothers, the Dukes of York and Gloucester.

Charles II riding into London

Charles II riding into London

Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Woodstock (1826), paints a picture of Charles catching a glimpse of the characters of the novel in the crowd and making a point to dismount, prevent the aged Sir Henry Lee from rising, and ask for his blessing, after which, “his very faithful servant, having seen the desire of his eyes, was gathered to his fathers.”Quite a poignant scene, but could not have happened in real life since Sir Henry had passed away fifty years earlier. Don’t you just love historical fiction?

Charles Dickens: “veritable genius of the road”

His memory burns by the way—as all but the wicked man who has not read Pickwick and David Copperfield will remember—and indeed A Tale of Two Cities. For in the second chapter of that wonderful book the very spirit of the Dover Road in George the Third’s time is caught as if by magic.

A Tale of Two Cities: read Chapter Two here:

Who does not remember these things? Who has not read them again and again? I declare that I think this second chapter of A Tale of Two Cities a picture of the old coaching days more perfect than any that has been painted. Every detail is there in three pages.


George IV Insulted at the Bull Inn

In 1822

…while the great Fourth George was majestically reposing in his royal post-chaise in front of the old archway he experienced an unpleasant surprise. A very ungentlemanly man named Calligan, a working currier who ought to have known better, suddenly projected his head into the carriage window, and observed in a voice of thunder, “You’re a murderer!” an historical allusion to the king’s late treatment of Queen Caroline, which made the royal widower “sit up”. Upon which a bystander named Morris knocked the personal currier down,and the window of the post-chaise was pulled up, and the post-boy told to drive on as quickly as possible.

The Royal Victoria and Bull Inn (formerly the Bull Inn)

The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel (formerly the Bull Inn)


 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