Four Horse Club of the Regency Era

In the early 1800s, amateurs began driving coaches for amusement. The idea for this “amateur charioteering was first set by the ladies,”[1] as some ladies were as good at driving as their coachmen. However, the coaching clubs that formed were strictly for men with one of the first clubs being the Bensington (pronounced Benson) Driving Club, better known as the BDC. It limited membership to 25 individuals, and when that number was reached, “Mr. Charles Buxton, the inventor the Buxton bit, together with one or two of his friends, … found[ed] a second society, called the Four Horse Club.”[2] 

Four Horse Club: Drags of the Four-in-Hand Club passing Five Bells Tavern, New Cross, with Mr Holroyd, Lord Lonsdale and the Duke of Sutherland on the box of the drag in the foreground. Public Domain

Drags of the Four-in-Hand Club passing Five Bells Tavern, New Cross, with Mr Holroyd, Lord Lonsdale and the Duke of Sutherland on the box of the drag in the foreground. Public domain.

The Four Horse Club, erroneously known as the Four-in-Hand Club, the Whip Club (which, according to one source, was another club in existence at the same time), or the Barouche Club, was founded in 1808. It “combined gastronomy with equestrianism and charioteering.”[3] The club originated soon after it became fashionable to imitate the coachmen, not only in skill but also in dress and mannerisms. One person who superbly imitated the professional coachmen was the “wealthy young Ackers, who had one of his front teeth taken out, in order that he might acquire the true coachman-like way of ‘spitting.'”[4]

A Coachman, Public Domain

A coachman. Public domain.

Whether or not these amateur coachmen drove as well as real London coachman is unclear. However, soon after the formation of the Four Horse Club, one person noted:

“A charge of furious driving was formulated against some of the [younger] members: ‘an ungovernable phrensy,’ it was stated took possession ‘of these youths, who fancied, no doubt, that they were in the act of directing Roman chariots in the field of Mars, by their declared hostility to everything that came in their way.'”[5]

The young members involved in the “ungovernable phrensy” were forced to resign and quickly began talking about creating their own club, which they planned to name the Defiance. Preliminaries for the club went so far as “declaring that the key bugle should be substituted for the straight horn, that the coats should be of Yorkshire drab and the waistcoats of ‘white silk shag.'”[6] However, arrangements for it fell through and the club never existed.

Four Horse Club: Four-in-Hand Stallion Team, Public Domain

Four-in-Hand Stallion Team. Public domain.

Besides driving appropriately, the Four Horse Club also began to enforce other rules related to coaches and teams. The Four Horse Club vehicles were described as “a hybrid class, ‘quite as elegant as private carriages, and lighter than even the mails.'”[6] Rules dictated that these hybrids, which were similar to a barouche, “should be yellow bodied, with ‘dickies’, the horses bay, with rosettes at their heads, and the harness silver-mounted.”[7] The horses used by club members were described as “the finest money could procure; and in general, the whole four in each carriage were admirably matched.”[8] However, the stipulation to have teams certain colors seems to have been lax as noted:

“Grey and chestnut were the favourite colours, but occasionally very black horses … were preferred.”[9]

Typical Coachman Dress Top Hat and Ankle-length Overcoat with  Shoulder Knot and Polished Buttons, Author's Collection

Typical coachman dress top hat and ankle-length overcoat with shoulder knot and polished buttons. Author’s collection.

Club rules dictated the appearance and dress of the Four Horse Club members. The master who drove the team was usually a nobleman, and he “copied the dress of a mail-coachman.”[10] The prescribed outfits worn by club members were different and described in detail:

“[They] consisted of a drab coat reaching to the ankles, with three tiers of pockets, and mother-o’-pearl buttons as large as five-shilling pieces; the waistcoat was blue, with yellow stripes an inch wide; breeches of plush, with strings and rosettes to each knee; and it was de rigueur that the hat should be 3 1/2 inches deep in the crown.”[11]

Those accompany the drab coated coachman often rode outside the coach and consisted of two footmen dressed “in rich liveries … indispensable on the back seat … [with sometimes a] splendidly-attired female on the box.”[12]

The Book of the Horse noted that to ensure safety and a fine drive, maxims were introduced as it was thought to be advantageous for the young coachmen to follow them. These rules were the following:

  1. Look over horses, harness, and coach, before starting.
  2. Make the team stand while you take your seat deliberately.
  3. Start slowly, with the leaders out of the bars but the traces slack.
  4. With an eye to your leaders, look well ahead.
  5. Don’t shave close what you pass; take plenty of room round a corner.
  6. Go slowly over the crow of all hills, great or small.
  7. Look to the condition of each horse when you halt after driving a distance.

The same year that Madame Tussaud dropped Curtius’ name from her exhibition and began advertising her wax exhibition as hers was the same year that the Four Horse Club held their first meeting. It happened in April 1808 and thereafter meetings held at Mr. Buxton’s house in Cavendish Square on the first and third Thursdays, with dinners alternatively being eaten at the Windmill or the Castle in Salt Hill. (Eventually, however, a discussion ensued as to whether the Windmill or Castle was better for dining. After several meals, the Windmill won out.) The procession to Salt Hill by the Four Horse Club coaches was always the same: Between twelve and twenty coaches left together, lined up in a single file and maintaining a rhythmic trot, they traveled the 24 miles it took to reach Salt Hill. The following routine was also followed:

“A rule of the Club was that all members should turn out three times a week; and the start was made at mid-day, from the neighborhood of Piccadilly, through which they passed to the Windsor-road — the attendants of each carriage playing on their silver bugles.”[13]

Four Horse Club: Four-in-Hand Engraving from 1810, Public Domain

Four-in-Hand engraving from 1810. Public domain.

Although some people complained about the fast driving or congested roadways when the club traveled as a group, there were advantages to these early coaching clubs. They encouraged improvements “in the roads, the harness, the coachmen, and also the formation of a school of coachmen amongst the aristocracy and gentry.”[14] Moreover, despite not being a member of BDC or the Four Horse Club, even the Prince of Wales patronized the new fashion: It was reported that he drove a barouche that consisted of six horses, four of them in hand and that he was often seen wearing “a green jacket, a white hat, tight nankeen pantaloons and shoes … distinguished by his high-bred manner and handsome person.”[15]

Four Horse Club: Four-in-Hand, Public Domain

Four-in-Hand. Public domain.

By 1820, the Four Horse Club was disbanded, although it revived for a short period a few years later. BDC’s membership also began to dwindle until it disbanded in 1854, by which time the “four-horse drags … could be numbered on the finger of one hand.”[15] Attempts to revive the coaching clubs where lame at best. One source maintained that most “members forgot their whips on the second season’s meet at that once noted house of the call for the fast ‘men about town.'”[16] In 1856, another “Four-in-Hand” Driving Club was founded and popularity for driving four horses revived with the Coaching Club established in 1872.

Four Horse Club: Four-in-Hand Club in Hyde Park, Public Domain

Four-in-Hand Club in Hyde Park. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Timbs, John, Club Life of London, 1872, p. 247.
  • [2] Beaufort, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset, Driving, by the Duke of Beaufort, with Contributions by Other Authorities, 1889, p. 273.
  • [3] Timbs, John, p. 247.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Beaufort, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset, p. 276.
  • [6] Wheeler, William Adolphus Wheeler, Familiar Allusions, 1894, 188.
  • [7] Beaufort, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset, p. 274. 
  • [8] Thornbury, George Walter, Old and New London, Vol. IV, 1891, p. 400.
  • [9] Timbs, John, p. 248.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Beaufort, Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset, p. 274. 
  • [12] Timbs, John, p. 249. 
  • [13] ibid.
  • [14] Sidney, Samuel, The Book of the Horse, 1893, p. 377.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.

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