May Day 1876 and the Coach from Oxford to London

A new stagecoach commenced running between Oxford and London in 1876, which was the same year that Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a story set in the 1840s about a boy growing up along the Mississippi River. The Oxford and London stagecoach’s first journey was not as exciting as Tom Sawyer’s adventures and it in happened in England rather than in the U.S taking place on May Day, a Monday, on 1 May 1876.

May Day 1876

Example of travel from Oxford to London. Courtesy of google.

The account of the stagecoach’s trip was published in the Sportsman and was republished in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. It is provided here almost verbatim:

“May Day, 1876, will henceforth be celebrated in the annals of the read as the occasion of the revival of the public stage-coach between Oxford and London. In the good old time, when the four-horse coach was almost the only means of public conveyance, Oxford was well served in that respect as any city in the kingdom, but since the Prince of Wales, which used to start from the Vine Inn of that city, ceased to run, nearly twenty-one years ago, the University on the Isis has not possessed a public stage-coach in connection with the metropolis. When, therefore, it became known that the present coach would start on its first journey to London from the Clarendon Hotel on Monday morning there was great joy in Oxford, and when at last the coach was actually drawn up outside the door of the hotel a considerable crowd gathered to witness its departure, and to express good wishes for the success of the undertaking.

May Day 1876

Clarendon Hotel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Since the revival of coaching the longest journeys attempted have been those to Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, but that to Oxford considerably exceeds either of these in distance, being indeed, by far the longest metropolitan stage-coach route at present existing.

Although the journey between Oxford and London is continuous, it is, as matter of fact, divided into two distinct portions; namely, the journey from Oxford to Reading, and that from Reading to the White Horse Cellars in Piccadilly. The first portion of the distance has been undertaken by Mr. Mansel Mansel, a gentleman new to public stage-coaching; the second or metropolitan division, being worked by Mr. Carlton Victor Blyth, the popular whip who had the road between Windsor and Reading last year. These two gentlemen have entered into a partnership by which they agree to keep the coach on the road till the end of July under any circumstances, and in the event of the experiment proving successful to continue to the close of the coaching season. A curious item of this agreement contains a provision that in the event of the Oxford coach arriving in Reading after the advertised time Mr. Mansel Mansel agrees to provide the passengers with a champagne luncheon free of charge, and also to post them on to London at his own expense.

White Horse Cellar. Author’s collection.

The first portion of the route is divided into three stages, and is worked by fifteen horses-four for each stage and three spare horses. This very handsome let has been collected by Mr. John Hetherington, of Edgeware-road. The coach is the same as that needed on the Guildford Road last year.

For the second portion of the journey Mr. Blyth has a magnificent new coach, built by Messers. Holland and Holland. It is in lightness, strength, and general excellence, the very model of what a stage-coach should be. Like that used in the earlier stages, it is painted black, with yellow panels, and under-carriage. The journey between Read and Cellars is divided into five stages and is served by nearly thirty horses, collected for Mr. Blyth by Mr. Williams. The coach leaves Oxford on alternate days ― namely, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and returns from London on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Having thus far put my readers in possession of the material facts for the new venture, I will endeavour shortly to describe the journey.

The weather in Oxfordshire and Berkshire on Sunday last was most unpromising. There was a bitter cold wind, accompanied with torrents of rains, causing considerable depression of spirits among those who determined to undertake this lengthened journey on top of a coach. When, therefore, Monday morning arrived, with a leaden sky and a keen blast, all that could be said was that the weather showed a trifling improvement on that of the previous day. By ten o’clock in the morning, the time appointed for the start, the sky began to brighten the slate-coloured could displayed rifts of blue, and here and there a watery sunbeam struggled to light up the streets in momentary laughter. The eager and good-humoured crowd which stood about the door and within the vestibule of the Clarendon Hotel to watch the matchless team of roans which were to convey us on our journey made us all sorts of promises of fine weather as we mounted into our places; and when, as the clock struck ten, Mr. Mansel gave the word to let go the leaders’ heads, we started with as light hearts as if the sky had been of unclouded blue. The horn range out merrily with old ‘Tantivy;’ the roans, a grand team, costing over 600gs., took the collar with a will, and amid cheers and good wishes we rattled down ‘the High’ past Magdalen College over Magdalen-bridge towards Nuncham. Out of the city the weather began to brighten, the wind dropped, and away we cantered, as jolly a party as ever sat behind four horses.

Oxfordshire and West Berkshire, England, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On we went, leaving homestead and fat fields behind us, through picturesque Nuncham, all be-poplared by the road-side until we came to our first change at Dorchester. Thence we went gaily along over Shillingford-bridge, with its placed river scenery, through Wallingford and Moulsford ― ever as went the great arch of sky above our heads growing bluer and bluer in front of us. Behind the rain clouds came sounding in our wake, but we outsped the rain, and so passed with laughter and light hearts to our second change at Streatley.

From Streatley to Pangbourne we get a splendid variety of landscape views. Wide, open fields, and waving woods; tall banks of greenery and charming bits of broken ground, and through all the silent, speeding Thames winds and glistens at our feet. I am insensibly reminded of as great picture of ‘Rail, Read, and River.’ At our right the railway runs close to the road ― the whole within a distance of fifty feet ― flows the glorious old river. Mr. Mansel handles the ribbons with excellent skill, and tools us gaily through Panbourne, that paradise of fishermen, along the drab road into Reading, reaching the Queen’s Hotel at the very moment of his appointed time.

At Reading, where we arrived at half-past one, we have half an hour for luncheon, I cannot take leave of Mr. Mansel Mansel without expressing my sense of his courtesy and kindness; and I can promise any of my readers who may travel on the coach between Oxford and Reading that they will be under the care of a skilled whip and a most pleasant companion. 

To see the vast crowd of people in the streets of Reading one might have thought that royalty, and not a stage-coach was making its progress through the town. The roads were blocked with swarms of friendly sightseers. They leaned out of windows and stood in doorways; they filled the road and made a ring round the coach; and as we started to leave gave us a good ringing cheer, just as if we were daring explorers bent on some dangerous expedition instead of a coach load of holiday-makers bound on a pleasure trip. The enthusiasm ranged through all classes; the very soldiers made the salute as we passed. I had this picture in my mind’s eye when I first described Mr. Blyth as being popular. Popular he is at Reading, without doubt … because the good people of that town are found of coaching ― as all good people must be ― but also because he is a man of generous heart and liberal hand. Mr. Blyth is a perfect enthusiast in coaching. He has a dial set in the footboard close to his feet, and by this dial he swears. By that I don’t mean that the gentleman is guilty of expletives, but that he keeps his time to the minute; and when, hours after our starting out of Reading, we were passing through Hammersmith, I could not doubt him when told me in the most serious tone that he would rather go without his dinner than be a minute late at Hatchett’s. Generous, boisterous, coaching-loving Mr. Blyth need have no fear; he never will be a minute late ― men of his stamp never are. Led away by the passing recollection of Mr. Blyth’s punctuality, I have stopped in my description of the journey; and I may therefore take this opportunity to mention that Mr. Blyth’s professional coachman is the well-known Edwin Fownes,* who served Col. Kane with the Virginia Water coach last season.

Edward Fownes, Author’s collection.

Soon after leaving Reading we were overtaken by a smart shower, but the weather cleared up almost before we reached Twyford, and we were once more under the blue when we paused for our first change at Hare Hatch, where we harnessed to the coach a capital pair of wheelers and two magnificent bay leaders. Apropos of methodical Mr. Blyth. Like the late Major Withington, he has every horse named, and like that gentleman, he has chosen the initial of his own surname as the initial of every horse in his stables; thus one team consisted of Butcher, Baker, Barbara, and Banker, and so with every one of the twenty horses used in the five stages to town. From Hare Hatch our road lies through Knowl Hill to Maidenhead, where we halt at the Bear, and so drive along over the bridge past Skindle’s, and by the oft-described route through Slough, Colnbrook, to Longford, where we once more change; and then through Hounslow to our final change place, the Coach and Horses at Brentford, arriving in front of the crowd at Hatchett’s three minutes before our time. On the whole we had enjoyed a most successful and pleasant journey, particularly remarkable because, as I have already stated, it is the longest distance travelled by any public stage-coach in the neighbourhood of London since the railways drove the coaches off the road. We had many changes of passengers between, Oxford and London, the only two men who travelled the entire journey, lasting from ten in the morning until half-past six in the evening, being Captain Piper, of Reading, and the present writer, Lorgnette.

The coach performed a trial trip on Saturday last, staring as the advertised time from London, without passengers, and arriving at the Clarendon Hotel, Oxford, at half-past six p.m. The departure and arrival coach have since caused a considerable assemblage of spectators in the streets, who are unanimous in their admiration of the splendid turn-out of both coach and animals.”[1]

References:

  • [1] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, “By Coach from Oxford to London,” May 6, 1876, p. 8.

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1 Comments

  1. Don Nitkin on April 27, 2022 at 5:10 pm

    Lorgnette. French for Spyglass (a monocular device to look at far away places)
    “It is the longest distance travelled by any public stage-coach in the neighbourhood of London since the railways drove the coaches off the road.”
    A testimony of progress.

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