The coaching industry - for industry it was - became hugely important to Hungerford. By the end of the 17th century, Hungerford had already become an important small market town. Over the next 150 years, however, its prosperity increased even more, as a direct result of its good fortune in lying on one of the most important routes in the country at the time - the London to Bath road. Coaching became a big industry, and Hungerford became a 'coaching town'.
- A coach approaching Hungerford along the Bath Road in c1995
- A Welcome Rest
- Memorial stone to James Dean in St. Lawrence's graveyard
- Coach Timetable for departures from the Saracen's Head Inn, Skinner Street, London (undated, c1835-40). Includes Marlborough, Swindon, and Paris!
The King's Street:
In mediaeval times most tracks served merely to link villages to their local market towns. Near Hungerford, however, there was a more important road from a very early date; a survey of Savernake Forest dated 1228 mentions 'the King's Street, leading from the house of the lepers at Hungerford towards Marlborough'. This Kings Way corresponds roughly with the modern A4 through the forest.
Pons de Hungreford: By 1275 there was a bridge over the Kennet the 'pons de Hungreford' was presumably for the benefit of travellers on the Kings Way. At this early time the road to Newbury probably ran nearer to the river than the present road, linking the hamlets of Denford, Avington, Wawcott and Benham, whilst the 'old and great market road from Hungerford to Newbury' ran on the south bank of the Kennet through Kintbury. See also: Maps and Charts.
The Elizabethan period:
It was during the Elizabethan period that road travel began to be used more widely, for private as opposed to military purposes. The Queen herself visited most of her realm by coach, and Queen Elizabeth herself may have passed through the town more than once.
In 1592 she may well have been visiting her Attorney-General Sir John Popham at Littlecote, when her coachman, Mr Slie, died at "The Bear", as recorded in the Parish Registers.
Towards the end of the Elizabethan era, routes were established to cope with the political situation in Spain & Ireland. Thus ports like Bristol and Milford Haven became vital and road traffic increased.
The 17th century:
By the late 1600s traffic was increasing, and with it there developed a need for good quality maps. Unlike the motorways of today, finding ones way in the seventeenth century was not easy and many tales abound of lost travellers on the roads.
Early maps, such as those by Speake in the 1350s showed individual villages and towns in their relative positions, but without showing the roads between them.
Under Charles I Thomas Witherings set up the six "Great Roads" in 1635. The Great West Road was one of these. Gardiner's Survey of 1677 gives the towns on this route. Ogilby mapped the route in 1695, and he produced a large number of good quality road maps at this time.
To say the road 'ran to Bristol' is an oversimplification; differing routes were used during the various seasons. In dry weather a low road was suitable but if rainy a track over higher ground would be selected. Much reliance was placed on the drivers local knowledge. The journey from London to Bristol could take 2-3 days, using cart-horses to pull wagons or 'flying machines'. These machines were built in a variety of shapes, covered with black leather and the motion was described as "as a ship rocking and beating against a heavy sea, straining all her timbers..".
Inside, the machine was described as "crammed full of passengers, including fat men, sick children, a parrot, a bag of red herrings, a double barrelled shot gun ( afraid loaded), and a snarling lap dog. When awakened from shallow slumbers had cramp in one leg and the other in a ladies bandbox." Outside the machine the passengers fared no better: "my eye was cut by the lash of the clumsy coachman's whip. My hat was blown off into a pond. My companions were two apprehended murderers, a sheep stealer in irons and a drunk asleep behind us. " Happy days !!
The quality of the roads was terrible, too - rutted and dusty in summer, a mud-bath in winter. Even in 1668 Samuel Pepys lost his way on a journey from Newbury to Reading, and there was a great need for good quality maps.
John Ogilby made a vast number of road maps in the 1670's, and his edition of the London to Bath road in 1675 shows two alternative routes near Hungerford. The first left the route taken by the present-day A4 just west of the Kintbury turning, and followed the road along Radley Bottom, Upper Denford, Gipsy Lane, and. Leverton to Chilton Foliat, Ramsbury and Marlborough. The second route continued through Charnham Street to Froxfield, through Savernake Forest to Marlborough. Follow this link for much more about local Turnpikes and Turnpike Trusts.
Hungerford's gate and rails:
During the early 1700's there was an ever increasing need for road improvement, and various obstacles hindered one's passage locally. In Hungerford a gate and rails were erected in 1733 at the southern limit of the town, presumably in an attempt to keep stray animals from roaming the streets. It is unclear how long this gate stood, although it is clearly marked on the map dating from about 1750, and may have remained in use until the early 1800's.
New entrance to the town:
By 1740 road traffic was increasing further, and there were complaints of poor access to the town via the ford through the River Dun. This ford requires a little explanation. The island on which the War Memorial and Bridge Street now stand had been the site of the old Hospital Priory of St John. This ancient priory was first mentioned in 1232, and was eventually to be dissolved by Henry VIII, although buildings remained on 'the island' until the 1740's.
The main access to the town was along a route running diagonally from Charnham Street in front of Riverside to the John of Gaunt Inn, crossing the River Dun by means of a ford through the southern arm of the river. In 1740 a note in the accounts mentions '£27. 3s. 3d for building a cart bridge next to Charnham Street', and at the same time land was bought from the Bear Inn so that the new Bridge Street might be built in a more direct route across the Priory island, in its present position.
Bath Road Turnpike:
Bath, the famous Roman spa town of Aquae Sulis, was responsible for many of the improvements to the Great West Road. Although visited by Queen Elizabeth I as early as 1574, the town did not really become fashionable until Georgian times. Turnpike Acts of 1707-56, although unpopular with most people, did encourage the Trustees to repair the roads and lay a permanent route, which became known as the Great Road to Bath, and became the quickest way to reach Bristol.
In 1744 an Act for repairing the turnpike road from Newbury to Marlborough was passed, and in 1746 the road through Froxfield and Savernake to Marlborough was upgraded to a turnpike.
John Rocque's map of Berkshire 1761 gives considerable detail of the Hungerford area. The Bath Road in Eddington no longer ran through Oxford Street and the village itself, but the new road nearer the river was in use in the present position by Norman's Garage. However, the Salisbury Road was still a mere track, the main route to the south clearly being along the present-day Priory Place, and Priory Road to Sanham Green, and thence along the 'back road' to join what is now the Salisbury Road just south of Hornhill. It was probably at about this time the more direct route up the hill towards Beacon Farm became increasingly used.
Coaching Period begins:
In 1752 an enterprising Newbury firm, John Clark & Co., started a Flying Coach service to Bath. It proposed travelling at 4-5 mph, and undertook to perform the whole journey in 12 hours. In the same year, the London to Bath Post Coach took two days for its journey, the average coach weighing over a ton. By 1782 things were only a little better - the London to Bath trip now took 38 hours, and a letter posted on Monday would not be delivered until late on Wednesday, and the reply could not be received until Saturday at the earliest.
Besides the many other hazards of travelling in the late eighteenth century, daylight robberies had become so frequent that the Post Office was driven to the humiliating resort of officially advising the public to cut bank notes in half before sending them in the post, and awaiting confirmation of their safe arrival before dispatching the second half!
The flying coaches were the forerunners of the new mail coaches. The first of these ran in 1784, and perhaps this date more than any other signifies the start of the great 'coaching era'. Hungerford was beginning to bustle now as trade increased in leaps and bounds. Many of the High Street properties were 'modernised' by the addition of new facades, and a new Town Hall was built in 1786 in the Market Place, just north of the older 1607 building. A further boost to trade came with the opening of the Western Canal to Hungerford in 1798. For this for more on the canal.
The Hey-day of Coaching: The hey-day of coaching was to last nearly 60 years, and there is no doubt that these 60 years were some of Hungerford's best. Perhaps the greatest years of all were 1830-40, and dictionaries and almanacs abound with information on coaches and coaching inns.
In 1820, 50 coaches each day passed along the Bath Road.
A directory records that
"The road to Bath is through Charnham Street, which is in Wiltshire; this is in the parish of Hungerford, but not in the town. In Charnham Street is the well-accustomed inn known by the sign of the Black Bear (where gentlemen of the neighbourhood have a subscription monthly club and assembly); and two small ones, the White Hart and the Red Lion.
The mail coaches go through Charnham Street, it being on the high road to Bath and Bristol and Exeter. They leave their bags at Hungerford from London, Maidenhead, Reading and Newbury about half past four in the morning and take the Calne, Marlborough, Chippenham Bath and Bristol bags. On the return....
The postage for London from Hungerford is 4d, to Newbury 2d, Reading 3d.
The Bath and Bristol mail coaches change horses at Hungerford, as do two or three coaches, there being 8 to 10 daily through the town except Saturday.
The fare from Hungerford to London is 18s, to Bath and Bristol 13s, but no place can be taken unless the whole fare is paid.
There are many wagons passing through the town every day of the week.
- 90 traders
- 9 innholders and victuallers
- John Toe carrier."
James Dean, Bath Coachman:
There is a memorial in the churchyard of St Lawrence Church (see Photo Gallery), dedicated to the memory of James Dean. It is enscribed:
Sacred To the Memory of JAMES DEAN late Bath Coachman
Who departed this Life
June 10th 1827
Aged 36 Years.
Passengers of every age
I safely drove from stage to stage
Till death came by in a hearse unseen
And stop'd the course of my machine.
It is said that James Dean was driving his coach along Charnham Street when a local undertaker was leaving his premises with a hearse carrying a coffin. There was a major collision, and the coffin slipped off the hearse, and crashed into James Dean's coach - killing him.
Coaching in Hungerford in 1836:
The following detailed information relates to the year 1836:-
Of the many large and well-known companies, there were five who operated the Bath Road through Hungerford. There was enormous competition between them, each company priding itself, and advertising its claim, in offering greater comfort, greater punctuality, or above all, greater speed. The race was on- a journey from London to Bath was 108 miles, and to Bristol was 123 miles, and this was a very considerable test of anyone's stamina! At best it took about 13 hours, and at night nearer 18 hours.
The coaches were all named, and these names conjure up a little of the sense of adventure that accompanied travelling in those days: The Emerald, The Age, and The Monarch. Some took their names from their destination
The White Hart, and The York House, whilst another was called the Regulator, presumably promising to run especially punctually! More were utilitarian in their title, maybe resting on their companies good name for advertisement - The General Stage Company's Night (or Day) Coach, or Cooper's Company Night (or Day) Coach.
All the ten mentioned above travelled the Bath Road every day through Hungerford, usually starting at 6-7 a.m. and arriving at their destination by the early evening, whilst the night coaches left at 3.30-5 p.m. and arrived the next morning. A local 'Coach and Carriers Guide' states that there were 200 coaches per week on the Bath Road.
The most spectacular of all, however, were the Royal Mail Coaches, which were operated on this route by W. Chaplin & Co. They managed the journey to Bath in 11½ hours, and to Bristol in 12¼ hours. These were overnight trips, taking mail from one town in the evening for delivery in the other next morning, and their speed is quite remarkable when compared with the usual night trip of 18 hours.
There were, of course, many other services besides these long distance ones. London to Marlborough, Reading to Bath, several on the Oxford to Salisbury route, all ran through Hungerford, in addition to many local ones, such as Palmer's single return journey from Hungerford to Newbury on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday each week.
Hungerford is just about halfway between London and Bath; indeed, Halfway hamlet is said to have derived its name thereby. Both Speenhamland and Marlborough were certainly more important as stopping places, but changes of horses were often made every 8-10 miles, and Hungerford must have been quite busy enough, as is confirmed by the large number of inns along Charnham Street and High Street.
In 1836, there were 10 coach services running daily on the Bath Road through Hungerford. The departure and arrival times are given in a separate paper. The main companies operating through Hungerford included:
- William James Chaplin (106 coaches)
- Benjamin Horne (92 coaches)
- Edward Sherman (77 coaches)
- Robert Gray (29 coaches)
- Sarah Ann Mountain (21 coaches)
In all 342 coaches left and arrived in London every day! 30 operated from the Bull and Mouth, St Martins-le-Grand, and 29 from the Belle Sauvage on Ludgate Hill.
Of the coaches on the Bath Road, they would have been in Hungerford at approximately the following times:
- 11.15am going east
- 11.45am going east
- 1.00pm going east
- 1.30pm going east
- 1.45 going west
- 2.00 going west
- 2.15pm going east
- 2.45pm going west
- 2.45pm going west
- 7.30pm going east
- 9.00pm going east
- 10.25pm going west
- 10.30pm going east
- 11.15 going west
- 11.45pm going east
- 11.47pm going east
- 00.00 going east
- 00.10am going east
- 00.15 going west
- 00.45am going west
- 02.15am going west
- 02.31am going west
- 02.43am going west
These data show just how busy Hungerford was at certain times of day - especially 11.15am - 2.45pm and also between 10.25pm and 02.43am. Charnham Street would have been a noisy and bustling place!
Hungerford is about 7¾ hours from London, 4¾ from Bath, and 6½ from Bristol. The average speed including stops was 8½ mph.
The two Royal Mail coaches (operated at the time by W Chaplin & Co) left the "Swan with Two Necks" in London at 7.30pm, and passed through Hungerford at about 2.30am and 2.40am – arriving at Bath at 7.00am and Bristol at 7.45am. They left Bristol at 7.00pm, passing through Hungerford at 00.10am, and left Bath at 7.30pm passing through Hungerford at 11.47pm.
W Lane & Co operated one return journey Bath to Reading on Mondays to Saturdays.
R Palmer operated a return service between Newbury and Hungerford on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Pigots Directory of 1840 names 12 coaches making 35 runs weekly from the following eight inns: The Bear, The Three Swans, The Red Lion, The Stag's Head, The Lamb, The Sun, and The Craven Arms. Old Moore's Almanac of 1836 also mentions The Stag (not Stag's Head), The Swan, The Green Dragon, The White Bear, The Three Horseshoes, and The Queen and Constitution. Others can be found in other directories, and on the 1819 Enclosure Award Map.
The most famous of all Hungerford's inns is The Bear. It may have originated as early as 1297, but there is a definite record in 1494, and many references from 1537 onwards. In 1537 the landlord Robert Brayborn is recorded as giving evidence against three highwaymen who had stopped at the inn, and who were accused of robbing a merchant between Bagshot and Windsor. During the reign of Henry VIII The Bear, along with the manor of Chilton Foliat of which it was part, was settled on five of his six wives, Ann Boleyn being the exception. Shortly after, in 1545 the manor of Chilton Foliat passed to the Darrell family, and in 1607 to Sir John Popham. It is the arms of the Leybourne-Pophams which are incorporated in the handsome sign over the main door in Charnham Street. Its name probably derives from 'The Bear and Ragged Staff, which was the badge of the Earls of Warwick, who were owners of the estate in earlier days.
The 1796 edition of Pigot's Directory calls The Black Bear a 'well accustomed inn', and mentions that 'gentlemen of the neighbourhood have a monthly subscription club and assembly there. The Black Bear finally dropped its 'Black' at the end of the nineteenth century.
There were many other inns along Charnham Street. The Crown (now Undy's Farm) stood at the corner of the Bath Road with the Chilton Foliat road. This corner is referred to as Crown Corner on the 1819 map. The Sun survives to the present day, but further along were The Swan, possibly the present day newsagents and confectioners, and The Stag (or Stag's Head). Charnham Close was The Green Dragon (as well as having been the work-house at a slightly later period before the new building in Park Street was built). The White Hart was built in about 1686 on the site of the present day cafe and squash club ground. In 1868 it was sold with the surrounding land for the purpose of building the Wesleyan Chapel, which was erected in 1870. Next door was The Red Lion, and opposite was The Lamb, both of which are still trading, as well as The White Bear in Faulknor Square.
In Eddington was The Three Horseshoes, which was demolished in the nineteenth century to make way for the Eddington Engineering Works. Further along Oxford Street near Linden Cottage was The Queen and Constitution, presumably renamed during the nineteenth century.
Back in the main town of Hungerford is the John of Gaunt Inn in Bridge Street, which is owned by the Town and Manor Charity. It dates from the early nineteenth century, and was probably the old workhouse before this. Further up the High Street stands The Three Swans, and standing as it does in the very heart of the old town overlooking the market place, it must have been a very popular hostelry. In addition to these, many other inns have come and gone at various periods in the history of the town.
The Coaching Age collapses:
The coaching hey-day of the 1830's gave way to a complete collapse in the 1840's and 1850's. The early success of the Rocket in 1830 soon led to a rapidly increasing network of railways over the next decade or two. Brunel's Western Railway through Swindon opened in 1841 and as early as 1842 Pigot's Directory shows only two services on the Bath road, but it does advertise conveyance on the railway, the nearest station to Hungerford being Faringdon Road, 14 miles away! There was no regular transport to that station, however, although there were fairly regular coaches to the station at Reading.
It was not long before Hungerford itself was served by the railway. In 1847 a line from Newbury extended the "Berks and Hants Railway" to a terminus station at Hungerford. As far as coaching was concerned the bubble had burst. In 1847 the same two services ran as in 1842, but by 1869 the local directories advertised 'Fly's from The Bear and The Three Swans to meet every train', with no mention now of any coach service.
So the end of an era. The popularity of Bath had brought great prosperity to Hungerford, but no doubt the working men and women had worked hard for any gain. It was going to prove equally tough to adjust to the end of the era, but Hungerford was more fortunate than some country towns.
In 1984 a special re-run of the 1784 Bristol to London mail coach run was arranged by the Post office, supported by Norwich Union Insurance. The driver John Parker set two world records during the run - the longest continuous single-handed coach drive (130 miles) and the fastest change of horses (41 seconds). Crowds estimated to be 3,000 were at The Bear Hotel at 10pm to see the spectacle. See "Thousands at historic run of Mailcoach", NWN 7 Aug 1984.
- More on Milestones (by Dr Jimmy Whittaker)
- Coaching [HHA Archive A63]