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THE BRISTOL AND PORTSMOUTH MAIL FROM 1772 ONWARDS. PROJECTED SOUTH COAST RAILWAY FROM BRISTOL, 1903. THE BRISTOL TO SALISBURY POST BOY HELD UP. MAIL COACH ACCIDENTS. LUKE KENT AND RICHARD GRIFFITHS, THE MAIL GUARDS.

In 1903, in connection with a projected new railway from Bristol to Basingstoke the promoters made a strong point of the fact that the letters for the first delivery in the important South Coast towns, such as Portsmouth and Southampton, could not be posted quite so late in Bristol then as could those which were carried in the olden days by the mail coaches throughout.

A deputation, consisting of Mr. John Mardon, Mr. Sidney Humphries, Mr. Bolt, and Mr. H.J. Spear (Secretary), representing the Chamber of Commerce and Shipping, waited on the Postmaster-General, at the House of Commons, London, respecting the imperfect service, and they did not fail to point out to him (Mr. Austen Chamberlain) the time-table of the old mail coach by way of contrast with the present service by railway.

Mr. Austen Chamberlain, replying to the deputation, said that, as regarded the mail arrangements, he thought he had no need to show them that he recognised the importance of Bristol as a great commercial centre, or how largely recent developments had increased that importance. He was also alive to the necessity of prompt means of communication, but he was not wholly his own master. They had complained that the train service to the South and South-Eastern Counties was very inconvenient. That, unfortunately, was the only means of communication upon which he had to rely. If they had been able to put before him trains which he did not use for the transmission of mails, he might have been able to provide facilities. With the existing train facilities the Post Office business was conducted as well as it could be conducted. That being so, there was no way by which he could improve that service, except by requiring of the companies concerned that they should provide a special train for Post Office purposes. He was afraid that trains run at the hours which would be necessary to meet their wishes would not secure much passenger traffic, and the whole cost of the running would fall upon the Postmaster-General. He would closely watch the matter, and if he could see his way he would not be reluctant to provide them with what they desired. At present the service was the best in his power to afford. They were probably aware that the Post Office was experimenting in certain places with motor-cars, and if they were found to be reliable, that might be a way out of the difficulty. He should keep that before him as a possibility, if further railway facilities were not forthcoming. He regretted that he could not make a more hopeful statement. All he could say was that he did not think the service was satisfactory for a great commercial centre like Bristol, and if he saw his way to provide them with something better he would certainly not neglect to do so.

It may be opportune here to recall the mail services of the past.

From an “Account of the Days and Hours of the Post coming in and going out at Salisbury,” the following has been gleaned. The “Account” is a broad sheet, and was printed in Salisbury in 1772 by Sully and Alexander. The name of Daniel P. Safe, postmaster, is inscribed at the foot of the “Account":

Comes in from Bristol through Bath, Bradford, Trowbridge, Devizes, Westbury, Warminster, Heytesbury, Wells, Shepton Mallet, Frome, etc., etc., Monday about Seven at Night; and Wednesday and Friday, about Three in the Afternoon.

Goes out to Heytesbury, Westbury, Devizes, Trowbridge, Bradford, Bath, Bristol, Warminster, Frome, Shepton Mallet, Wells, etc., etc., Sunday at Ten at Night; and Wednesday and Friday at Six in the Evening.

Comes in from Portsmouth, Gosport, Isle of Wight, Guernsey, Jersey, Southampton, New Forest, Winton, Romsey, on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, at Six in the Evening.

Goes out to Romsey, Winton, New Forest, Southampton, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Wight, Gosport, Portsmouth, on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at Eleven in the Morning.

The official bag seal of the period was inscribed thus:

The Bristol and Portsmouth Mail Coach was established under the immediate superintendence of Francis Freeling, Secretary to the General Post Office, who travelled on the coach on its first journey about the year 1786.

In the year 1793 the Salisbury, Portsmouth, and Chichester mails went out from Bristol every morning at seven, and arrived in Bristol every evening between nine and eleven. At that period the coaches from Bristol for the Southern Counties started thus: Bush Tavern, Corn Street, John Weeks; for Weymouth a post coach every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 5; for Portsmouth a post coach every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning at four, so that probably the mail which left at 7 a.m. daily was carried by mail cart and postboy.

In about the year 1798 a “long” coach set out from Mr. Crosse’s, the Crown Inn, Portsmouth, to Southampton, Salisbury, Bath, and Bristol, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon; and from Gosport every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, to the White Hart Inn, Bristol.

The methods of service in 1798 and the perils of the road are indicated by the following public notice, viz.:

“General Post Office, “October 11th, 1798.

“The postboy carrying the mail from Bristol to Salisbury on the 9th instant was stopped between the hours of eleven and twelve o’clock at night by two men on foot within six miles of Salisbury, who robbed him of seven shillings in money, but did not offer to take the mail. Whoever shall apprehend the culprit, or cause to be apprehended and convicted both or either of the persons who committed this robbery, will be entitled to a reward of fifty pounds over and above the reward given by Act of Parliament for apprehending highwaymen. If either party will surrender himself and discover his accomplice he will be admitted as evidence for the Crown, receive His Majesty’s most gracious pardon, and be entitled to the said reward.

“By command of the Postmaster-General. “FRANCIS FREELING, Secretary.”

There is no record that anyone claimed the reward.

In 1828 the mail went out from Bristol at twenty minutes past five o’clock for Salisbury, Southampton, Portsmouth, and Chichester, and arrived every day previously to the London mail thus Chichester, in Sussex, was linked up with the Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, and Hampshire mails at that early period. The charge for the postage of a letter from Bristol to Portsmouth was at that time ninepence.

Luke Kent was the first individual who filled the place of Guard of the Chichester mail coaches. At his death he left a sum of money, on the condition of the Mail Guard always blowing the horn when he passed the place of his interment, Farlington Church, near Havant.

Prior to becoming a Mail Guard, Luke Kent kept the turnpike gate at Post Bridge, and afterwards became landlord of the Goat public house, where he amassed a good fortune. He then opened the Sadler’s Wells and was assisted by James Perry, the most celebrated mimic of his time, who assumed the name of Rossignal. He was accustomed to procure a variety of birds, and, having first given his excellent imitation of the songs of each, to let them loose amongst the audience, to their no small gratification. The scheme failed.

In June, 1804, one of the Portsmouth night coaches, having six inside and fifteen outside passengers, besides a surplus of luggage, was overturned near Godalming, Surrey. Twelve of the passengers sustained considerable hurt, and nine were obliged to be left behind; the lives of two children were said to be despaired of. “We are astonished at the temerity of the public in trusting themselves to such vehicles.”

A Time Bill of 1823, which gives details of a Coach Service at that period, appears on page 83.

The Time of working each Stage is to be reckoned from the Coach’s Arrival, and as any Time lost, is to be recovered in the course of the Stage, it is the Coachman’s Duty to be as expeditious as possible, and to report the Horse-keepers if they are not always ready when the Coach arrives, and active in getting it off. The Guard is to give his best assistance in changing, whenever his Official Duties do not prevent it.

November, 1832. 250. By Command of the Postmasters-General, CHARLES JOHNSON, Surveyor and Superintendent.

In 1826, a coachman on this road was accused of imperilling his passengers through having imbibed too freely, and the Mail Guard was called on in the following letter to report on the matter:

“General Post Office, 29th July, 1826. Sir, The passengers who travelled with the Portsmouth and Bristol mail on the 26th instant, having complained that the coachman who drove on that day from Bristol to Warminster was drunk and unfit to drive I have to desire you will explain the reason why you neglected to report to me so great and so disgraceful an irregularity, and also how it happened that you did not know the coachman’s name when the passengers asked you for it. I am, sir, yours, etc.,

C. JOHNSON. Mr. Folwell, Mail Guard, Bristol.”

The explanation is not forthcoming.

In 1830, many of the public coaches started from Portsmouth and passed through Portsea and Landport, but

“In olden time two days were spent ’Twixt Portsmouth and the Monument; When flying Diligences plied, When men in Roundabouts would ride And, at the surly driver’s will, Get out and climb each tedious hill. But since the rapid Freeling’s age, How much improved the English stage, Now in eight hours with ease, the post Reaches from Newgate Street our coast.”

In the years 1837 and 1838 the Portsmouth mail coach was despatched at 7.5 p.m., from Bristol Post Office then located at the corner of Exchange Avenue. The posting of letters without fee was allowed up to 6.35 p.m., and, with fee, paid and unpaid letters alike up to 6.50 p.m. The coach started from the White Lion coach office, Broad Street, at 6.45 p.m., so as to be in readiness at the Post Office to take up the mails at the appointed time. The arrival of the mail at Portsmouth from Bristol was at 6.45 a.m. These times are an improvement upon the service in operation in 1836. At that time the coach left Bristol at 5.30 p.m., with a posting up to 5.0 p.m. without fee, and with fees paid, up to 5.15 p.m. On the inward journey the Coach did not arrive until 8.9 a.m.

It will be appropriate here to enumerate certain interesting incidents connected with the carrying on of the Mail Coach system.

On Saturday, Ja, 1805, the London Mail of Friday se’nnight, had not arrived at Swansea where it was due early in the morning, till eleven o’clock that night, having been detained seventeen hours at the New Passage, in consequence of such large shoals of ice floating down the Severn as to render it unsafe for the mail boat to cross until Friday morning.

Thursday se’nnight, an inquest was held at Swansea on the body of John Paul, driver of the mail coach between that place and Caermarthen which on Sunday was overturned about two miles from Swansea, while proceeding with great rapidity down a hill, it being supposed the coachman’s hands were so benumbed with cold that he could not restrain the horses’ speed, the consequence of which was that he was so much bruised as to occasion his death on Wednesday night. The guard was slightly hurt, but the passengers escaped uninjured. Verdict, accidental death.

Very few details exist of that exceptional season, in 1806, when Nevill, a guard on the Bristol mail, was frozen to death; but the records of the great snowstorm that began on the Christmas night of 1836 are more copious.

A valuable reminiscence of that night De, 1836 is Pollard’s graphic picture of the Devonport mail snowed up at Amesbury. Six horses could not move it, and Guard F. Feecham was in parlous plight. Pollard’s companion picture of the Liverpool mail in the snow near St. Alban’s on the same night is equally interesting. Guard James Burdett fared little better than his comrade on the Devonport mail:

“An accident occurred to the Worcester mail Coach on Friday evening, March 27, 1829, opposite the Bull and Mouth Office, in Piccadilly, which, we are sorry to say, has proved fatal to Turner, the coachman. Just as Turner had taken hold of the reins, and while he was wrapping a large coat over his knees, the leaders started, and, turning sharply to the right, dashed one of the fore-wheels against a post. The shock was so violent that the coachman was flung from his seat. He fell on his back, and his neck came violently against the curb-stone. Not a moment was lost in securing the assistance of a surgeon, by whom he was bled. The poor man was shortly removed to St. George’s Hospital, where he died at about eight o’clock on Saturday evening. He left a wife and three infant children in a state of destitution, without even the means of buying a coffin.”

As a “Caution to Mail Coachmen,” the following notice was issued on June 20, 1829: “On Friday, Thomas Moor, the driver of the London mail from Bristol to Calne and back, appeared before the Magistrates at Brislington to answer an information laid against him by Mr. Bull, the Inspector of Mail Coaches, by order of the G.P.O. for giving up the reins to an outside passenger, and permitting him to drive the mail, on May 29 last, from Keynsham to Bath, against the remonstrances of the guard. The magistrates convicted Moor in the mitigated penalty of L5 and 11s. costs. Mr. Bull presented the Bath Hospital with the amount of the fine.”

On September 8th, 1837, a coachman named Burnett was killed at Speenhamland, on the Bath Road. He was driving one of the New Company’s London and Bristol stages, and alighted at the “Hare and Hounds,” very foolishly leaving the horses unattended, with reins on their backs. He had been a coachman for 20 years, but experience had not been sufficient to prevent him thus breaking one of the first rules of the profession. He had no sooner entered the Inn than the rival Old Company’s coach came down the road. Whether the other coachman gave the horses a touch with his whip as he passed, or if they started of their own accord, is not known, but they did start, and Burnett, rushing out to stop them, was thrown down and trampled on, so that he died.

There departed this life at Bristol, in November, 1904, a somewhat notable individual in the person of Richard Griffiths, who was born at Westminster, in the year 1811, and entered the service of the Post Office as a Mail Guard on the 17th November, 1834. At the commencement of his service he was employed as Guard to the London and Norwich, via Newmarket Mail Coach, upon which duty he remained until the coach ceased running on the 5th January, 1846, when he was transferred to the London and Dover Railway, and acted as Mail Train Guard thereon. When a Travelling Post Office was established in 1860 on the Dover line of railway, and the necessity for a Guard to the Mail bags thus removed, Griffiths was ordered to the South Wales Railway, where he remained as Mail Train Guard until superannuated on the 25th August, 1870. He lived at Eastville, in Bristol, under the care at last of Mrs. Barrett, a kind old dame, who made him very comfortable, and on his demise, after being on pension for 34 years, he bequeathed his old battered Mail Coach horn to her. It is probable that the horn was used on the last Norwich Coach out of London. The maker’s name on it is “J.A. Turner, 19 Poultry.”

On November 9, 1822, attention was drawn to the “Musical Coachman” thus: “The blowing of the horn by the coachman and guards of our mail-coaches has usually been considered a sort of nuisance: now, by the persevering labours of these ingenious gentlemen, converted into an instrument of public gratification. Most of the guards of the stage-coaches now make their entrance and exit to the tune of some old national ballad, which, though it may not, perhaps, be played at present in such exact time and tune as would satisfy the leader of the opera band, is yet pleasant in comparison to the unmeaning and discordant strains which formerly issued from the same quarter.”

April, 1832: “The Tipsy Member” finds mention thus: “An M.P. applied to the Post Office to know why some of his franks had been charged; The answer was, ’We supposed, sir, they were not your writing; the ‘hand’ is not ‘the same.’ ’Why, not precisely; but the truth is I happened to be a little tipsy when I wrote them.’ ’Then, sir, you will be so good in future as to write ‘drunk’ when you make ‘free.’”

In this book are depicted an old State Coach, the Mail Coach, the primitive Railway Train, and a Railway Engine of the latest pattern, all indicative of progress in locomotion. To complete the series, and for the purpose of historical record, subjoined is a picture of the first Motor vehicle used (1904-1905) in Bristol for the rapid transport of His Majesty’s Mails by road. No doubt, in process of time, this handy little 5-horse power car, built to a Bristol Post Office design, to carry loads of 3-1/2 cwt., and constructed by the Avon Motor Company, Keynsham, near Bristol, will have numerous fellow cars darting about in the roads and crowded thoroughfares of Bristol for the collection of letters and parcels in conjunction with larger cars of higher horse power to do the heavy station traffic and country road work.

Still, little “Mercury” will have the credit of being the pioneer car in the Bristol Post Office Service. During its trials the car did really useful service, and did not once break down.