Above: A replica Royal Mail coach, drawn by four horses, leaving the George Inn.
On Saturday 18 June a horse-drawn replica mail coach visited the George Inn, Borough High Street, as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations to mark the formation of the Royal Mail. What was once a common sight – when stage coaches were in use – became an event in itself when the ‘coach and four’ was driven the short distance from the George Inn, across London Bridge ending at Guildhall in the City of London.
This year of 2016 marks 500 years since Henry VIII knighted Brian Tuke, the first Master of the Posts, in 1516. It was the start of the Royal Mail which carried royal letters throughout the kingdom. It is somewhat ironic that it was only last year – on the 499th anniversary of its existence – that the Royal Mail was privatised!
The George is London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn. In fact only a small part of the original is still standing. It was rebuilt after being destroyed in the Southwark fire of 1676. By that date stage coaches as a public service were just beginning to be used. It was during the 1700s that stage coach routes became common. On 12 April 1706 the first coach service in England was set up from the Black Swan in Holborn, travelling to the Black Swan in Coney Street, York. The journey took four days – but during the century times for coaching routes were greatly improved.
Fastest of all were the coaches in use by the Royal Mail. They left London around 7.00 pm each evening and ran through the night if necessary to reach distant destinations which were hundreds of miles away. The ‘mail coach man’ was John Palmer. On 2 August 1784 he started running his Mail Coach service from Bristol, via Bath, to London. It took 16 hours.
The 1700s were the ‘Golden Age’ for coaching. Throughout the century better road surfaces, better springing on the coaches and a well-established network of inns (to act as staging points) meant that the service was about as efficient as it was ever likely to become. The whole network continued to run during the early part of the 1800s but in 1825 the Stockton to Darlington Railway opened and coaching would never be able to compete. In 1836 the first railway was opened in London – between London Bridge Station and Deptford – and, of course, ‘the writing was on the wall’. Inns closed at an alarming rate and by the 1860s coaching days were virtually over apart from isolated part of England. All the inns along the Borough High Street – of which there in excess of 30 – all closed as patronage collapsed. As has already been mentioned, a small part of the George Inn is the only remaining buildings of any coaching within the whole of Inner London.