The days of travel by stagecoach are viewed today as being rather fun as well as possibly being rather an adventure. Nostalgic pictures of a coach and four travelling through the countryside are sometimes reprinted as Christmas cards. For all the romance associated with that form of travel, the reality was that the ride was often uncomfortable, cold in the winter with no heating in the coach – and certainly none for those sitting outside! The romance of that way of travel has developed over the decades between the last days of coaching in the 1830s and the present day. Even though we tend to complain about bus or train travel today, it is actually an infinitely better experience than those making a journey by stagecoach in the 19th century.
This print is a copy of an engraving called ‘The Stage Coach or Country Inn Yard’, 1747, engraved by William Hogarth. While his print showing the inn yard contains considerable irony in what he thought of the whole experience, there is more than a grain of truth in what there is to be seen. There’s plenty of interesting detail in the print and we shall take a look around.
The coach is obviously about to depart because the coachman is already seated at the front of his coach. The lady on the far left is ringing a bell – probably indicating that it is the ‘last call’ for those wishing to travel on this particular coach. Remember that the print was made in 1747 and stagecoaches had yet to develop into the more usual versions, with seating on top. A rather large lady is being helped (or possibly pushed) into the coach – having used the steps to help her get up to the correct level. In the upstairs window on the left, two men – looking as if they have had too much to drink – are about to serenade the departure. The character to the left is blowing some form of wind instrument and the other one is smoking a pipe.
Below that open window, we see a doorway with a man and his lady friend enjoying one last embrace before the man rushes for a seat in the coach. Two characters are seen sitting on the roof of the coach. The one on the right is carrying a sword which appears to have no sheath. Whether they expected to maintain that position when the coach set off is anyone’s guess. In the large wicker basket behind the coach – normally used to carry any excess baggage – we see an old lady has taken up her ‘seat’ and she is smoking a pipe! The excess baggage seems to be tied precariously on the outside of the basket.
In the background, we catch a glimpse of the large courtyard of what appears to be quite a sizeable inn. Although the print is titled a ‘country inn’ it was probably the inn of a small town, like that of Huntingdon, to the north of Cambridge, which still has an inn looking like the one seen here. The inn has galleries and plenty of people are seen scurrying about as well as in the courtyard. The only really relaxed character is the dog, with his head on the ground, resting in a large kennel at the bottom right of the view.
Under the large arch, which probably leads out of the courtyard and into the street, we can see the back of the coachman who is just about to start off on the long journey. As the driver of the four horses, he had to face all weather conditions – sunny days, days with driving rain and – worst of all – driving snow, especially if the coach was heading off into the wind. Looking on the wall, there is a large sign showing an angel and underneath is written ‘The Old Angel’. Although the name is shown, the town or village in which it is situated is not known. Under the name is written ‘Tom Bates from London’ so it must have been on a coaching route from London.