Coachlines - February 2024

28.02.24 Liveryman Mark Jurd

Report from an international coachmen’s dinner

In 1673 it took eight days to travel from London to Exeter and a writer of the time commented: “This kind of journeying is very tedious, so that only women and people of inferior condition travel in this sort.”

By the middle of the 18th century improved road construction methods brought superior roads. When the Post Office then introduced John Palmer’s new mail coach system in 1784 coach travel was revolutionised. These fast coaches ran day and night on roads that were the envy of the world.

The coachmen drove thousands of miles and became the leading experts in their field. Driving with an English coaching hand was born. These men were the popular heroes of their time and through their tales and adventures the romance of the road was born. The sporting newspapers wrote of their record breaking times and other tales of derring do.

London was the hub of all coaching activity and the sight of 50 resplendent mail coaches leaving the post office each day was one of the sights of the city. Coaching completely captured the public imagination, its terminology becoming a permanent part of everyday language, such as: “hold your horses”, “a right handful”, “insiders” and “outsiders”, to say nothing of the various connotations of “teamwork” and having everything “in hand”.

To tool a team of fast horses was the ultimate challenge for sporting men of the day, and, although prohibited, many paid handsomely to be taught by the professionals on the actual routes. These gentlemen amateurs formed their own driving clubs, one of which was founded by Lord Chesterfield, who insisted his followers “drive like coachmen but look and behave like gentlemen”. His legacy was great indeed, as gentlemanly conduct is the foundation on which the traditions of the road are built.

The great sporting writer, Charles James Apperley, better known as “Nimrod”, wrote The chace, the turf and the road in 1837. His compelling stories define the Englishman’s passion for the horse, immortalising the road alongside racing and hunting.
If racing was the sport of kings, then the road was the sport of gentlemen: “The heyday of coaching in England became as characteristic of the national temperament as roast beef,” – Old coaching days. A white horse cellar souvenir, 1925, author unknown.

The British Empire was built on the back of the industrial revolution. Spearheaded by the railway, technological innovation spread throughout the country rendering the mail and stagecoach redundant by the 1840s. With most of the coaches driven off the road, amateur driving was no longer influenced by ‘real business’. The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 seemed to seal coaching’s fate, and even the last of the private driving clubs folded a year later. Was the art of driving a four in hand to be consigned to history?

The foundation of the Coaching Club

A group of amateur coachmen led by the Marquis of Stafford were keen to pursue the sport they loved and in the spring of 1856 they founded the Four in Hand Club, with the Duke of Beaufort as President. A number of sporting gentlemen were not satisfied with simply driving their own teams.

With a desire to see the ‘real business’ return, the idea of the subscription coach was conceived. By covering the costs involved, subscribers were able to run seasonal coaches to places of interest and take the reins themselves on certain days. The most famous of these was the Old Times, which departed for Brighton on alternate days in 1866. They ushered in a coaching revival and for the next 50 years seasonal coaches would continue to run. With this renewed interest in coaching and the Four-in-Hand Club full to capacity, these private coachmen had no group to which they could affiliate themselves. There was but one solution, to establish an overflow club.

In 1870 Colonel Armytage and George Goddard met with a small group at the Arlington Club. Their suggestion that a new club be formed was unanimously agreed. It would be called the Coaching Club and be limited to 50 members. A list of gentlemen was compiled, all of whom became the original members; with the Duke of Beaufort once again agreeing to be President. The Club proved so popular that within a short time the membership cap was increased to 100.

The Club’s first official driving meet took place on 27th June 1871, when 22 coaches came forward with HRH the Prince of Wales in attendance to see the Duke of Beaufort lead the drive through Hyde Park, after which 14 coaches drove on to The Trafalgar at Greenwich for dinner. At a general meeting a fortnight later the Duke was formally elected President. As a further mark of respect to His Grace, it was decided to adopt the Beaufort livery as the Club uniform: dark blue coat, buff waistcoat and gilt buttons engraved with CC, which has been proudly worn by members ever since.

The two clubs co-existed happily alongside each other for many years. Each held two parades annually, usually linked to the timing of the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot. Driving to major sporting events was extremely popular with all members, with private enclosures reserved for both clubs at Royal Ascot, Sandown and Kempton Park, as well as Lord’s Cricket Club.

With the arrival of the 20th century came the automobile and the horse’s role in every day life was changed forever. The horse was now ridden and driven for pleasure rather than necessity, which raised the obvious question; could these two clubs survive the change from horse to motor power?

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the senior club that was unable to do so and the club folded in 1926. With so many of its members subscribing to the revival coaches, the Coaching Club was certainly more current and connected with the affairs of “real business”, and it thrived as a result.

In 1926, with its roots firmly planted in the origins and traditions of the road, the Coaching Club continued on alone to face the challenges of the 20th century. It stands as testimony to the passion of its members that, 153 years later, the club remains as active as it ever was and is currently led by its President, the gifted coachman, Assistant Mark Broadbent and a number of our liverymen are to be found in its ranks.

To be eligible for membership of the Coaching Club, a gentleman coachman must have his own coach and team. In more recent times, other clubs have been established for those carriage drivers who may not have their own coaching turnouts: the Road Club in 1998 and the European Private Driving Club shortly afterwards. Many of us are members of more than one club and a small number are members of all three.

Both the Coaching Club and the Road Club hold their Annual General Meeting at the Cavalry & Guards Club in Piccadilly. This is certainly the most appropriate of venues, as the Cavalry is now the only regiment that still owns and horses its own coach. When the Coaching Club was at the height of its popularity in the 1880s, 38 regiments were ex-officio members; each with its own coach and team.

The Road Club AGM has become quite the international affair. This year members attended from the Netherlands, Italy and the US. In recognition of the great distance some members travel to attend this annual event, Liveryman John Brown and his wife Pebs began the tradition of hosting a dinner on the evening before the main event. In recent years we have dined at the Houses of Parliament and the War Rooms. This year we sought advice from our own Clerk, Commander Mark Leaning. With so many years of experience dealing with City Livery Halls, Mark proved a veritable font of culinary expertise.

In answer to the question of where 25 hungry coachmen and their partners might dine, a number of suggestions were forthcoming, with our hosts deciding on the Watermen’s Hall as our chosen venue. 47 members and guests were greeted by the site of a smart team of greys put to a private coach by Holland & Holland of London. With lamps lit and set against the backdrop of the Shard, the sight of this beautiful original coach set the perfect scene for an international coachmen’s dinner.

An excellent meal and wonderfully convivial evening was enjoyed by all. The table plan, place cards and menus, depicted the turnouts of the coachmen in attendance, highlighting their skill as horsemen and the highest levels craftsmanship synonymous with British coachmaking.

Cesare Martignoni, Italy, with his private drag by Holland & Holland of London