06 October 2012

Coaching Inns (1700-1850): a short but colourful history

When did British coach travel start to modernise? Harry Mount found that the Turnpike Act of 1663 was significant, turnpikes being compulsory tollgates on selected roads. Once these tolls paid for road improvements, fast coaches could supplant the old slower modes of travel. And throughout the C18th, the road network continued to expand, once again paying for itself by the tolls.

Hales Bar, Harrogate

A stage company was formed in 1706 to establish a regular coach route between York and London. Inns were a vital part of the coaching tradition as they fed travellers, changed the team of horses and hired post chaises to finish journeys. And they linked the coaching system throughout Britain!

Fresh teams of horses were kept in readiness so the exhausted team that had just run the previous stage of the journey could be rested. These teams could be contracted out to stage lines or to the Royal Mail.

How comfortable were the inns? Inns were generally built around a central cobbled courtyard that gave protection from the weather and made it easy to watch for coaches coming in. Even today, the old coaching inns have a very large entrance, from the open road outside, into the courtyard inside. However the convenience was offset by the difficulty in sleeping in a place where servants and passengers constantly moved, horns were blown to announce coaches, and teams of horses clattered on the cobblestones. Travel guides advised coach passengers who were spending the night to stay at a city inn rather than the coaching inn.

Dolphin, Southampton

Some food was known to be horrible and blankets flea-infested, but a few routes had fine reputations. The Shrewsbury Highflyer was wonderful - it left Shrewsbury at 8AM arriving at its destination 64 ks away, Chester, at 8PM. A delicious dinner took a leisurely 2 hours at Wrexham, or as long as the passengers required.

The Dolphin in Southampton had been a famous coaching inn since the C17th. But it was only during Southampton's Spa-town period, from 1750 on, that it also became a fashionable social centre for travellers taking the waters. This was the same time that the Dolphin was largely rebuilt with its handsome Georgian front, coaching entrance and magnificent bow windows. It might have been just a coaching inn, but it was a classy one.

Hales Bar in Harrogate had a similar history. It started off life as a coaching inn when the spa town of Harrogate was becoming very attractive as a mid 1700s destination. It continued as an inn in the C19th when it was renovated and named The Promenade Inn, after the opening of the fashionable Promenade Room nearby.

The Old Crown Coaching Inn in the market town of Faringdon, Oxfordshire is a former coaching inn that dates back to the C16th. It has retained its original features, including a cobbled courtyard and fountain. A heritage plaque on the front wall notes that this inn provided quarters for Royalist cavalry during the Civil War (1644-6).

Old Crown Coaching Inn, Faringdon Oxfordshire

The Lion Hotel coaching inn in Buckden Cambs was a 16th inn that still has an oak-panelled restaurant and a lounge bar with an original fireplace. Buckden may not have been the biggest or most important village in the world, but it was well located as a resting place for travellers making their way between York and London along the old Great North Road. Apparently the only important consideration in selecting a house or business was: location.

What of the development of coaching inns in Australia, given that our distances were much longer, our weather harsher and our population much smaller than in Britain? They existed in substantial numbers but they looked less elegant, less urban and smaller than their British counterparts.

Old Buangor Cobb and Co changing station, Victoria

Tahmoor House was an old inn built in 1824 in NSW and extended in 1835. It is one of the oldest coaching inns in Australia, at the gateway to the Southern Highlands. The son of the original owners, Ralph Hush, eventually bought several of surrounding farms and owned many inns in local towns. Later in his life Ralph Hush became a magistrate, suggesting that inn-keeping was a perfectly respectable occupation. And a profitable one.

But the coaching inn business in Australia really only got going in a large way once Cobb and Co established itself on the main communication routes in the mid C19th. At the end of the Gold Rush in California, the very entrepreneurial Freemen Cobb joined three other gold seekers in Australia, creating a new partnership in the transportation business, Cobb & Co.

Australian changing stations could only be as far apart as a horse could sensibly travel in one trip, about 25 ks. Changing stations were where the team of horses was replaced.

The Victoria changing station, Penshurst, Victoria

Some changing stations were not in pubs. The Victoria in Penshurst Vic, for example, is the old Cobb and Co changing station, including the manager's cottage which has been fully restored with its mammoth bluestone walls intact. And just west of rural Beaufort in Victoria, the Old Buangor Cobb & Co centre was a free-standing coach and livery station, built from bluestone in the 1860s. The near identical facades with round arched openings were stables, located at an important stopping place on the coach route to Ararat. In Barraba near Tamworth NSW, Cobb & Co stage coaches had a clearly marked changing station in the town’s post office.

But as we saw in the British examples, coaching inns became important for the passengers as well, since they provided a site for food and rest. Many changing stations in Australia adapted and became full blown coaching inns or pubs. An example that I discussed in an earlier post was perfect.  The American Hotel in Creswick (rural Victoria) was described as a 2-storey timber structure. During the gold rush period of the 1850s, the hotel operated as a Cobb and Co station, gaining prominence as one of the leading establishments in the colony. And providing drinks to thirsty travellers!

Nymboida Coaching Station Inn NSW still has its original hand-sawn cedar and red mahogany beams, parallel walls and open log fires. It maintained its historical atmosphere from the time when Cobb & Co. stage coaches, bullock teams, timber cutters, graziers and other pioneers stopped here, on the woolpack road from Armidale to Grafton. The adjoining museum displays the giant Leviathan stage coach, the largest horse-drawn Cobb and Co Coach ever built!

Nymboida Coaching Station Inn, NSW

The Arms of Australia Inn Museum in Emu Plains NSW was a coaching inn. Built in 1823, it was licensed to John Mortimer as the Australia Arms in 1841. The Inn catered for travellers going across the mountains to Bathurst and the gold fields. The Cobb & Co coaches that plied the road day and night stopped at the inn, as did many bullock team drivers taking stock and provisions over the mountains. Built in 1823, the brick section on the right was added in 1840. The Inn now houses the Nepean District Historical Society Museum.

In Britain, the coming of the railroad ended the era of the coach by 1840, except in far-flung regions of the country that reached beyond the railway lines. Presumably by 1840 the coaching inns had developed other essential services; just because the coaches no longer arrived, there was no need for the inns to close.

When did the coaching inns end in Australia? If Carrington Hotel in Bungendore NSW is correct, it was originally built in 1885 as a clay brick coaching inn on the Cobb & Co route to rural Canberra. This suggests that coaching inns were still being built in Australia into the late Victorian era.

Arms of Australia Inn, Emu Plains NSW 

At the recommendation of Parnassus, I want to add just one of many coaching inns in the USA. Joseph Rider opened Rider's Inn in Painesville Ohio in 1812. Over the years, the tavern expanded, providing fine accommodations and food for travellers in northeastern Ohio, travelling to the West. Situated on the rough-and-tumble stagecoach route from Buffalo New York to Cleveland Ohio, Rider's soon became an oasis of hospitality in the Western Reserve. Later the Inn became a stop on the underground railroad and a retreat for returned Civil War soldiers. The Rider Family operated the hostelry until 1902 when it fell on hard times.

I would be very interested to know which other coaching inns were built in the USA and what features they had in common.


Parnassus said...

This article is redolent of the travel scenes in old novels and plays--Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Goldsmith, etc. It is interesting to learn something of their true appearance and qualities.

Ohio and the U.S. Midwest, not that old by British standards, still managed to catch the tail end of the Coaching Inn period, and many of them survive. Cleveland has it Dunham Tavern, and in my Painesville post I included the early 19th centiury Rider Tavern.

--Road to Parnassus

We Travel said...

We loved the large entrance that allowed the coaches into the inn's inner courtyard. In Britain, but not Australia, as far as can be seen.

Hels said...

you could not have selected four more suitable writers. Have a look at their dates: Henry Fielding 1707-54; Laurence Sterne 1713-68; Tobias Smollett 1721-71; Oliver Goldsmith 1730-74, all right in our time period!

I added a paragraph on Painesville straight away.. many thanks.

Hels said...

We Travel

those very impressive openings into the inner courtyards were necessary in the urban coaching inns in Britain. The horses and carriages could not have stood in the city street while the passengers boarded and alighted, luggage was organised and the horses fed.

Australian coaching inns, however, were in rural settings with tons of room and no traffic. The Australian horses and carriages certainly did not need to be taken into inner courtyards.

ChrisJ said...

I, too, thought of writers - especially Fielding and his novel Tom Jones. Interesting that coaching inns and novels both developed during the 18thC.

Andrew said...

I will always keep a look out in England for coach entrances. I would have probably walked past without noticing them.

Hels said...


that is so true. A person might become a novelist if he stayed in the village he was born in for the rest of his life. But how many more possibilities would open up if he could travel the length and breadth of the country, relatively easily. Or better still, into foreign countries.

The coinciding dates cannot be an accident *nod*.

Hels said...


True. I say the same thing whenever blogging raises the consciousness about an every day object or event that might have otherwise disappeared without a trace. To use a very recent example, the Princes Walk Vaults were totally unknown to me 2 months ago.. now I have been back twice.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, my favourite is The Spaniard's Inn in Hampstead, London, an old haunt of Dick Turpins.

Hels said...


good choice! The Spaniard's Inn was built in 1585 as a tollgate inn but it seems to have become important in the 18th century because it was only two hours from the centre of London by coach.

Hels said...

The blog English Buildings discussed The Dolphin and Anchor in Chichester. "The Anchor was probably established in the late Middle Ages but was rebuilt in the 18th century, when the landlord offered all the facilities of a good coaching inn – good drink, food, stables and a daily coach service to London."

See http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/chichester-hampshire.html

Hels said...

The blog English Buildings discussed The Dolphin and Anchor in Chichester. "The Anchor was probably established in the late Middle Ages but was rebuilt in the 18th century, when the landlord offered all the facilities of a good coaching inn – good drink, food, stables and a daily coach service to London."

See http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/chichester-hampshire.html

Unknown said...

Can you assist me? I am trying to find out about the horses used for coaching.
Did the horses just run from A to B and then back to A again or could they be harnessed to go on to C and D etc. ? If just A to B and back then what happened if a carriage needed to go from B to C and the only horses the inn at B had were those due to go back to A?
Who owned them? The inn or a person or nobody in particular?
How were the horses marked to show which ones belonged to which inn and who paid for replacements when the horses became ill or died?

Hels said...


the horses were owned by the coaching company, not the hotels and could go on any route (or any part of a route) that the coaching company needed.

So why did the hotels agree to provide the horses with shelter and food overnight?
a] Because they were paid to. And
b] Because it increased the probability of the coach customers staying at THAT hotel, rather than at a competitor's.

Phil said...

Hels: I have a distant memory which I hope is right (I read the book over 30 years asgo) that in Dickens' Dombey and Son, Mr Dombey, when he takes a train journey, has his coach put on a special freight car that is part of the train, so that he can continue his journey by coach at the other end. A good symbol of the transition between coach and rail.

See: Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire

Hels said...


I love the transition between coach and rail, or at least the link between the two. Can you find the title of that book?

I have found another coaching inn that looks similar to the others but was built by convict labour in Tasmania in the 1840s. I will need to have have a good look at Glen Clyde House in Hamilton, Tasmania.

Hels said...

My last sentence was "I would be very interested to know which other coaching inns were built in the USA and what features they had in common". All of a sudden (ok ok 6.5 years later) the blog Daytonian in Manhattan has an excellent post on carriage houses in New York.