It is remarkable that the Tabard Inn mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales was still doing business on Borough High Street in Southwark as late as 1873. It was at the Tabard, then under the proprietorship of a man named Harry Bailey, that Chaucer’s pilgrims first met as they began the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Chaucer was writing between 1387 and 1400, at which point the Tabard, founded in 1307, was an established presence on the south bank of the Thames.
In the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes:
Befell that in that season, on a day, / In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay / Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage / To Canterbury with full devout courage, / At night was come into that hostelery / Well nine-and-twenty in a company / Of sundry folk, by adventure fallen / Into fellowship, and pilgrims were they all, / That toward Canterbury would ride.
The Medieval structure was destroyed in the fire that razed much of Medieval Southwark in 1676, ten years after the Great Fire of London. It was immediately rebuilt on the same foundations. We do not know how much salvaged materials from the original structure were incorporated into the second. Presumably some.
As Chaucer’s verse suggests Southwark was a point of entry into the City of London where journeys would begin and end. Many similar inns catered to travelers there. Next door to the Tabard was the George where it is said that Shakespeare drank and dined while he lived in the Borough. In fact the inn yards, often surrounded on three sides by the galleried façade of an inn, served as theaters in the Elizabethan period.
The rebuilt Tabard Inn and its neighbors would have enjoyed a brisk business as stagecoach lines were established in the seventeenth century. The word stagecoach refers to the “stages” by which the route was divided. A coach, normally pulled by four horses, would travel from one station to another, change horses, allow the passengers to rest, then continue to the next station. In this way a coach could maintain an average speed of about five miles per hour, traveling sixty or seventy miles in a day.
At each station would be a coaching inn. An innkeeper with capital, or a family of innkeepers, might run coaches between establishments in multiple cities. The American author James Fenimore Cooper traveled between four different inns kept by members of the Wright family on a coach journey between Canterbury and London in 1828. At coaching inns travelers found comfort and refreshment. Cooper praised the simple pleasures of tea “served redolent of home and former days. The hissing urn, the delicious toast, the fragrant beverage, the warm sea-coal fire, and the perfect snugness of everything, were indeed grateful.”
In the late eighteenth century mail coaches began to carry postal deliveries throughout Britain. This was brought about by the instigation of John Palmer, a theater impresario from Bath, who suggested and successfully demonstrated the idea to the Post Office in the early 1780s. Prior to that date mail was carried by relay riders on horseback. By coach the distances could be traversed in half the time. By 1785 there was service from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead, and Carlisle. At first private contractors operated the mail coaches but by the early nineteenth century the Post Office had its own fleet.
Mail coaches carried passengers, but unlike regular passenger coaches they were not operated for the comfort of travelers, but for the swift delivery of the mail. This meant they traveled much faster. The experience of riding on a mail coach could be exhilarating or harrowing. That experience inspired one of the great literary essays of the nineteenth century, “The English Mail-Coach,” by Thomas De Quincey.
Robin Jarvis, a Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England, Bristol, wrote an excellent account of the piece and its composition for The Public Domain Review:
In the last quarter of 1849 Thomas De Quincey published two separate essays in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a leading Tory periodical. These two essays, entitled “The English Mail-Coach, or the Glory of Motion” and “The Vision of Sudden Death,” were revised and amalgamated five years later to produce one of the author’s most memorable and idiosyncratic pieces. “The English Mail-Coach” is at once a celebration of that form of transport and an elegy for its demise, since by the time De Quincey published his essay the railways had already spread across the country and shunted the mail-coach into the sidings of history…
“The English Mail-Coach” is in four parts. In the first, De Quincey explains his fascination with mail-coaches and recalls his delight in using them – insisting always, against the grain of class preference, on an outside seat – to go to and from Oxford in his student days. He relates his obsession to the pleasures of unprecedented speed, with the thrill of “possible though indefinite danger”; the visual stimulation of “grand effects,” as deserted roads at night are momentarily lit up by coach-lamps; the sheer spectacle of “animal beauty and power”; the sense of participating in a great national system, akin to a living organism; and the additional excitement of bringing news, good or bad, from the battlefront (during the Napoleonic Wars) to local communities far and wide.
In the second section of the essay, “Going Down with Victory,” De Quincey elaborates on the adrenalin-fuelled experience of bearing tidings of war, kindling joy all along the route “like fire racing along a train of gunpowder,” and describes the more ambivalent experience of giving one woman a partial account of the “imperfect victory” at Talavera, a costly battle in which her son’s regiment has, he believes, been virtually wiped out. In the third section, “The Vision of Sudden Death,” he narrates an incident at night on the Manchester-to-Kendal mail in which the coachman nods off and, with De Quincey seemingly unable to seize the reins and take evasive action, the vehicle narrowly avoids collision with two lovers in an oncoming gig. It is only the young man in the gig who can avert disaster, and he responds with only seconds to spare. In the final section, the celebrated “Dream-Fugue,” De Quincey tells the reader how the figure of that same terrified young woman, glimpsed for just a few moments, subsequently entered into the “gorgeous mosaics” of his dreams, featuring in a variety of perilous or fatal situations. In the final, apocalyptic, dream-sequence De Quincey’s mail-coach becomes a “triumphal car” proceeding at supernatural pace down a cathedral aisle of infinite length; a female infant who temporarily obstructs its path somehow becomes synonymous with all the victims of war, past and present, while her apparent survival or exaltation stands not only for the material gains of “Waterloo and Recovered Christendom” but also for the spiritual end of resurrection and eternal life.
De Quincey mourned the passing of coach transport. He believed that trains had altered the rhythm of human life. “Out of pure blind sympathy with trains, men will begin to trot through the streets,” he predicted, “and in the next generation, they will take to cantering.” In his severe, though not humorless, judgement, “iron tubes and boilers have disconnected man’s heart.” One consequence of this revolution in transportation became apparent within decades of the publication of “The English Mail-Coach.” The inns that had served the old system would not survive.
In The Pickwick Papers, which contains many wonderful nostalgic scenes of coach travel, Charles Dickens describes the state of the inns in London at the end of the coaching era:
There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town; and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
In the Borough especially, there still remain some half dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement, and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling, queer, old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
Beginning in the 1870s developers began to tear down the coaching inns of London. The Tabard Inn was demolished in 1873. The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral, was demolished in 1875. The King’s Head in Southwark was demolished by 1885. The White Hart in Southwark was demolished in 1889. The list goes on and on.
Today the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London is The George. Even this is a partial survival. Only one of its three sides is still standing. The other two were pulled down by the Great Northern Railway Company in 1889 to build warehouses. These were later replaced with modernist constructions. But the one side that remains is perfectly preserved and is still a working pub.
For my own part I share Sir John Betjeman’s love of railways but I think De Quincey makes a point well taken. The coach services were an economy and a society almost unto themselves. Passengers, coachmen, innkeepers, and tradesmen supported and linked together innumerable little communities across the country to an extent that no amount of efficiency can justify disrupting. But for all that the railway was a loud, smoking, violent shock to men and women of De Quincey’s generation, it operated along similar principles to the old coach lines, employed a comparable number of people, and linked communities in a way that was harmonious with the needs of society, nature, and the landscape.
Bruning, Ted. (2000) Historic Inns of England. London: Prion Books.
De Quincey, Thomas. (1889-90) The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black.
Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.
Jarvis, Robin. (2013) “Still Booking on De Quincey’s Mail-Coach,” The Public Domain Review. http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/02/20/still-booking-on-de-quinceys-mail-coach/
Louras, Nick. (2016) James Fenimore Cooper: A Life. Winchester, UK: Chronos Books.