Open Blog Weekend: Ambition by Sue Millard
It was a cheerless wet morning down at Woodside Ferry. The drifting drizzle was so thick it was almost fog, and George’s scarlet coat was misted with it as he helped the ostlers to hitch the four horses to the Mail coach. People with umbrellas and wet coats went hurrying to the paddle-steamer which simmered among drifts of coal-smoke thickened with the sea-and-sewage smell of the Mersey. Porters carried parcels, letters and baggage up a walkway from the waterside pontoon, into the shanties that housed ticket sales, while Hadfield the guard supervised loading the Mail. George swung up onto the box seat and listened, assessing the slight tremors of the coach body which told of Hadfield’s climb to the little iron seat at the back, ending with the thump of his foot that checked the lock on the hind boot.
He drove up the hill to the Woodside Hotel. The horses had not yet warmed to their work and they shivered and fidgeted while they waited for his first customers to board. George was surprised to find Mr Mulvey, the shipbuilder, climbing up onto the box-seat beside him, complete with umbrella and coach rug.
“Sir,” he responded, and politely held his whip out of the way until Mulvey had sat down and wrapped the rug about his knees. “I didn’t know you took the Mail back to Chester, sir.”
“I don’t, usually. Business kept me late, d’ye see?”
“Yes, sir.” Hadfield blew the horn and George shouted, “Sit tight!” so Mulvey braced his feet and the umbrella against the footboard, and unobtrusively took hold of the seat rail with his free hand. George held the horses to a springy trot, through a scatter of foot-passengers hurrying to the Ferry, along the slope from the shore and onto the level of the New Chester turnpike. The rumble of iron tyres and the rhythm of the horses’ shoes were a broad ribbon of noise through which occasional pebbles chinked and flew.
George remarked, “I thought you would have ridden inside, sir.” Mulvey didn’t reply, so he leaned down to repeat the observation.
Mulvey said, “Ah, I had an inside seat booked, but seeing it was you driving I thought I’d come up and join you.”
“I’m honoured, sir,” said George lightly. “I hope you won’t find it too cold.”
“Not at all,” said Mulvey, and sat watching George’s quiet handling of his team.
Approaching the New Ferry toll-gate, George shouted back to Hadfield to blow his horn. As a Post Office servant, the guard was in charge of the Mail and responsible for keeping it up to time, but Hadfield always seemed to leave his horn calls late, which made the gates slow to open. George hated that. It wasn’t fair to check the horses and then hurry them to make up time they need not have lost. After his first journey with Hadfield, he’d rounded on the guard for being a poor judge of pace – when he drove the day coaches he’d managed without a guard, blowing his own calls, and begod he could do it again if he had to. Nothing wore down the horses more than constant changes of pace. Hadfield shrugged and retorted that the day-coach was contemptibly slow, compared to the Mail. George argued that smooth driving was the most efficient in the long run, and he couldn’t be efficient if Hadfield didn’t play his part. Hadfield answered that the Post Office didn’t own the team and the horses were hired to get the Mail forward. They could die in harness for all he cared. It “wouldn’t do George no good to bust a blood vessel over it, and if coachmen weren’t no good they got replaced.” As far as George was concerned they were still at odds over the matter.
At New Ferry, there were letters to deliver to the postmaster. Hadfield threw the mailbag down, caught the new one and dropped it into the boot, and blew his horn for the toll-keeper to open the gate.
George raised his whip in a salute of thanks, and drove on.
The rain thickened, the wind pushing it at their backs. Mulvey put up his umbrella, and when the wind prodded the spokes into George’s back, he transferred the shaft to his left shoulder without comment.
“Thank you, sir. Many a passenger wouldn’t have been so considerate.”
Mulvey only grunted, but the sound was friendly.
“Used to live down there, sir,” George said, indicating the Bebington road with a wag of his head. “Primrose Hill. When I was a boy, the Chester road ran by the bottom of the hill.”
“Not much more than a boy now! How old are ye? I bet you weren’t born when we beat Boney at Waterloo?”
“No, sir. The year after.”
“Hah,” said Mulvey, with satisfaction. “I do remember that road, but you’ll admit, this one is better-engineered.”
“Yes, sir – I’ve heard it takes half an hour off what the journey used to be. It’s straighter. And it cuts out the hills, so we don’t need to stop and put on the drag-shoe.”
“I daresay that pleases your guard.”
“Better for the horses altogether.” George passed over Hadfield’s shortcomings. “It’s a good surface. I thought all that frost might have broken it up, but it hasn’t.”
“Aye, Brassey’s navvies made a proper job of it.”
Approaching the Ferry House at Eastham where they made their first change of horses, George shouted to Hadfield to blow again, then he steadied the team and swung into the stable-yard. The moment they stopped, George jumped down to help the ostlers. As one man led away the steaming horses another walked the fresh team into place, the lead-horses already coupled, the wheelers still separate and their inside reins ready to buckle across. Hadfield was equally busy. He handed a mailbag to the postmaster, exchanged it for another onward bound, marked-up the waybill with their time of arrival, and took a short inside fare for Chester. The bustle was punctuated with sharp advice – you’ll need to gallop these four to keep to time – watch that chestnut, he bit a man today – if the grey starts to kick don’t hit him – send the others on and he’ll settle down… George checked the horses’ bits, fixed the wheelers’ traces and picked up their reins, then climbed back onto the box seat while the ostlers dealt with the lead-horses. They finished running the reins through the terrets and tossed the handparts up to him.
He half expected to find that Mr Mulvey had retreated to his inside seat, but he was still on the box, and seemed amused. “Two minutes,” he said, and put away his pocket-watch.
“It’s always quick when there are no parcels,” said George. He adjusted the reins so he could feel each horse’s bit equally, and Hadfield blew for starting. “Let ‘em go! Sit tight!”
The team lurched straight into a trot and the coach swayed across the gutter onto the road. Mr Mulvey took hold of the seat rail again.
“Will you gallop?”
“If I have to. I’ve had teams seem slow that were just long-striding. Let’s see what these can do.”
The team were cross-matched, the grey kicker and a chestnut as the leading pair, the fidgety chestnut and another grey as wheelers. Unable to guess what the two sour ones were thinking, Mulvey watched George encourage them, hold them, speak approvingly when they settled to a steady rhythm. “You have them in your hand now,” he said.
“Aye. Better check the time, though. Every minute down costs us a shilling – sixpence from old Jones and thruppence each from Hadfield and me!” He shouted back to the guard, “How are we doing?”
“Half a minute down. Go on, give ‘em some stick!”
George lowered his left hand to slacken the reins, and the team, expecting the whip to follow, broke into a gallop. The coach rocked and Mulvey clung to his seat. George let the leaders fully into their collars so their draught steadied the swinging of the pole, then after a few yards he lifted his hand again to bring the whole team back to a canter. With the coach riding easily, Hadfield blew a couple of exploratory notes on his key-bugle.
“Now we’ll have a tune,” said George to Mulvey. “It’s forbidden, of course. The Post Office say he’s supposed to be guarding the Mail, and nothing else.”
“You’re fortunate I’m not a Post Office inspector,” said Mulvey, “making a note of his frivolous behaviour.”
George only laughed, and added words to Hadfield’s tune.
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Dear, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.
He promised to buy me a trinket to please me
And then for a smile, oh, he vowed he would tease me.
He promised to buy me a bunch of blue ribbons
To tie up my bonnie brown hair.
The waltz-time struggled against the rhythm of the horses’ feet. At the end of the song a faint cheer from below signalled the insiders’ approval, and Hadfield showed off with a brisk medley of horn calls.
Mulvey said, “I wonder whether steam coaches would be any warmer than this.” He stamped his feet to restore the circulation, and the horses put on a spurt at the noise.
“Woo, boys, don’t waste yourselves. Johnnie must have threatened ‘em a time or two,” said George, in explanation. “Rattle your feet before you hit ‘em, and before long they’ll go when you just stamp … ”
“Gough tried it in Salford a few years back.”
“Stamping?” said George, startled. “Oh, you mean a steam coach, sir? Sitting on top of a boiler! I wouldn’t care to.”
“People do it every day on the ferries.¬”
George steadied the team down to a trot, swung them through a turn, and chirped to them to pick up speed again.
“That’s different. I doubt you’ll ever see a steam coach handling this kind of work!”
Mulvey shook his head. “Only because the coaching men found out how fast they could go.”
George heard the bitter note in his voice and said, tentatively, “I don’t know about that, sir.”
“They ran a private Bill through Parliament. It fixed the road-tolls for a steam coach at two pounds for every gate. And what does a coach pay? Three or four shillings! That’s very unfair.”
“No doubt they did it for the best, sir,” said George. “I don’t want all that clanking and growling and smoke on the road with me and my horses.” Round the next corner he saw that the road was filled with the ambling, muck-smeared backsides of a drove of cattle, walking to the market at Chester. “Damn.” He shouted back to Hadfield, “Blow up! Clear the road! I’m not stopping for this lot.”
The drover whistled to his dogs and threatened the cattle with his stick, and between smacked rumps and nipped heels the cattle were coerced to the grass verge, while George, swearing gently, swung the team past on the off-side of the road. With the cattle safely negotiated, Hadfield began to play Blow Away the Morning Dew.
“Aye, well,” said Mulvey, “the coaching men’ll have the tables turned on them soon enough.”
George wrestled with this for a few moments. “What do you mean, sir?”
“Stephenson’s been surveying for a railway line between Chester and Birkenhead. He’s already parcelled out the work to contractors. It could easily take the Mail,” said Mulvey. “And there’ll be dozens of other lines built soon, judging by the number of bills before Parliament.”
George stubbornly shook his head. “It’ll be good if they can take the slow stuff off the roads. Like the cattle back there. But look here – if a tree should fall across my way, then I can go round it, but on a rail road, there is no way round. And when it was frosty, the roads were good, but Hadfield will tell you, it was too slippery for the trains to go!”
“How does he know that?” asked Mulvey, interested.
“I suppose he spoke with the guards on the other London mails. Anything that went for any part of its journey by rail was after time. The only London mail that kept time was the one from Holyhead. And that – ”
Mulvey said, “Let me guess. That Mail went the whole distance by road.”
“Exactly, sir,” said George. “When they send the Mails by rail they can be up to an hour late.” And feeling that he had thoroughly made his point, he conceded, “I dare say that in shipping, steam power is quite a different matter.”
Mulvey gave a short laugh. “Thank you kindly, young man. I fancy I know my own trade.”
“And I hope I know mine, sir.”
“So you wouldn’t give this up, to go navvying on the rail road? You’re a solid young man. They say for a labourer it’s the king of trades.”
“Oh, no, sir,” said George, startled. “I’m not that stout, sir, it’s these coats. Horse work is where my talents lie.” Solid, indeed!
“It pays well,” said Mulvey. “Better than this, I’d say.”
George, with an eye to his tip at the end of the journey, kept the irony out of his voice as he answered.
“Indeed, sir, I’ve been told that a navvy’s wage may be a few shillings more than mine, but I’ve always stayed by the horses.”
“What turned you from domestic service, then? Bed and board provided? You’d have some say in the purchase of the horses.”
“Well, sir,” said George, “I believe I have more fun with these teams. Their oddities keep you on your toes. I know my timetable, and I’m not expected to turn out at short notice on a master’s whim. I think I eat and sleep in more comfort than a domestic coachey – and certainly better than a navvy.”
“So is that the top of your ambition? To drive this road all your life?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, there’s coach coming.” Above the rumble of wheels and the horses’ crashing feet, he had heard a horn call ahead. Hadfield had heard it too, and was blowing Clear the Road again.
“That’s the Royal Liverpool,” said George. “We usually meet it around here.” He drew the team a little towards the nearside gutter, and Mulvey renewed his grip on the seat rail. The Royal Liverpool was a day-stage travelling almost as fast as the Mail, and although legally the Mail had right of way, the four galloping horses ahead of them would meet at nearly thirty miles an hour. Each loaded coach weighed two tons or more, and you could never be sure what horses would do. They were as likely to shy sideways into danger as out of it – the Mail’s team, swayed by the untrustworthy grey, was wavering from side to side. George shouted to them, not changing his grip on the reins, but his right hand poised to make lightning adjustments or strike with the whip if necessary.
“Git on, boys.”
The two coaches filled the road, shaking the ground with a thunder of shod hooves and wheels, pebbles clattering on the undercarriages. H heard a friendly shout the driver as the axle-boxes cleared each other. The two guards tootled acknowledgement. He shouted back, “Morning, Rob!” Then the road ahead was empty once more, the puddles at the far side of the road still shivering from the Royal Liverpool’s wheels.
Mulvey let out a gusty breath. Passing head on, at a gallop, was something to tighten the stomach of even the most experienced passenger.
“She was full,” said George.
Mulvey, still preoccupied with the risks of the road, said, “Eh? What’s that?”
“Eleven fares on top – and likely four inside. You asked me about ambition, sir – well, now I’m driving the Mail, I’d like to go to London and drive for Mr Chaplin. He horses more than half the Mails out of London. That’s what I want to drive. Quality customers on a long, fast run.” And with deep pockets, he thought. The Royal Liverpool’s full load would mean at least fifteen shillings shared between coachman and guard at the end of the stage, the perks for that journey alone adding another half to their weekly wage. And Mail passengers, appreciating the guaranteed times of arrival, tended to tip more.
“They call him the Stagecoach King. And they say, too, that unless you’ll drive more than 50 miles a day, Mr Chaplin won’t look at you.”
“No sir, it’s fair. Mr Chaplin, he’s like Mr Horne, the contractor for this Mail – they both started as drivers. So they know what’s possible.”
“You stick to the butterflies,” shouted Hadfield, from behind.
“He means the summer coaches, sir,” explained George, “short, day coaches like the Umpire.”
“You get onto a Mail run,” bellowed Hadfield, “and the boss will start you out in the sticks. Night-time changes! Bad harness and worse horses! Have to wake the passengers to get your perks!”
Instead of shouting back, George kept his tone level and went on to Mulvey, “Even on a day coach, you spend half the winter driving in the dark. You get used to it. I’ve always liked night driving and I don’t mind putting-to in the dark, so I fancy I’d be welcome on a coach that starts, say around midnight, and gets into London in the early morning. Just before dawn is the best part of the day. The roads are quiet, and the horses are lively. It’s as though they are telling each other wicked stories.”
Mulvey laughed in his chest, a sound rich with insinuation. “I hope you don’t tell the ladies that.”
“If I ever have a lady ride on the box, sir, I’ll be careful.”
“I know the guard stays with the Mail right through, but could you? Night after night? He can sleep, but you can’t.”
“I know some men who’ve driven sixteen or seventeen hours at a stretch, sir.”
Hadfield blew the moisture from the key-bugle with a derisory rasp. “Stop where you’re at, boy!”
George let out a sigh of exasperation, and Mulvey chuckled. “Never mind, boy, you work out what suits you best. I’d put in a good word for you if I knew where to say it.”
At the end of the run, with the Mail delivered to the Post Office in Foregate Street, the coach – and Hadfield – relinquished to the next driver, and the tired team led away to the stables, George thought back on Mulvey’s conversation. It was encouraging to know that the London coach proprietors banded together to fight competition.
He’d heard tales from the other drivers that on a fashionable road, such as London to Brighton, a high class coach could earn its driver as much as seven hundred pounds a year. He could well believe it. This evening he had “kicked” the insiders, with a bold and smiling look, into dropping a shilling each, and there was a crown to add from Mr Mulvey, so he’d had ten shillings to split with Hadfield. Quality passengers more than made up the difference in numbers between the Mail and his “butterfly” coaches.
Another month, maybe less, and he’d try for the London road. He thought Chaplin would be the man to approach first, but it wouldn’t really matter. Whether he asked Chaplin, Horne, Nelson or Sherman – one of them would take him on.
This is a spare chapter from “Coachman” published in 2012. Sue Millard’s web site is http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/