It was odd, having breakfast in public, but it was part of the wager. Dawn was breaking over London as Sir William Ingram, the Honourable Richard Newman and Robert King of the Post Office sat and ate cold ham and beer in the ground floor parlour of the Swan with Two Necks, after a few bites Mr King rose.
“Thank you gentlemen, I will have to be seeing to the mail bags now. The coach leaves exactly at five.”
The two gentlemen continued with their meal, several people looking curiously at them through the window.
“Is everything all right gentlemen?” The landlord said, using the time honoured phrase.
“Thank you, yes.” Replied Sir William. The landlord hovered, clearly wanting to say more, Robert looked up at him expectantly.
“Is it true sir, that you are going to have your next breakfast hundreds of miles away, across the sea?”
“Yes, in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, if all goes well.”
“It seems wonderful to me sir, can you really go that fast?”
That was the question that half of London had been asking for the past few months. In the autumn of 1826, the owner of one of the packet boats at Weymouth had announced that he was buying a new steam ship. No one had ever tried using steam on any of the postal packets before, and there had been some objections. But when the owner claimed that his new vessel could make the passage to the Channel Islands in under ten hours, and do that regularly, the postal authorities got very interested indeed. With the mail coach regularly running from London to Weymouth in fifteen hours, it mean that the mail could reach St Peter Port in one day.
The Watersprite had already made three voyages to the Channel Islands, on one the engine had broken down and they had proceeded under sail, on the others the steam engines had worked perfectly, but there had been bad weather and the vessel had taken far longer than predicted to make the journey.
Today though, the mail would be carried on the new steam ship for the first time, and the Postmaster General was keen for it to break all records. Wagers were being laid on the result and the two gentlemen had been fortunate enough to persuade the post office to let them travel as well.
The Swan with Two Necks – the departure point for the West County Mails
There was a call from the yard, the gentlemen stepped out to see the coach, bright and shining that spring morning, the coachman was already on the box, Mr King by the open door. They stepped on board and took their seats, there was a crack from the coachman’s whip, the crowd of onlookers cheered and they were off.
A Threat – and the Telegraph
Three hours later, as the coach was approaching Bagshot, a thin man in a dusty coat, slipped quietly into the General Post Office. He was stopped at the door, but as soon as he identified himself he was rapidly hurried though the corridors to a large office. The Postmaster’s Secretary greeted the man, then sat in shock when he explained.
“Have you heard of the Luddites?” The Intelligence Agent asked.
“Yes, aren’t they the men who have been destroying mills in the north?”
“That’s them, they claim that steam powered mills are taking away work from the hand loom weavers.”
“But you said that the Channel Islands mail was in danger.”
“Yes, some Luddites don’t just hate the steam engines in mills, they hate all engines, including steam ships.”
“But steam ships don’t take away work from sailors, there are as many men on the steam packet as on the sailing ones.” The Secretary said indigently.
“That doesn’t matter, they just hate engines, and this race to Guernsey has caught the public’s attention. If they can stop it they will.”
He paused, then continued.
“We have a spy in one of the radical groups, last night he was told to prepare for some sort of disaster happening to the mail. He was only able to get a message to headquarters this morning.”
“But what use is that now, we cannot stop the mail or warn the Watersprite.”
The Secretary’s clerk, who had been seated in one corner of the office, listening intently, suddenly spoke.
“What about the telegraph?”
The two men looked at him in surprise, the Secretary was the first to speak.
“But that belongs to the Admiralty, it is just used to send messages to the navy.”
“At Portsmouth and Plymouth, look.”
The clerk walked to a cupboard and pulled out a map, spreading it on the table he indicated the main turnpike road to the West Country.
“The Plymouth line of stations runs just to the south of the turnpike, if we send a message along the line, instructing the operators to send a message to the turnpike, we should be able to warn the coach.”
“Good, but what about the Watersprite? We cannot get a message to her. There is no telegraph to Weymouth”
“No, but there was, when the king went to stay there during the war, there was a short spur down to the town. That is the reason why the line of the telegraph dips down into Dorset. Now if the station at Melbury Down could send a messenger to Weymouth.” He glanced at the clock, “They could have the warning by one.”
The Agent nodded, “Come with me, I am sure I persuade the Admiralty to help, especially as a Packet Ship is in danger.”
A Telegraph Station
Shortly afterward they stood in the strange, tall, building on the outskirts of London. The operator took the first message.
“I am sending warnings to the stations, here, here and here.” The Secretary pointed at the map. I can only guess how fast the stage is going and at least one of the messages should reach them. Then there is this message for Melbury Down.” He was about to pass it to the operator, when the Agent stopped him.
“Add a warning – only use a trusted messenger, there are too many radicals in Dorset. Plenty of people there who would love to interfere with any warning.”
He added a few words to the message, then passed it to the operator. Referring occasionally to a code book he turned the message into a series of numbers, then handed the paper to the second man who stood by a series of leavers. He pulled them one after another, like a strange dance, they heard creaking from above as the massive shutters swung in the air, sending the message to the next station several miles away.
With the last message sent the operator invited them to climb the tower, by a small window sat a man, looking through a telescope. Peering through the window they saw the next tower in the line, suddenly its arms began to move.
“Station 21, will comply.” He suddenly called, the man alongside made a note in his book.
“The first of the messages has been received, hopefully a man is now on his way to meet the mail.” Explained the operator.
The Secretary looked at his watch, less than ten minutes after the message had been sent.
They waited there for another twenty minutes, until they had the confirmation that the message had reached the station on Melbury Hill.
“There is nothing more we can do.” Said the Agent as they descended the tower, “Except wait.”
“And Pray”, replied the Secretary.
To be continued
(pictures from the British Museum website)