The Mail in danger
The coach pulled into the Crown at Basingstoke, as the ostlers hurried to change the horses the passengers stepped into the inn to grab a swift meal. The waiter placed plates of chops and tankards of ale in front of the hungry travellers. As they began a boy ran into the room.
“Are you the gennlemen from Lunon?” he asked.
“Yes, and get out.” Snapped the waiter, aiming a slap at the boys head.
“Got a message to you from the telegraph.” The boy called out, expertly ducking under the man’s hand.
“What, give it here!” Called Mr King. A glance at it and he swore, then dashed from the room. Sir William followed, Richard paused for a moment and tossed coins to the waiter and the boy. As the men left, the waiter looked at the coin and whistled, it was a half sovereign. “What was in that note?”
“This is serious gentlemen.” Mr King looked round at the four men, his companions, the driver and the guard. “There seems to be a plot against this journey, by a group of luddites.”
“Do you think the coach may be attacked?” asked Sir William.
“I doubt it. They loath machinery and I suspect the plot will focus on the ship. But we must be prepared.”
When the coach pulled out of the Crown twenty minutes later, the guard’s blunderbuss was held at the ready, his pistols were freshly primed and loaded pistols lay on the seat covers beside all three of the passengers. It would take a very determined foe to stop them now.
The Attempt on the Mail
The coach had left Basingstoke, with the men on board fully primed for an attack. But nothing happened, as they rolled through Hampshire and into Wiltshire, they began to think that the warnings had been exaggerated and they relaxed.
It was after passing Salisbury that they realised that the danger was real, the sun was getting low as they passed though the gap of Bokerley Dyke and into Dorset. The coaching was running well along the white chalk road, and was making very good time. Then suddenly the coach slowed,
“What is it man?” shouted Mr King.
“Something in the road.” The coachman replied.
“I will go and look.” Said the guard.
“No, you stay there and keep watch. I will go.” Called Mr King, he opened the door and, pistol in hand, he looked down the road.
A few moments later he climbed back in saying, “Just a branch laid across the road, easy to move.”
“Accident or deliberate?” asked Sir William.
“The branch was fresh cut, I think it was intended to slow us down.”
There were three more branches, each like the first then, as they crested the hill just beyond the village of Martin, there was a farm waggon drawn across the road.
“I think this is more serious gentlemen.” Said the driver as he slowed the coach. The men checked their weapons. As they approached the waggon they saw three or four men standing behind it, they were dressed very strangely, in leather jerkins with helmets that looked like bee skeps.
“Deer stealers.” The guard muttered, “They are dressed for a fight. That is what they wear when they expect to fight the gamekeepers.”
As the coach halted two men stepped up to the coach. One had an old musket, he pointed it at the guard.
“Get down, we don’t want to hurt you, just stop the coach.” For a moment there was silence, then there was a loud click as a gun was cocked.
“I suggest you stand away from your friend with the gun.” Mr King spoke softly, he stood behind the coach, a blunderbuss pointed at the men.
“Put your gun down or I will fire.”
The man paused, one of the other men shouted.
“He wouldn’t dare.”
“I told you to step away from your friend as I didn’t want you to get hurt if I fired. This gun would just about cut you in two, and the shot would probably injure anybody standing nearby. I once saw a highwayman who had been shot by a blunderbuss, they had to call a tailor to sew his corpse up so it would go neatly in his coffin. And as for daring to shoot, you are stopping the Kings Mail – that is a hanging matter, if I were to shoot you now I would be congratulated by the judges for saving the county the cost of your trial and execution.”
The speech was having an effect, several of the men were backing away. The guard now shouted.
“Clear the waggon off the road and run. Be thankful we have to reach Weymouth and can’t take you prisoner.”
One of the men shouted, “You haven’t a steam engine?”
“Of course not, this is same coach that passes here three times a week.”
“But he said you had a steam engine and were going to kill the horses.”
“There is a steam engine on the boat we are going to meet in Weymouth, that is all.”
“Then he lied.” The man now turned to the others. “You see he did lie, I told you so, now move the waggon.”
They trundled the waggon off the road, as the coach moved away. Sir William looked at Mr King.
“Well done sir, I was worried we might have had to fight.”
“No, they were just misguided, no real danger.” He paused, “But there is one thing that worries me. In half the villages in England you will find one real troublemaker and twenty men that can be persuaded into any sort of mischief. But that’s not the case here, you notice that the man said ‘he’ was a liar. If it was a local man he would be more likely to say ‘Jim’ or ‘Tom’, I think there was outside influence here. Also this was just designed to slow us down, the real danger, I think, is to the Watersprite. We need to get to Weymouth as soon as possible, but I fear there may be other trouble ahead.”
The coach crested a ridge, and the coachman shouted.
“It’s the Woodyates Inn, there are men outside it.”
“Can’t we go round?”
“The horses cannot go on, we need to change them.”
“Prepare for more trouble then.” Mr King advised the gentlemen, they checked their weapons. As they approached they could see that there were five or six riders on the road, they pulled to one side as the coach stopped outside the inn. The ostlers ran to change the horses, the passengers now saw that three of the riders wore hunting jackets, one rode over to the coach.
“Captain James of the Blandford Hunt.” He saluted, then continued. “We had a message from young Hopwood, he had heard from the telegraph that you might be having trouble and asked us to see if we could help. Half the lads thought that it was a joke, but there is no hunting at the moment and any excuse for a ride.”
The horses had been changed, Sir William looked up at Captain James.
“Can you have two men ride ahead to check on the road? We really have had trouble. If the others can ride alongside and you can tell us about ‘young Hopwood’.”
Ten minutes later Mr King smiled.
“That is the first good news we have had since Basingstoke. The warning is on its way to Weymouth, it might even be there already.”
They rode on, John Hopwood had left messages as he rode to Weymouth, calling on all his hunting friends. At nearly every stop to change horses more men were waiting to take over the protection of the Mail, and at several places there were small groups of sullen looking men. As they left one group in Milborne, Richard Newman remarked.
“If it hadn’t been for the huntsmen I think we would be having even more trouble.”
“You’re right.” Replied Sir William, “Young Hopwood and his friends deserve a reward.”
“Which they will certainly get.” Added Mr King, “As long as we get to Weymouth.”
The Dorchester Road
As they drove into Dorchester Mr King said.
“We would normally stop to eat here, but I suggest we just change horses and push onto Weymouth.”
The other gentlemen agreed, and half an hour later they reached the top of the ridge that lay between Dorchester and Weymouth. The lights of the port twinkled in the distance.
“We should be there in less than an hour.” Called the driver.
“Let’s hope the message got through and the Watersprite is safe.” Added Sir William. The other men nodded and settled back as the coach slowly made its way down the steep hill.
To be continued
(pictures from the British Museum website)