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The First Speed Record – A Tale of 1827 – Part 3

The Race to Weymouth
As the coach headed on across the north Hampshire Downs the telegraph operator on Melbury Beacon was worried.

“I have to get this message to Weymouth, but how?” He muttered to himself.
He couldn’t leave the station, the other two men watching the stations on either side could manage for a few minutes, but Weymouth was twenty miles away, if he ran to Melbury Abbas to find a messenger, who could he send? He had to be able to trust the messenger, he knew how radical some people were in Dorset, and if the messenger was trustworthy, would he be putting them in danger if anyone guessed where he was going?
As he puzzled the answer came cantering across the downs!

A party of riders, two men and a woman, the operator grinned and waved. Seeing him the riders turned and rode towards him.
“You seem excited Mr Harris,” the first man spoke, “What is it? News from London? Have the French invaded?”
James Harris stepped forward, away from the station, and spoke quietly.
“It is serious sir, and I wondered if you could help?”
He handed Henry Radley the paper, Radley whistled and showed it to his companions. John Hopwood looked at his friend with a grin.
“Of course we can help, what do you say Henry, a race to Weymouth.”
“I’m for it.” He replied, he looked at Harris and said, “Yes, we can take the message, can you give me a second copy so we can ride separately, it would be best if there are people on the watch.”

As he went to copy the message the young woman spoke.
“And a different excuse than a race to Weymouth. You aren’t known as betting men, so anybody who knows you might get suspicious.”
“Have you a better idea Ruth?” Asked Henry Radley, she grinned.
“Yes, I think you and I will elope.”
The young men looked at her in shock. She continued.
“Half the county think you are courting me.”
“Half.” Spluttered Henry Radley.
“Three-quarters then.” She continued, “And they also know that your father is a leading Whig and mine a Tory.
“And they regard politics as an excuse for arguing over port after dinner. They would never object to us marrying.”
“But that is something the three-quarters of the county don’t know.”

The men were quiet, her brother was the first to speak.
“I think you have an idea there sister, what should we do.”
“Home first, I will get a bag and Mary, my servant won’t delay us and it will look more natural if we bring her. Henry will get a chaise ready, John will write a note to our father so he doesn’t get funny ideas if he hears what we are doing. Then we will start, you will wait a short while then follow.”
“After the villain that has abducted my sister.”


A Post Chaise

Less than an hour later they were off, the journey down the valley was uneventful, until they reached the toll gate by Durweston Bridge. As Henry paid for the ticket to clear the road to Blandford, Ruth looked around. She suddenly sat back beside her maid.
“What is it miss?” Mary asked, Ruth was silent until they were on their way again, then turned to Henry.
“There was a man watching at the gate, I recognised him, he was in the mob at Shaftesbury when we made the mistake of going there at election time. Papa pointed him out as a ‘dammed radical’, and said he had no business being there as he came from a village near Dorchester.”
“Do you think he knows about the message?” Henry said patting his pocket.
“I don’t know but I am getting worried now. I think this is more than a game, I think it is really serious, and I wonder about John, will he be safe?”


Despite her fears John passed thought the gate safely about half an hour later, the watcher smiled at the news of the elopement and tried to mislead John by suggesting the couple had crossed the bridge. John, however continued southward.


Weymouth Promenade 1820’s

It was mid-afternoon when the chaise ran into Weymouth, straight down the long promenade, still crowded with holiday makers, round the circus to the end of the pier where a small crowd was gathered watching as the last of the coal was loaded on board the strange looking vessel. The Watersprite was no bigger than several other ships in the harbour, but it was far wider with the massive boxes on either side that covered the paddlewheels and its main mast wasn’t made of wood but was a strong iron column that was already beginning to belch smoke.

The chaise ran straight up to the gangplank, making some of the onlookers jump out of the way, and the young couple, followed by the maid ran on board. The postilion, well bribed, told the tale of the elopement to France, making some of the crowd smile and others shake their heads in disapproval. The ‘eloping couple’, had made their way to the captain, who was at first angry with the way they had barged on board, then read the telegraph message in shock.
Slightly to Henry’s surprise the captain immediately accepted the message and sent for the first mate, he handed him the note.
“What do you think? How would you stop the vessel?”
“They could damage the engine, but if they were to do it here, then that wouldn’t be a disaster, just a delay in getting underway. Even at sea it would just be seen as something that happens, after all on the first trip to Guernsey the engine broke down. They want a proper disaster.” He paused, then continued slowly.
“I would blow the ship up.”
“How on earth would you do that? How would you set off an explosion on board the ship? There is no way you could get a bomb on board.”
“Oh, that would be easy, with the coal!”
“The coal – that’s impossible.” Snapped the captain.
Henry, who had been listening to the conversation, interrupted.
“No, I see what you mean. A shell mixed in the coal would do it.” He looked at the captain who looked bemused, the mate nodded however.
“It’s like a small cannon ball, hollow and filled with gunpowder. If it got thrown into the fire it would explode, and probably make the boiler explode as well. My father has a couple he brought back from the war, I used to play with them when I was a boy.”
“Yes, that would do it.” Muttered the captain, he turned to the mate and said.
“Watch all the men carrying coal on board, if any suddenly seem to want to leave stop them.” He turned to Henry and Ruth. “I would suggest you leave now. The fire is going strong, if it explodes now.”
Ruth stopped him.
“But we are supposed to be eloping, if we leave now it would look suspicious and I am sure the ship is being watched.”
The captain nodded, “You are very brave miss, now let’s below.”
In the cramped engine room, that took up over half of the ship, the men now started to search the coal. Henry and Ruth watched for a while then returned to the deck, where they saw John. He was prevented from getting on board, seeing them he grinned at his sister and friend. He knew the message had safely got through.

Weymouth HarbourSuddenly there was a commotion along the quay, a rider was galloping through the crowd. He turned and gasped, it was his father!
“What the devil is going on? Where is your sister?” demanded Sir George Hopwood.
“She’s on board, didn’t you get our note.”
“Yes, some damned nonsense, now I need to see Ruth and young Radley.” He pushed his way through the crowd towards the boat.
“Bu they won’t let anybody on board.”
He ignored him and strode up the gangway, the man tried to stop him but he just pushed past, the mate ran up.
“Sir, you cannot come on board.”
“I need to see my fool of a daughter.” He said, then seeing Ruth at the stern strode towards her.
“What tomfoolery are you playing at? A daft note about radicals then you go galloping off over half the county.”
“It’s not foolish sir.” Henry tried to say something, Sir George shouted him down. The argument got more vigorous, then the captain came up to them. He ignored their shouts and said simply.
“We have it.”
Sir George stopped suddenly, the captain handed him a metal ball.
“It would have gone into the boiler fire.”
Sir George went pale.
“God, I never liked these things. But inside a ship. Who could have done such a thing?”
“We have him, he tried to leave the ship when he saw us searching the coal.”
“Good, I know the magistrates here, shall I take him to them?” Sir George’s attitude had changed.
“Not yet.” Replied the captain, he gave a thin grin. “We have found two shells, and he claims that was all he placed. But I think that to make sure he was telling the truth he can work as a stoker, right by the boiler fire.”

Henry left the ship with Ruth on his arm, followed by her father and brother, all smiling. As they walked towards the Golden Lion they heard the rumour spread that her father had been reconciled to the match.
In the inn parlour he smiled at Henry and Ruth, and said conversationally.
“You will have to get married you know.”
“But you know there is no reason to.” Gasped Ruth.
“Oh, I know that.” He replied, “And if it had been up to me I would have ignored your scrape. But the tale of your ‘elopement’ reached you mother.”
“Oh no.” Said Ruth.
“And yours,” He said looking at Henry. Henry went pale. “And both your aunts.”
The young couple sat down in shock.
“And I was sent to tell you that your marriage is approved by everybody and there is no need for you to elope to France.”
“But if you explained….” Said Henry.
“I have no intention of doing so. I will let you try if you wish, but when I left they were not just planning your wedding but had moved on to deciding where you were to live. By now I expect they will be deciding on your children’s names.”
John suddenly interrupted by calling to them.
“It’s the mail coach.”
They all looked out of the window, at the coach that had left London only that morning. The guard sat on the box, covering the crowd with his blunderbuss. The crowd looked nervous as three grim faced men got out of the coach, each one holding a pistol.
“I looks like they had trouble on the road.” Said Sir George.

An hour later Ruth Hopwood, together with her brother and fiancée, watched as the Watersprite steamed out of Weymouth.
“Do you think they will get there by tomorrow morning?” Asked Ruth.


The Watersprite off Weymouth

Now back to reality
From the Sherborne Mercury, 1827
On Wednesday last, two gentleman having taken their breakfast in London, departed by the Magnet coach and arrived at the Golden Lion, Weymouth, the same evening, in good time for the packet so that on the following morning they were seated at their breakfast at Payns Hotel, Guernsey, all accomplished within 24 hours.

As for the events in the tale:
The Luddites were real, though they never threatened steamships as far as I am aware.
The Telegraph was real.
The Watersprite was real and could travel very fast for the time as the press extract proves.
The Deer stealers on Cranborne Chase were real and dressed as described
At this time there were men in the village of Martin that were easily led, and some who tried to persuade them not to get involved in violent protest.
Dorset was a radical county, there were violent protests in 1830 and 1831, and the elections at Shaftesbury were notorious for violence and corruption.

But the rest of the tale is complete fiction.


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The First Speed Record – A Tale of 1827 – Part 2

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.

Deer Stealer

“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 Refreshment

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.”

Yellowham Wood, County of Dorset

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)

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The First Speed Record – A Tale of 1827 – Part 1

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)


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