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.
Suddenly 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.