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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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