The Circus

The Circus

Pp.121-131 18 Sept 2010

18th C
In October 1759 Margaret Burr Gainsborough packed up and left her modest house in Ipswich. Before leaving the Gainsboroughs sold off not only items of furniture from the Brook Street house but also a number of Gainsborough's earlier painings and drawings, sending off the remaining household goods by waggon across country to Bath. Margaret and her small daughters prepared themselves for their first lengthy and arduous journey presumably by public coach, first to London, then on to the most renowned Spa town in the country.

Wealthy individuals had no need to use public transport. When the noted writer Fanny Burney was eighteen she made her first visit to Bath travelling in style as the guest of a family using their own splendid coach drawn by four horses. They were followed in procession by a poste-chaise conveying the family's maids, followed in turn by all the male servants splendidly attired in the family's colourful livery and riding horse-back, the whole cavalcade a spectacular sight as it clattered over the cobblestones and entered the high street. For the less wealthy there were regular stage-coach services running from London to Bath and back. Bath was, mid 18th C , home to about 15,000 permanent residents.

Journeys by road were uncomfortable, exhausting and hazardous. Footpads and highwaymen were a living nightmare. Some time later, in 1775, Gainsborough was travelling in a chaise heading towards Hammersmith in London when the vehicle was attacked by two men on horseback who threatened the artist before snatching his pocket watch and two golden guineas. Both highwaymen were eventually arrested, found guilty of several crimes and bath were sentenced to death. one of them, McAllister, was hanged at Tyburn two months later.

Large sums of money were necessarily carried by coach passengers in order to pay for their accommodation and food at inns enroute, not only for themselves, but for any servants accompanying them, turning these vehicles into honey pots for highwaymen.

Travelling by stage coach required the Gainsboroughs to go first to London to stay overnight and then face no less than three full days journeying on the coach to cover the distance of a hundred and twenty miles to Bath. The roads were rocky, narrow and rutted, jolting the passengers unbearably, the fear of attack constantly present.

Luggage on board was strictly limited and packing for the journey was as difficult for Margaret as it is now when travelling by air with new restrictions constantly being imposed. When James Boswell planned to travel from London to Oxford he wrote a note to remind himself to buy a small 'portmanteau.' If he could not find one he decided he would have to pack up his shirts, stockings and slippers into a 'bundle' and carry that to the coach. Always aware of the necessity to economise, Boswell was then in a quandary when comparing the cost of a night's rest at the inn, from which the sage-coach departed, against the disadvantage of sleeping in his own bed and having to rise at an unreasonably early hour in order to leave home to be at the inn on time for the coach and so save a shilling on the hire of the room. It was necessary for him to reserve his seat in the coach which he referred to as 'the machine.'

The stage-coach mid 18th C was a heavy lumbering vehicle which carried six passengers inside, drawn from all social levels, offering a wide variety of experiences otherwise unfamiliar. People ascended and alighted at different stages, characters in a play who might offer any number of strange encounters in the crowded interior of a vehicle which became a kind of theatre as passengers chatted about themselves. The coach arrived at inns at inconvenient hours, often stopping for too short a time for passengers to eat or sleep as long as they would have wished.

On one occasion as a young man Boswell was called at 3 am to take his seat in a coach travelling from London to Scotland. The other passengers were first his own brother, a commercial traveller then joined him followed by a Scottish maid servant and Lord Tankerville's steward. As passengers spent days on the road together and stayed in the same inn at night, a certain intimacy was difficult to avoid.

On another trip Boswell's sole stage companion was first a young chambermaid travelling alone, replaced at the next stage by a gentlewoman, also travelling alone. (Clearly, women of different social classes travelled unchaperoned at this time). Then a strolling player came aboard and after he dismounted, a schoolboy on holiday took his place.

On one journey Boswell described how he and his companion shared the more expensive but infinitely preferred journey by chaise which accommodated only two passengers. For the first few hours the two young lawyers studied their legal documents and then passed the time by singing, Boswell's companion choosing arias from The Beggars' Opera.

Main roads tended to follow the ancient Roman roads by then fallen into a sorry state and at times disappearing into narrow muddy lanes or rutted cart-tracks crossing water-logged bogs or stony waste land. Powerful horses were required to haul the heavy coaches and running footmen were often employed by wealthy families to run alongside carrying heavy poles to ease the vehicle out of holes in the road or over difficult stretches. Coaches overturning were frequent events with consequent injuries to passenges and horses. Broken linch pins or axles were a common cause of accidents and delays. In one of the Duchess of Portland's many journeys in the UK a maid following her mistress's coach in a waggon was thrown out in an accident. The wheels of the heavy vehicle ran right over her. She died in agony three hours later.

Sometimes it was considered more comfortable to walk beside the coach than to be thrown about inside. In winter passengers bundled themselves up in cloaks and wraps and huddled together to keep warm. Pity the cheaper fares clinging on up top, braving icy rain and freezing gales, with no shelter but a great coat to protect them.

In 1769 London society buzzeed with the talk of a new machine that operated WITHOUT HORSES. A man sat in this 'horseless carriage' and turned a handle which worked a spring that drove the machine forward. Wise old Dr Johnson was, on this occasion, unwilling to be impressed. The only gain he could see was that the operator had a choice: whether to move himself alone or move himself and the machine as well, so dismissing perhaps the first intimation of the invention of the motor-car.

Today the local Bath authority is everely criticized by citizens and visitors alike for car-parking problems and consequent high rate of charges. Surprisingly, the first parking fine was introduced in the city as early as 1650 when a new by-law was passed prohibiting anyone from permitting any kind of 'beast' to stand in any street in any one place for more than fifteen minutes for any purpose, including feeding the animal.

Traffic jams are not a recent problem. At the coronation of William and Mary in April 1689 Peers of the realm were requested to leave their coaches at home and arrive at Westminster Abbey BY SEDAN CHAIR ONLY to prevent serious congestion in the vicinity.

21st C

Writing about coach travel reminded me of the following incident published in my book on ghosts: TRUE GHOST STORIES OF OUR OWN TIME, Faber and Faber, London, 1991, pp 15-17. Reprinted several times the book is now out of print and only available second-hand or on the internet. The following is an example of what is known as a timewarp experience:

"A friend told me about the bizarre experience of Susan, her highly respected employee. A woman of mature age, neat, precise, and rather shy, Susan is reluctant to discuss the event with strangers, and wishes to remain anonymous. She did agree to talke to me, however, and the following story is taken from a recording of our conversation made in Bath on 10 May 1988.

In about 1968 Susan and her late husband were driving along a tarmac road near Marksford on the outskirts of Bath. It was very familiar territory to the couple, who often walked their dogs in that area, near their home. Susan was sitting in the passenger seat next to her husband who was driving. There was no one else in the car.

The journey was uneventful until all at once, with absolutely no warming, Susan found heself flung backwards in time.

'Suddenly the road was a track and there were a lot of people around a stage coach which had overturned. There were armed men, boxes strewn about the ground and deafening noise. But no one appeared to be hurt. I don't know what century it would have been - probably about a hundred years ago I should think.'

The coach, painted black and trimmed with red, appeared to have overturned recently, spilling boxes and baggage all over the rutted track. The four horses were hysterical with fear, but still in harness, struggling to keep on their feet as the armed men, who appeared to be highwaymen, rushed around shouting orders to passengers and coachmen. The confusion was indescribable. Susan wa unsure of her own role in this scene:

'I don't know what part I was playing in this, whether I was boy, man, girl or woman, but I was right in the middle of it, and totally unafraid.'

This aspect of the experience seems to be the one which surprised her most of all. She emphasized how utterly unafraid she was of the armed men (whom she described s being dressed in dark coloured clothing, perhaps red). The confidence she felt in the midst of the confusion was quite foreign to her normal reserved nature. In retrospect she believes she might have been a member of the highwaymen's gang.

Beyond that she could not say whether she was young or old, male or female, or what kind of clothes she wore. She had the impression that the people involved in the scene were young rather than old. She could not see any individual's facial features, or estimate the number of people involved in the chaos. But she was convinced that she had arrived on the scene at the precise moment the coach had overturned.

Projected without warning into the centre of this noisy disaster in time past Susan was acutely aware, throughout the experience, of her other self, her current life in 1968. She was conscious of being two people at once, she told me, but in two different time scales.

She described her raction as one of impatience and almost anger, certainly of deep regret, at being dragged back into the present when her husband stopped the car at a crossroads and spoke sharply to gain her attention. He demanded to know what was wrong - he had spoken to her several times and she had not replied. When he glanced at her as he waited for the traffic to pass, he was disturbed by her appearance. 'You look so strange, ' he said.

A straightforward, matter-of-fact man who had never experienced anything remotely resembling what his wife then described, he accepted her explanation because, he said later, Susan was so clearly not with him on the half-mile stretch of road between the time of her last remark and the moment at which they reached the crossroads....It was only when her husband spoke her name for the third time that Susan was drawn back from the scient of the stage coach disaster to re-enter the 1960s."

The experience was never repeated.