Coaching Inns & The Staging Inns, What are They?

For over a hundred and fifty years coaching inns prospered. Throughout that entire period, bigger and better premises were continually being built to meet the ever growing demand for fresh horses, food, drink and accommodation.

Then with the coming of railway, their demise was rapid and within eight years they had all but disappeared. The few that remain are a monument to their glorious past.


Before Coaching Inns

For centuries, inns have provided sustenance and accommodation for those on the road. The earliest of these travellers were pilgrims, so the hostelries were  found on routes to places such as Canterbury or Glastonbury, and at the ports used by those making pilgrimages abroad. No-one travelled for pleasure and most people spent their entire life in the same place.

The Cock and Pye is public house in Ipswich
This public house in Ipswich, Suffolk. It is located in Upper Brook Street. It was included in the 1689 list of pubs in Ipswich. The pub was formerly a large coaching inn, As the name might suggest, the pub was setting for frequent cockfights.

These inns were supported by the church and were usually located in the precincts of a cathedral or abbey, or just outside town gates. As these gates were shut at nightfall and not opened again until dawn, shelter was required for those arriving after dark.

Packhorse Men

The Oxford Arms in
The Oxford Arms in 1875. Picture taken by Alfred & John Bool of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London

Accommodation was basic, usually an earth floor covered in rushes. Men and women would both sleep in the same room on pallet beds. By the fourteenth century though, there were people whose very way of life meant regular travel, such as messengers, traders and packhorse men. More inns began to open as a result, but the accommodation was not much improved and food not usually provided.

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The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane
The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane was one of the last surviving galleried coaching inns in London. It stood near St Paul’s Cathedral between the 17th and late 19th centuries. Built in the 1600s before being rebuilt and extended after the Great Fire. The replacement of horse-drawn coaches by the railways inevitably led to its decline, finally being pulled down in 1876 to be replaced by warehouses

Guests brought their own, which would be cooked on request. Some of the better establishments in larger towns did serve meals, which could be eaten with the innkeeper at his table or privately in the guest’s room.

Post Roads

The fifteenth century saw a further increase in travel and more inns as a consequence, with a noticeable increase in quality. Then came the sixteenth century and the reign of Henry VIII. Henry wanted his communications delivered speedily and efficiently. This meant improving the postal service and in 1516 he created the position of Master Of The Posts.

The George Inn,
The George Inn, along Borough High Street, Southwark is the only remaining galleried coaching inn in London of the many that once serviced the numerous coaches that connected the city with the rest of the country.

Very soon afterwards, post boys in scarlet livery were travelling on horseback along the post roads radiating out of London. This wasn’t a public service, the mail carried was official, but there was enough traffic for basic inns with stables attached to open.

These offered the post boys accommodation and a change of horse, which was necessary every ten miles or so, as the animals were ridden hard.

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James I, who was James VI of Scotland before the union of the two countries, improved the post service between London and Edinburgh. In 1643, Charles I established the first post office in London and in 1660 Charles II established the general post office with it’s headquarters in St Martin’s-Le-Grand. Mail coaches and then passenger coaches departed from there.

Four Days To Reach York

A fortnightly stagecoach service started to operate between London and Edinburgh in 1658. It took four days to reach York and several more days to get to its final destination. Fifteen years later, when coaches began to go from London to Exeter, the journey took eight days.

The Trafalgar Way
The Trafalgar Way is the name given to the historic route used to carry dispatches with the news of the Battle of Trafalgar overland from Falmouth to the Admiralty in London. A typical plaque erected at a location where fresh horses were obtained. We intend to visit every one of them this year…

The stagecoach was so named because it travelled in stages of seven to fifteen miles at a time. Roads were rutted and muddy, and suspension was basic, so even a short journey would have been tortuous.

When the coach did stop to change horses, passengers wanted food, drink and for an overnight stay, as soft a bed as possible. This led to the small inns that had serviced the post boys being extended and new premises that offered more in the way of comfort.

Guests were no longer willing to put up with communal sleeping arrangements, so extra rooms were necessary. Bed and board though was not included in the coach fare and was an additional expense for travellers.

Thoroughfare Towns

New coaching inns sprang up in ‘thoroughfare towns’ which provided the main stops on routes leaving London. Until the mid 1750s when maintained turnpike roads began to appear, the maximum distance which a coach could travel in one day would be between twenty five and thirty five miles. This determined the towns where the bigger inns  would be located.

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Along the route between these, smaller premises would accommodate a midday stop for a change of  horses. On the road from London to Manchester, the main stopping points were Dunstable, Northampton, Leicester, Derby, Ashbourne and Buxton with midway stops in places such as Market Harborough and Loughborough.

Feathers Hotel, Ludlow
Feathers Hotel, Ludlow. Credit: Newton2 CC BY 2.5

Some that opened their doors for the first time during this period, such as ‘The Feathers’ in Ludlow, still exist today and are buildings full of living history. Often those that are still trading can be recognised by the archways which the coaches went through, to reach the stables at the back.

Most of course have long since disappeared but some would have been an incredible sight. The Bull and Mouth in London was a major departure and arrival point for coaches from all over England. It had underground stables that were so extensive, people came from all over the city just to see them.

The Old White Horse Cellar
The Old White Horse Cellar also known as Hatchetts White Horse Cellar at No. 155 Piccadilly, was one of the best known coaching inns in England during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In many towns a coaching inn would have been the largest and most imposing building after the parish church and the innkeeper a person of some importance.

Late Seventeenth Century Coaching Inns

By the late seventeenth century, coaching inns were more than just hostelries offering rooms to travellers. They’d become social hubs, hosting concerts, exhibitions theatrical performances, lectures, freak shows, balls  and banquets.

Clubs and societies such as the local hunt would use them as meeting places and sporting events were hosted, boxing and cock fighting in particular.

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A Georgian Coaching Inn
A Georgian Coaching Inn

Official meetings took place at the inn and over time rooms were allocated for specific purposes such as court sessions and inquests. This business though was later lost when public facilities like town halls, corn exchanges and court houses were built.

The £1000 Road Sign

The coach trade was a lucrative business and competition between the inns was fierce. Large sums of money were spent on elaborate signage. At The White Hart in Scole, Norfolk, where at one time forty coaches were said to  have passed a day, the sign straddled the road and was made up of twenty five lifesize figures, classical and mythological.

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It cost £1000, an eye watering sum at the time and was taken down in the early nineteenth century because of the exorbitant expense of keeping in it good repair. The figures were scattered and today no-one knows what happened to them.

Coach Travel Peaks

Coaching inns were at their busiest during the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, when coach and post-chaise travel were at their peak. The most popular inns were crowded to capacity both day and night.

New wings were added to provide extra rooms, stabling was enlarged, post boys worked in shifts around the clock and the fire in the kitchen never went out. In addition to the staff of waiters, chambermaids, cooks, grooms and  the like, some premises even had on-site barbers and hairdressers.

The Golden Cross coaching inn
The Golden Cross coaching inn is first recorded in 1643. In the 18th and 19th centuries departures included Dover, Brighton, Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Holyhead and York.

The increase in business brought with it new ways of working. Inns didn’t have communal dining rooms during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Poorer guests ate in the kitchen and groups were given private rooms. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Tudor and Stuart custom of a common table was revived for the coach breakfast and the coach dinner.

Resident guests or those travelling in their own post-chaises still dined in private, but other travellers sat at a big dining room or coffee room table and they all ate whatever food was on the menu that day together. It was not until the middle of the Victorian era that dining in inns, hotels and restaurants, as we know it today, separate tables in one room, became the norm.

The King’s Arms, Dorchester, Dorset
The King’s Arms, Dorchester, Dorset– immortalised in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – has an illustrious past, playing host to Queen Victoria, Admiral Nelson, The Rolling Stones, as well as being the first building in Dorchester to have electric light and a private phone connection.

The Giving Of Tips

One custom that did begin in the heyday of the coaching inn and is very much still with us, is the giving of tips or gratuities. Although back then they were discretionary and not automatically added onto your bill.

The Kings Arm's Dorchester,Dorset
Built on the main route from London to the South West, it underwent a large-scale rebuilding in the early 19th century when it was owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Everyone though expected a coin of some sort to be pressed into their palm. That meant the waiters, housemaids and other staff at every inn stopped at on the journey, along with ostlers, guards and most importantly the coach driver. It is estimated that on a journey from London to Edinburgh, these tips alone could have added up to as much as fifteen guineas.

The Railway

For inns in prime sites business boomed like it never had before. New coach routes were still being established and new premises were being built to accommodate them.

Then in the 1830s the railway came and the days of the coaching inn were immediately numbered. Railway tracks didn’t necessarily follow established routes. They cut their own way through the landscape, linking towns that were off coaching routes, while initially having no real presence in many locations where inns thrived.

The writing was on the wall and the shrewder innkeepers were quick to sell up and move on. Those that held on in the hope of a recovery, saw both rooms and stables become emptier and emptier.

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A hundred years previously when demand was on the rise, many private mansions became inns. Now the reverse happened, with many Georgian inns that had been famous in their day, being converted to private residences and farmhouses.

Throughout their history, inns had always doubled as storage depots for carriers, as they transported goods around the country. This practice continued, with remaining inns playing the same role, until just after the First World War.

Then army surplus lorries began to replace the horse and cart and they proved too big to get into the yards for loading and unloading.

In place of the coaching inn, railway hotels opened outside every major railway station, but they lacked the convivial atmosphere and had less appeal to travellers. Almost all of these have also now gone and in their place we have the familiar city centre hotels.