Stage Coaches

In order to run efficient coach services, roads had to be improved from the rutted medieval tracks. This was to be done by charging travellers to use the roads with a series of tolls. The first toll road in Hertfordshire opened in 1663. The Dunstable and Ponyards Turnpike Trust introduced a turnpike through the Redbourn in 1723. This was a continuation of the St Albans Turnpike. There was a toll gate at Friars Walsh. However, by the 1870’s the turnpike system was abandoned. The turnpike system heralded the great coaching age of the late 18 and early 19th centuries.

The speed of the coaches generally varied between 8mph and 9mph though speeds of up to 10mph were recorded in 1830.

It is likely that between 80 and 90 coaches passed through the village every day. Thus, there were a large number of inns. These would provide food, comfort stops and fresh horses for the onward journeys. The number of horses in the village and the quantities of hay required, let alone the logistics of clearing up after them, made the place have ‘a lively appearance’ according to the Trade Directories. Indeed, one Mary Lofty, a widow of 70, made a living by collecting the dung, first in a box and later, due to the generosity of her neighbours, a wheel barrow. She lived until she was over 84 years old.

The number of people on the coaches, perhaps up to 15, ensured a profitable passing trade for the inns. In 1756 there was stabling for 206 horses and beds for 72 travellers. The stables were at the rear of the inns, and therefore we have covered ways – ‘drive throughs’ in many places along the High Street. The larger inns could take the coaches and the smaller ones had room for the many carts. Redbourn was on a ‘Drove Road ‘from North Wales, thus many inns had large areas behind to pen the animals. Today they are car parks or have been developed. On Thursdays, droves of cattle passed through the village on their way to slaughter in London.

  The most famous coaching inn was ‘The Bull’. It had a large wrought iron sign that stretched half was across the road.  And a very large lantern over the front door.

Stage coach travel was very uncomfortable as only four passengers could sit inside, the rest sat on the top in all weathers surrounded by their luggage.  There was a strict timetable and many accidents were reported.  Robbery was also a danger especially when travelling at night. Kathleen Ferrers lived as a respectable lady in Markyate but, by night she became a highway ‘man’. Her true identity was only discovered when she was injured during a hold-up. She is known as ‘the Wicked Lady’.

The following is a list of the coaches that passed daily each way, through the village in the early 1800’s there were other special and unscheduled services as well as private ones.

Birmingham - Six coaches including "The Greyhound", "Tally-Ho", "The Economist", and "The Swallow"

Daventry - One coach, "The Daventry Accommodation Coach"

Halifax - One coach, The Royal Mail Coach

Holyhead - One coach, The Royal Mail Coach

Leicester - One coach, "The Union"

Liverpool - Three coaches including two Royal Mail

Manchester - Six coaches. "The Telegraph", "Red Rover", "Royal Defiance", "Royal Bruce", "Beehive", and The Royal Mail.

Northampton - One coach, "The Northampton"

Nottingham - Three coaches including "The Times" and "Commercial"

Shrewsbury - Three coaches. the "Stag", "Wonder" and "Nimrod"

Wellingborough - One unnamed coach

These services arrived all through the day and up to around midnight.  Inn keepers were warned of the approaching coaches by the stable lads, who would keep a good lookout shouting ‘Uphards’ or ‘Downhards’ so that horses could be ready for change.

In 1838, the London to Birmingham railway opened, running through Watford and Hemel Hempstead. Coaching centres such as Redbourn were described by The Times as ‘mere shadows of the past’. Traffic through the village now consisted of hay carts carrying fodder to London and returning with manure, locals going to St Albans and private carriages.  

Comments (1)

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    joe patton


    I am retracing the drovers route that became the stagecoach route from my home in Harlech North Wales to the Bull and Mouth, St martins-le-Grand, London. The journey required passengers to use three types of stagecoach services, described in the Bates Directory of stagecoach travel in the 19th century as being local, cross-country and London & Provincial. The stagecoach route from Harlech went through Shrewsbury where the Wonder service travelled through Redbourne, using the Bulls head as its stage post; I am cycling retracting the stagecoach route by bicycle and have completed stage 1 from Harlech to Shrewsbury and hope to embark on stage 2 next month. Can anyone tell me where the Bulls Head used to be and what building now replaces it? By way of thanks my bicycle story can be read here:


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