Transports of Delight!

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here! I have a manuscript to get to my editor today (eek!) and so I hope you will forgive me for dusting down and updating a blog piece I wrote a few years ago for a different blog.

The book I’m sending in today is called Desired and it is the fifth book in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series. There has been a strong theme of travel throughout the series – in Whisper of Scandal the heroine travels to the Arctic on a ship, and in One Wicked Sin the hero and heroine escape in a balloon. (I had wanted them to escape on a canal barge but I thought it might be a bit slow!) Desired contains a great deal of travel in and around London, a sort of early sightseeing tour. What with all this jaunting around, plus the marvelous array of state carriages that featured at the recent Royal Wedding, I thought it might be nice to talk a little about coaches and horses. (Actually I thought the horses totally stole the show at the Royal Wedding. They were magnificent!) 

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to go to an illustrated talk about the Wedding horses history of carriages, given by Colin Henderson, who had been the Queen’s Head Coachman. Not only did he have some wonderful anecdotes about the Golden Jubilee but he had also worked as a riding specialist and stuntman on a number of films and included the role of highwayman on his CV! He gave us a brisk trot through the early history and background of carriages – the word coach, for instance, comes from the Hungarian Kote – but it was when we got onto the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that my note-taking went into overdrive because he had so many fascinating little details that I had never read in the books.

After explaining to us the difference between “the leaders” – the leading pair of horses – and the Postilion's uniform “wheelers,” the two closest to the carriage, he told us that to ride postilion meant riding one of the front horses and leading the other. This was a hazardous enterprise as it meant that one of your legs was between the two horses and was in danger of being crushed. Postilions wore a steel leg guard to protect them in this position. Here is a Russian postilion's uniform from 1825.

The provision of lighting on both the inside and outside of carriages has always Mail coach interested me so I asked if there was any illumination inside and was surprised to learn that there were candle-lamps inside a carriage as well as out. The smoke apparently made a mess of the upholstery! I had not quite appreciated what a hazardous business traveling at night could be, especially on the Mail Coach. The external lights carried no further than the first horse so you could not see the road ahead at all. Coachmen had to have extremely keen hearing to listen for the sound of approaching hooves. Since the mail carriages traveled at up to 10mph and some coachmen accelerated down the hills in order to gain momentum and make up time, the possibility of running into the back – or front – of another coach or hay wagon was very strong! I was also fascinated to hear that the coaches changed horses on average every 10 to 12 miles, or 15 on the flat, and that a change of horses took only 2 minutes, rather like changing the tires on a racing car! Mail Coaches were numbered like buses are now and 16 hands was the largest horse that could be used to pull a three and a half ton Mail Coach because anything taller didn’t fit under the coachman’s footboard. The picture is the Glasgow to London mail coach. Love the red livery!

There were also some fascinating facts about the Grand Tour. The Duke of Beaufort’s traveling carriage was decorated in Regency stripe and had secret lockers under the floor for his valuables. It was rather like a caravan; the cushions folded down to create a full-length bed! Other luxurious touches included silk-lined steps, which were folded up inside the carriage to protect them.

I enjoyed learning the derivation of a few other coaching-inspired words as well – the “fore-gone” was the carriage that you sent on a day ahead with your servants, linen and silver, so that when you arrived, everything was prepared (or concluded!) The phrase “cheerio” originally comes from calling for a sedan chair – chair ho!

Craven State carriage This picture is the Craven State Carriage, a Victorian coach said to rival in magnificence Queen Victoria’s royal carriage. It is painted with seven coats of yellow paint, the most expensive color used for livery. Queen Victoria would not have been amused to be outshone! My favorite anecdote from the Victorian period was that the footboards on ladies’ carriages were enormous because it was thought indelicate that a lady should have to sit looking at the horse’s posterior!

I hope you have enjoyed this quick gallop through a few coaching Notorious_350 anecdotes. What historical mode of transport would you choose for traveling? Would you like to drive a curricle or arrive in style in the Queen’s State Landau? I’m offering an advance copy of my next Scandalous Women of the Ton book, Notorious, to one commenter!


Travels with my research

One wicked sin - US Nicola here! For my new book, One Wicked Sin, I delved into a lesser known part of British history and had a great deal of fun doing so. One Wicked Sin takes place against the background of the lives of Napoleonic War prisoners in Britain and it is something that seems largely to have disappeared from the history books. At one point during the early nineteenth century there were sixty thousand prisoners in Britain, either locked up in prison ships or high security gaols or, more intriguingly, given their liberty in country towns all over England and Scotland. These were not just French prisoners. I discovered that during that period just about everybody united to take on the British in war. There were Americans from the War of 1812-1814, there were Scandinavian privateers, Spanish, Dutch, and Irish soldiers and sailors. There were prisoners from the West Indies, who had to be issued with extra clothes to keep them warm in the British weather. I wanted to find out more about their stories so I visited two very different places; Portchester Castle, which had been used as a prison to house Napoleonic prisoners of war, and the town of Wantage, where prisoners had been given their liberty to live amongst the population.


I visited Portchester on what felt like the wettest day of the year (which those of you who know England Porchester castle will realise is no small matter.) I was the only visitor at the castle that morning and the sheer miserable state of the weather added enormously to the atmosphere. As I stood in the massive keep and saw the water running down the walls and listened to it dripping relentlessly and heard the wind howling in the tower I thought that had I been incarcerated in here I would very likely have run mad.

Interior of the Keep Portchester Castle dates originally from Roman times so by the time it was used as a prison, from the start of the 18th century, it was already ancient. There were many complaints about cramped conditions and protest riots. Despite the building of an "airing ground" where prisoners could take exercise within the confines of the Roman outer wall, overcrowding at Portchester continued to be a problem.  The men slept in hammocks and were allowed a sleeping space of only 2 foot 6 by 6 foot. It is no surprise that in such conditions tempers would fray. The picture gives an idea of what this would have looked like. I stood in the vast keep of the castle – it's empty now – and imagined it festooned with hammocks only 2 foot apart. The noise, smell and crowding would have been overwhelming.

The prisoners were very creative and spent a great deal of their time making craft items which they Carving would then sell at market.  This picture shows an item made by one of the Portchester prisoners, who also entertained themselves by forming a theatre troupe and performing various productions including Rossini's Barber of Seville sung to the accompaniment of a twelve piece orchestra!

Another useful resource was a recent Time Team archaeology programme (for those who have not seen it, Time Team is brilliant!) which excavated the prison camp at Norman Cross near Cambridge. There's a link to the Time Team article here. Norman Cross was built new to house the increasing number of prisoners from the wars.  Compared to the dripping medieval keep at Portchester these new prisons may well have seemed state of the art but conditions in them soon deteriorated and disease was rife. Within a few years Norman Cross had developed a reputation for being a place of hard gambling. Many gaming pieces have been found there and in some cases prisoners froze in the winter because they had literally gambled the clothes off their backs. There is a link here to the Norman Cross website.


Wantage In stark contrast to the treatment meted out to the common soldiers at places like Portchester and Norman Cross, the life of an officer on parole was very different. In order to research this in more detail I visited my local parole town, Wantage in Oxfordshire. The first point that struck me about many of the parole towns was that they were very small. Modern day Wantage has a population of ten thousand people. In 1800 it was much smaller so that an influx of foreign officers into the population would have created quite a stir and had a cultural effect as well as a political one.

The second point that hit me was that there is very little in Wantage and a lot of other parole towns to Leek Memorial mark the fact that foreign prisoners of war ever lived amongst the population. At Leek in Staffordshire, another parole town, there is a monument to the prisoners who lived – and died – there. In Wantage there is no public acknowledgement. In the museum, though, I had my most exciting moment of my research when I held in my hand the original letter from 1809 from a French colonel who was also a Duke addressed to his bankers Coutts, in London, asking them to transfer some money to the local bank in Wantage to cover his costs whilst he lived there on parole. The letter was in the original French and he was asking for 123 pounds – but that was just for a few months and in addition to the allowance all parole prisoners also received.

The life of a parole officer was pretty civilised. Although they were under curfew and were not allowed to go more than a mile out of the town bounds, they were accepted socially and invited to dine with the local gentry. They had given their word – their parole – not to escape but some did of course attempt it. Others eloped with local girls, or intermarried and stayed in England and Scotland after the end of the Wars. Some taught French and dancing (a great way to meet the local ladies!) They played billiards, formed theatre groups and spent their money in the local shops. In many places, Wantage included, the only thing that marks the fact that these men were ever there are street names such as Frenchman's Walk. The American, French and Irish prisoners who once bought their brandy in the The Bear Inn or who joined the parties at Becket House have vanished forever.

A Question and A Prize!

Whisper_350 For me, holding in my hand that letter written by the French Duke was the highlight of my research and a very special moment. Have you ever discovered anything exciting that linked you directly to the past? If so what was it and how did you feel? If not, what would you like to find? I'm giving away a set of my trilogy books, Whisper of Scandal, One Wicked Sin and Mistress By Midnight to one commenter.