The coaching inn

In the early nineteenth century a business traveller coming to London from the north would have a choice of many coaching inns. In the city alone there were about 25 famous houses, many renowned for their accommodation. One such house was the George and Blue Boar, a medieval inn at 270 High Holborn, and one of several coaching inns in that area.

Coaches drawn by four horses left from the George and Blue Boar for Edinburgh nightly at 10.30 p.m. and stopped for the night only at Newcastle, averaging 7mph (11km/h), including stops for refreshment. The journey of 384 miles (616km) was, by the 1830s, just three days with twenty-seven post stops to change horses.

Courtyard of The George and Blue Boar Inn, April 1837 (courtesy Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre)

The George and Blue Boar was infamous as a stop-off en route from the East End to the hangings at Tyburn (Marble Arch). The convict would be escorted into the inn for a last drink, and the innkeeper would dispense it with a ‘pay me on the way back’, immortalised by Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, in his 1727 poem Clever Tom Clinch:

        As clever Tom Clinch, while the rabble was bawling

        Rode stately through Holborn to die in his calling.

        He stopped at The George for a bottle of sack

        And promised to pay for it when he came back.

Earlier, while Oliver Cromwell was working out how to deal with Charles I, a spy at the palace told him that his fate had been sealed in a letter on its way from the King. Unknown to the messenger, the letter had been sewn into his saddle. His first stop was the George and Blue Boar where Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton disguised as soldiers insisted at sword point on a search. They learned the King was to join the Scots to rid England of the rebellion and resolved ‘the King’s ruin’.

But in the 1830s there was a sense of foreboding at the inn. Discussion was dominated by the railways. The London and Greenwich Railway Company had floated in 1831, and others were in the wings, notably the London & Birmingham Railway, which in 1832 was planning a London terminus at Battle Bridge off Maiden Lane. The laying of bills before Parliament and the anticipated arrival of the iron roads represented a major threat to the coaching business, which was using some 150,000 horses before the arrival of the railways, equivalent to about one horse per route mile.