‘The coachman mounts to the box, Mr. Weller jumps up behind, the Pickwickians pull their coats round their legs and their shawls over their noses, the helpers pull the horse-cloths off, the coachman shouts out a cheery ”All right” and away they go’.
…So wrote Charles Dickens, describing the departure of a stagecoach in the heyday of coaching during the first half of the nineteenth century.
There is some uncertainty as to when public coaches first began to run into East Anglia. Possibly, a coach was running between London and Norwich in 1665, the year of the plague, as a proclamation was issued in Norwich ordering that ”from this daie all ye passage coaches shall be prohibited to goe to ye city to London and come from thence hither, and also ye common carts and wagons”. Passage coaches were more than likely privately owned coaches, but we do know for certain that a coach was running from the Saracen’s Head at Aldgate to Norwich in 1681. Aldgate was the general starting point and terminus for all East Anglian coaches. However distances from London were then measured as from Whitechapel Church.
In Dicken’s time, stagecoaches, both private and those run by the Royal Mail, carried passengers across the country from south to north and from east to west. Additionally, horse-buses carried both passengers and a variety of goods on local routes to wherever they were needed. Harleston was no exception. The town possessed three coaching inns: The Swan, The Magpie and The Cardinal’s Hat. There was also The Crown which, while not a coaching inn, was the starting point for a regular passenger service to Norwich. Harleston also boasted a number of carriers, some of whom based themselves at public houses in the town while others worked from their own homes.
The Swan was the stop for the Branch Royal Mail, going from Great Yarmouth to Bury St. Edmunds and vice versa, and also for the Branch Times running from Beccles to Scole and back. The Magpie hosted the Accommodation, which went from Yarmouth to Cambridge and returned the next day. The Star, which also started from Yarmouth, was the only coach stopping at Harleston that went on all the way to London without passengers having to change to another coach. Its Harleston stopover was at the Cardinal’s Hat. These inns, which serviced the coaches, provided considerable employment in the town.
The coaches worked regular routes and, the Mail coaches especially, had regular timetables, but coach travel was not particularly comfortable and was subject to numerous hazards.
For the first half of the nineteenth century the stagecoach reined supreme, only to be eventually ousted by the coming of the railway; in Harleston’s case the Waveney Valley Line.
Harleston – Stages Coaches and Carriers
Harleston was on a major coaching route and had many coaching inns where travellers could break their journey, have a meal, spend the night, and then transfer to another coach for the next leg of their journey. Four old coaching inns and the characters who ran them are presented here: the Swan, the Crown, The Magpie, and the Cardinal.
• Scole Inn