THE AGE OF THE STAGE COACHES
The early modern era saw the emergence of Stage Coaches as the fashionable and fastest way to travel – even the Royal Mail was transported by stagecoach! By the year 1800, stagecoach services from all over the west and southwest of England converged on Hounslow on their way to London.
Every day 500-stage coaches changed four tired horses for four fresh horses in Hounslow. Mr Chaplin owned many coaching inns in London and owned a large stable at Hounslow. The Royal Mail coach would set out from Mr Chaplin’s inn The Swan with Two Necks and its first stop on the journey west would be Chaplin’s stable next to the Kings Head Inn at Hounslow. Hounslow was the busiest small town in the country. While the coaches changed their horses the inns served their passengers with fast food and something to drink. The passengers had to be quick...a change of horses could be done in just a few minutes by a well-trained team of grooms and the Royal Mail coaches prided themselves on keeping to a fast schedule – they wouldn’t wait for anybody!
The vast expanse of the dark heath attracted many visitors looking to make a fast fortune. Highwaymen and women notoriously patrolled the area making Hounslow Heath one of the most dangerous places in Britain for two hundred years. As the primary stop for coaches heading west from London, Hounslow had become a thoroughfare for rich travellers, providing ample pickings for the waiting robbers. Some even set up networks of spies throughout the town, using Hounslow’s urchin children to find out who the best targets were. The children would play innocently in the towns’ Inns and stable yards, listening out for rumors of riches travelling across the heath. Any information would then be reported to the highwaymen and women in exchange for a little pocket change.
Many highwaymen and highwaywomen made their names on Hounslow Heath. The most famous was Mary Frith, nicknamed Moll Cutpurse, who lived in London and made her living from theft and fencing. Dressing in male clothing, Moll pushed the boundaries of acceptability in 17th century society and on more than one occasion she was arrested for indecency. She was also thought of as the first English female smoker, commonly seen with a pipe, then a habit of men only. Her life caused much spectacle, many plays and stories were published about her exploits. The most famous of these is her supposed robbery of General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath during the Civil War. Though probably made up, the story has Moll shooting the General in the arm before making off with a purse of gold coins!
Quaint Signs of Old Inns, from Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, ill. Herbert Railton and Hugh Thomson, London: MacMillan and Co.,1888, p. 206.
Not all highwaymen and highwaywomen were renowned for indecency. Claude Duval was a young robber from France who became famous for his gallant ways and lack of violence on the roads. Working as a footman to a nobleman after the Civil War, Claude learnt the manners of upper society at a young age. By 1666 he was a known highwayman and had developed a reputation for being well dressed and popular with the ladies. Famously, Duval held up a carriage containing a nobleman and a lady on Hounslow Heath. In an attempt to appear confident, the lady began to play a flageolet, to which Duval was so impressed that he began to dance in front of her. After they had finished dancing, Duval escorted the lady back to her coach whilst remarking to the nobleman that he had not paid for the music before stealing his purse of coins. Duval was caught in London and sent to Newgate. He was so loved that even King Charles II attempted to save him, but the judge was adamant and he was hanged for his crimes. Many highwaymen were hanged at Tyburn and often their bodies were displayed on gibbets across Hounslow Heath to warn other highwaymen and highwaywomen of the punishment for their crimes! The gibbets were kept in place until 1809.