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1888: Extraordinary coach driving skills win bet; historic race passes through Cuckfield.

Updated: Mar 9, 2022




On Friday morning of last week the Old Times Brighton coach was driven from its London starting point, White Horse Cellars, in Piccadilly, to Brighton and back for a wager of £1000 to £1500 that the match could not be accomplished in eight hours.

The proprietors of the coach accepted the bet in the interests of Mr. James Selby, at the recent race meeting at Ascot, with the resolve that if they won, the £1000 should be presented to the well-known whip. The company consisted of Mr. Carleton Blyth, a gentleman who has been connected with the coaching interest for the past 15 years on all the roads out of London, who has driven the celebrated "Defiance" coach, and is well known on the Oxford and Cambridge roads Mr. M'Adam and Mr. Beckett also accompanied the veteran whip, as well as Mr. Walter Dickson and two visitors Mr. W. P. Cosier and Mr. Alfred Broadwood as passengers. Mr. J. Selby, the whip, has coached the Old Times almost for a generation, and has been well known on the Brighton road for the past twenty years. Mr. Percy Edwards, of Piccadilly, gave the start, and the time was taken throughout by chronograph.

James Selby c1880 colourised

At the commencement the team consisted of The Countess (near leader), Snowdrop (off leader), Brownhead (near wheeler), and Portman (off wheeler), belonging to Mr. M'Adam. The start was effected quietly punctually at ten a.m. The police kept the road clear, and soon after the departure 12 miles an hour was kept up.

Proceeding via Piccadilly, Grosvenor-place, and Buckingham Palace-road, over the Chelsea Suspension Bridge, Streatham (Horse and Groom) was reached at 10:28, and the horses changed in 47 seconds, some of the gentlemen getting off and assisting in the operation. The new team consisted of an old-fashioned thick-set lot, the leaders being a pair of chestnuts and the wheelers grays. A champion bicycle rider named O'Neill joined the coach hereabouts, and followed it as far as Merstham. The roads were a bit heavy at the beginning, but improved on getting nearer the chalk. The "whip" had an aversion to tram lines, and always took them at right angles.

Everywhere the coach was enthusiastically cheered. West Croydon was passed at 10.45 o clock. Thereabout two carts got in the way, but the workmen of the tram lines under repair quickly realised the situation, and allowed the coach to pass by removing some chains. Although the High-street in Croydon is one of the narrowest in the United Kingdom, the coach rattled through it in splendid style. Passing Croydon in uniform pace of thirteen miles an hour was maintained, the guard, Walter Godden, tootling on his horn all the way. The horses, on arrival at the Windsor Castle at Purley Bottom, were as lively as kittens. Another change of teams took place, which occupied 1 min. 5sec.

The drive to the next stage—Merstham -was nearly all uphill, but through a tract of cultivated country which looked particularly charming, with its cornfields and beautiful fresh foliage on both sides of the road; whilst the spirits of the travellers gradually heightened at the prospect of successfully accomplishing the feat. From Merstham to Redhill the near leading horse continued to trot, whilst his three companions went at a gallop. On passing the Queen's Arms, in the High-street, Redhill, a costermonger's donkey-cart got in the way, but the guard, Godden, on the horn, cleverly imitated an ass braying with such effect that the stubborn brute got frightened and deliberately went for the gutter. The roads after leaving Redhill at times became heavy, but nevertheless a good pace was maintained throughout, increasing at times between Earlswood and Horley to 20 miles an hour.

Contemporary illustration of James Selby's race from London to Brighton (and back) ; image shows 20 mph travel through Lowfield Heath

Horley was reached at 11:51, and Crawley at 12:11. Crawley, as is well known to coach travellers, is the largest village in the world, running as it does from the Sun to the Moon. It was here that the only hitch occurred, through the level crossing gates being closed, but by a little moderate persuasion the danger signal was put up and the coach allowed to go on, after a delay of only about two minutes. Another change took place at Peas Pottage (Black Swan), Cuckfield, Friar's Oak, and Patcham. The 52nd milestone was passed at 1.57. It should, however, be noticed that the run from Cuckfield to Friar's Oak was the fastest on the road, and is known as the galloping stage. On nearing the Downs the letter V, cut to commemorate the Jubilee, and which gave work to a large number of unemployed, showed up well in the sunshine.

Passing the entrance to Clayton Tunnel much amusement was caused by the guests clapping hands and frightening the rabbits in all directions. A fresh team was taken on at Patcham, and on the journey between that village and Brighton several gentlemen prepared telegrams ready to be handed in at the Queen of Watering Places," informing their friends they had not broken their necks. The coach arrived at the Old Ship at Ih. 56 min. 10 sec., having accomplished the journey in just under four hours. The stay at Brighton was only momentary, the horses were merely turned round, and a few telegrams handed up. One to Captain Blyth, from the Duke of Beaufort, read

"Thank you much, sorry could not go fine fresh day. Hope six o'clock will find you at the Cellars sharp. Work.—BEAUFORT."

This telegram gave great inspiration, and work the whip did. Slash went his whip, and off he drove, amid the cheers of a large crowd at Brighton. The party came back by the same route, everyone made way, and at numerous places en route bouquets were thrown on the coach. Stoppages were made at the Kennels, Friar's Oak, Cuckfield, Peas Pottage, Horley, Merstham, Purley Bottom, and Streatham to change teams, and ultimately Selby brought his party safe to town in splendid style, arriving at Piccadilly at 5:50, or 10 minutes under the stipulated time to win the bet, and 40 minutes within the record. Many members of the Coaching Club and naval and military officers were present, who greatly cheered Jem Selby and congratulated him on his success.

Brief pen portrait of James Selby

Stage coachman. Lived at 7 Edgware Road. On 13 July 1888, he established a record by driving “The Old Times” coach from Hatchett's Hotel to the “Old Ship” at Brighton and back - 108 miles in 7 hours 50 minutes - changing horses 13 times on the road. This in the year he died, aged 45. The Museum of London has a painting which depict Selby driving “The Old Times” on the day of the journey. Buried in Highgate Cemetery, following (though probably leading) a mile long funeral procession.

For more on James Selby's London to Brighton race please follow the link...


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