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Bertram Mills takes the reins to Worth on the London-bound coach

Bertram Mills driving a four-in-hand coach at the Richmond Horse Show (1931)
Bertram Mills driving a four-in-hand coach at the Richmond Horse Show (1931)

This item is from a book written by coachmen Dick Hunt who lived in the Cuckfield and Haywards Heath area, and experienced the dangerous job of getting the mail through. In this account he recalls having the company of Bertram Mills - another experienced coachman when he took the reins of the Brighton to London bound coach from Cuckfield to Worth.

The name Bertram Mills (1873-1938) is synonymous with the circus. But not many people know that he had a family background linked to coaching, and his circus business stemmed from his interest in horses.

Halford Mills, Bertram’s father, was the proprietor of a coach building firm in Paddington. While his grandfather, a Baptist preacher, had started the Reformed Funeral Company in 1872 and used horse drawn horses. When Bertram Mills entered his father’s business, they began importing American carriages, and they ran the two businesses side by side.

As a young man Bertram developed his passion for horseback riding. He initially drove a four-in-hand from London to Oxford wearing a cornflower in his morning coat, for which he later became recognised. After the First World War he set up ‘Bertram Mills International Circus’.

Bertram Mills (1923) as he appeared in Bertram Mills Circus souvenir program.
Bertram Mills (1923) from the Circus souvenir program

In later life he continued his interest in coaches when he bought the famous ‘Old Times’ Coach. James Selby was the most popular and highly respected coachman of his time. Towards the end of his life he regularly drove ‘Old Times’ on the London to Brighton route. So Bertram perpetuated Selby’s memory by driving it on the public roads and displaying his coaching prowess at shows around the country.

Dick Hunt recalled, ‘He was a wonderful man, thorough in all his undertakings, as is borne out by all he did, showing, coaching and the perfection of the thousand details of that unique circus. He was a man who had great confidence in himself as is proved by what he achieved.

Hunt recalls a conversation he had with Mills and how he learned that there was an inner caution - rather than the dare-devil approach that we might associate with a circus:

‘I was sitting beside him one day, when he drove the Brighton coach from Cuckfield to Worth; it is an up and down stage and the camber of the road very tricky.

Mills in his unapproachable style, caught hold of his team and trotted right on at ten to twelve miles an hour. Later that day I was sitting with him at the back of the coach and I said to him “What do you know about driving that others do not?’

He asked me the reason for my question, and I made reference to the stage he drove, and said ‘Owing to the camber of the road, I have when driving that stage, been glad to put the team in the gutter and doddle along at an easy pace … If anything had gone it would have gone!

Showing that with a man of his calibre his confidence was rewarded whereas in another it would not have been.

Road manners

Hunt goes on about the increasing impatience of the road users of the time - and this was the 1940s!

What I have written here can have no influence in altering this quickly moving age. How fashions, politics and mode of life are altered, difficult to determine and in no branch of life does anything stop at the happy medium.

The courtesy of the road, as the coachman knew it, is derelict, and in its place another race of road users has been blown into existence, the result an explosion of manners emphasised by cutting in, dangerous driving and hogging.

The friendly exchange of the salute by the whip, the ‘give’ now abused into ‘take’ by accelerating when passing or ‘owning’ the middle of road - indeed all the old sporting spirit has been transferred to another spirit - petrol.



Bygones, Sussex Coaching Reminiscences by Dick Hunt WE Baxter, 1948, P42

Photo: Creative Commons licence.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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