top of page

Hang onto your hat - it's Cuckfield hill!

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

From Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England, Rosamond Bayne-Powell recounts a tale by Pastor Moritz, who came to England in 1782. It gives us an idea of what it was like to travel on top of a stage coach:

Tired of crouching on the curved roof of the coach, hanging on to a small, wooden handle, he prepared to slip down into the basket. His fellow-passenger, tried to dissuade him, pointing out that he would be half killed; but he was so uncomfortable where he was that he resolved to risk it.

At first, as they were going uphill, he was fairly comfortable, indeed he was nearly asleep, when the coach began to go downhill and all the bags and parcels fell upon him. He was so much bruised and shaken that he was glad to climb back to insecurity on the roof.

'The getting up there alone,' he said, 'was at the risk of one's life.' and yet, he tells us, women sometimes rode on the tops of coaches. It had 'frightened and distressed him to see them getting down'. This getting up and down had to be done in the street, for no coach could then have passed through the archway into the inn yard had it carried outside passengers.

Later on, when seats were made for outside travellers, the newer inns built arches sufficiently high to accommodate them. The reason, of course for travelling in this extreme discomfort, was that it was cheap. The outside only paid half the price of an inside seat and he could, if he preferred it, travel in the basket for the same sum. If, driven by rain, snow or extreme discomfort, he wished to change and go inside, he could only do so if one of the insides agreed, and he was then put next to his benefactor.

In 1783 Richard Gammon introduced a bill into the House of Commons to regulate the number of outside passengers - only six might be carried on the roof and two on the box of a three-or four-horsed coach, and on a pair-horse stage only three on the roof and one on the box. [From Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England]

Domesday descent of Cuckfield hill

Not that Hand Cross is great, or altogether pleasing to the eye ; for, after all, it is a parvenu of a place, and lacks the Domesday descent of, for instance, Cuckfield.

The Brighton Road 1906 P354

Carrying capacity of a coach

In the first place, there were four inside and twelve out, exclusive of the coachman and guard. The fore-boot was full of small parcels, the hind-boot was the same; the roof of the coach was piled up as high as it could be to allow of its passing under the archway of the in; and boxes and carpet-bags, guncases, hampers, and every description of luggage for the sixteen people who were inside and out, were heaped up and hanging over the sides of the roof, which was all covered down with a tarpaulin, and securely strapped down with a broad leather strap.

'It was wonderful to behold, and wonderful to imagine how it could all be stowed away'.

From 'Down the road', CTS Birch Reynardson, 1875, P179

Driver can do 100 miles a day

Driving regularly 100 miles a day is hard work, but with a short rest in the middle of the day, a man in good condition ought to be able to drive daily 70 miles. Much will depend upon the horses; a hard-pulling team taking more out of a coachman in one stage than easy-going teams in three stages, and horses lazy, or not up to their work are very fatiguing.

From 'A Manual of Coaching' by Fairman Rogers 1901

Summer only visitors to Brighton

In 1745, “ The Flying Machine,” as it was termed, left the Old Ship Inn (in summer) at 5.30 a.m., and reached London the same evening; and, if we take into consideration the then state of the roads, which were, generally speaking,—especially in the winter, almost impassable, it must have been a great achievement. The general mode of travelling was by pack-horses, consequently the summer was the only period available to the visitors.

The history of Brighton and Environs, from the earliest known period to modern time by Alderman Martin 1871

What coachmen ate and drank

At St. John's Common [Burgess Hill], on the hither side of Cuckfield, was a neat little public-house where the coachman usually took a snack, which consisted of a mouthful of bread and cheese and five or six glasses of gin and bitters, for that was the liquor par excellence of coachmen in that day.

When the coach arrived at Cuckfield, it was usual for some of the passengers to say to one another, ' Well, as the coach will stop here for some time, we will walk on.' This walking on often consisted of a hard tug, up hill and down, over five or six miles of slimy, slippery road. But then you had your recompense. You cultivated the acquaintance of some agreeable fellow, who had begun to interest you by his manners.

The Brighton Road: Speed, Sport (see below), P90

Smothered in coats

'On descending at Cuckfield for tea, the other passengers forgetful of the old lady, or ignorant of her presence, use generally to throw their overcoats carelessly through the coach window, and I often wondered how near the poor creature came so suffocation from the …?' [Sadly unreadable - but we get the picture!]

The Whitehall Evening Post Or London Intelligencer: 3 January 1756



From Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England, Rosamond Bayne-Powell


'The Brighton Coach, 1876, going down Cuckfield Hill' from The Brighton Road: Speed, Sport and history on the classic highway, by Charles G Harper, 1906

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


bottom of page