James Selby was the most popular and highly respected coachman of his time. Towards the end of his life he regularly drove his own coach ‘Old Times’ on the London to Brighton route. But it was in response to a challenge from a newspaper to do the round-trip, that's London to Brighton and back - in under eight hours. His spectacular record run was to result in cutting short his life.
It was on 13 July 1888 that Selby set out with his own coach and four - ‘Old Times’ - from The White Horse Cellars, Piccadilly bound for a return trip to the ‘Old Ship’ in Brighton. Selby used seven teams of horses mantaining a relentless pace to beat the challenge. He succeeded with a time of 7 hours and 50 minutes averaging 13.97 miles per hour and carried off the £1000 newspaper prize - equivalent to £125,000 today.
The timings were recorded for the change of the two pairs of horses at each stage. The King's Head, Cuckfield, achieved this in 1 min 8 secs on the London-bound leg and precisely one minute on its return. The best times were achieved by Patcham and Streatham both at 47 seconds. This was the eighteenth century equivalent of the Formula One tyre change.
Police had been briefed to keep key intersections clear whilst ostlers changed teams 16 times. Never once leaving the box and pausing at the ‘Old Ship’ at Brighton only sufficient to record the event, Selby arrived back in Piccadilly ten minutes ahead of the challenge he was welcomed by with ‘half London’ turning out and an overjoyed to see him arrive.
During the previous winter Selby had to battle through atrocious weather sometimes the sleet that froze on his hat had to be removed with boiling water. This arduous challenge contributed to his death in December that year at the age of 44.
Selby’s most famous and final run came after 40 years after the steam driven train had started to make coach and horses redundant.
The funeral of this most famous of London to Brighton coach drivers was a remarkable scene with ‘18 stage coaches, three private drags, and numerous brakes and broughams, driven by well known whips adding to the procession.’
The Brighton Road established itself in these times as a popular route for racing, the post houses provided efficient changes and the road was relatively well maintained.
Even today the ‘London to Brighton run’ is popular for enthusiasts on many modes of transport continues today, most of them passing through Cuckfield.
The Late James Selby - by his guard (to the air "Good Old Jeff')
They say it's just ten years ago since Selby's coach first ran,
With good old Major Dixon on, a thorough coaching man.
The coach has never missed a day, no matter hail or snow,
Jim Selby's motto always was, the 'Old Times' still must go.
We'll ne'er see more that dear old face, those eyes in death are dim;
He's done his stage and done it well, our Friend and favourite Jim.
In January eighty-one the snow lay far and wide,
Still Selby struggled bravely on, the Major by his side
The best of friends they were in life, now both are gone to rest.
It seems that those who leave us now are those we love the best.
The Brighton Road: Speed, Sport and history on the classic highway, by Charles G Harper, 1906, P158
Roads and Road Transport History Association Journal, August 2012 www.rrtha.org.uk.
Photo: Portrait of James ‘Jem’ Selby, photo taken by HW Macdonald from 'the Brighton Road'.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.