The drama of London to Brighton Mail coaches

Updated: Oct 30, 2020


 London - Brighton Royal Parcel Mail van in1900
The London - Brighton Royal Parcel Mail van in 1900. 

Some of the last coaches to run on the London Brighton road through Cuckfield were the night mail coaches. Here is a personal account of one of the coachmen - a local man - Dick Hunt who lived in the Cuckfield and Haywards Heath area, and experienced the dangerous job of getting the mail through - sometimes in horrendous weather and road conditions - through the night too - all while protecting the Royal Mail.


The year 1905 saw the last of the parcels mail running between London and Brighton. I obtained permission to accompany Jack Garnham one June evening, leaving Brighton Post Office at 9pm.



Dick Hunt

As soon as we left the town I was installed on the box, which I found a very different place from other boxes I had filled. Driving down Clayton Hill with a foot brake which necessitated your knee coming up to your mouth, and holding the wedgy tight team supplied by McNamara & Co., with three-and-a-half tons behind them, was a bit of a novelty.


Changes were made at Friar's Oak, parcels collected at Cuckfield PO, team changed at Whiteman's Green and Crawley. Round about 1am, at the 'Chequers', Horley, the two vans met, coachmen exchanging vehicles, the London man returning north, Jack and I south, arriving at Ship Street, Brighton, about 4.45am.


Some good coachmen had experience on these nightly mails. Our old friend, Alec Pennington, the first to drive it, was discovered by Colonel Harry McCalmont during a season on the ‘Comet’, and then, in that well-known sportsman's employ, Pennington was on the Ross and Monmouth Coaching Road, and later at Cheveley Park stud; the untimely death of Colonel McCalmont caused Pennington to take another position on the estate at Cheveley.


Tom Banks and son Alfred were both coachmen on the Brighton end of the parcels mail. With the latter I have had many a day's work and pleasure, too, and a wonderful all-round little man with a horse he was. Motor transport, of course, took these workman like turnouts that had been running out of London to Oxford, Ipswich, Bedford, Tunbridge Wells, Hitchin etc., off the road.


The mail coaches were a regular sight in Cuckfield High Street in the nineteenth century.


The sound of a post horn would alert an inn’s ostlers that the mail coach was approaching, the coach would then sweep into the yard. If an innkeeper delayed the mail coach they could lose their licence (according to ‘The Coaching Era’ by Violet Wilson 1900). The horse teams would be swiftly changed, and that was possible in less than four minutes.



Mail Coach departure

Something of the drama and excitement of a Mail Coach departure is captured by Thomas de Quincey in an essay ‘English Mail Coach, or the Glory of Motion’ published in 1849:


Every moment you hear the thunder of lids locked down upon the mail bags. That sound to each individual mail is the signal for drawing off which is the finest part of the entire spectacle. Then come the horses into play. Horses - can these be horses that bound off with the action and gestures of leopards? What stir! What ferment! what a thundering of wheels! What a trampling of hoofs! What a sounding of trumpets! What farewell cheers!’


Then for travellers arriving by stagecoach, there would be the hustle and bustle as up to 16 people would climbing down from or boarding their coaches. Sometimes street urchins would beg for money. Edward Corbett in his 1890 book ‘An Old Coachman’s Chatter’ recalled that passengers were given only 25 minutes for lunch. Then there would be the noisy rapid exit of horses as the coachman would drive their horses away from the hostelry to keep to the company’s exacting schedules.


With the replacement of the coaches by the fast efficient and more comfortable railway carriages - the passenger traffic abruptly came to an end, and the mail coaches then ceased a while later. Cuckfield had became a backwater and a shadow of the busy communication hub that it had been.

Sources: ‘Bygones, Sussex Coaching Reminiscences’ by Dick Hunt WE Baxter, 1948 P42

‘The Coaching Era’ by Violet Wilson 1900

‘English Mail Coach, or the Glory of Motion’, by Thomas de Quincey’, 1849

‘An Old Coachman’s Chatter’, by Edward Corbett, 1890


Photo: Note the huge lamps needed for night running. From Roads and Road Transport History Association Journal, August 2012 www.rrtha.org.uk.

Illustration from 'The Brighton Road' by Charles G Harper, 1906


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.