Towns and villages along the London to Brighton road had more high profile, wealthy and influential dignitaries passing through Cuckfield at the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th centuries than anywhere else in the country.
But unlike other staging posts on the route, the travellers didn’t just pause to stretch their legs, answer a call of nature or down a brisk light meal before being shepherded back onto their coaches. They were also having to break their tiring and uncomfortable journeys and stop overnight at the local inns.
Soon after the young Prince George discovered Brighton in 1782 famous and renowned figures of the time made regular appearances in Cuckfield. So taken was George with the Sussex coast that he enthusiastically started building a residence by the sea - the Royal Pavilion (as we call it now).
Brighton grew out of all recognition as a result of this royal patronage. The population rocketed from 3600 in 1786 to over 12,000 in 1811 - which was the year that Prince George became Prince Regent.
At the age of 20 the young George, aka Prince of Wales, was introduced to the quiet fishing village of Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) by his uncle in 1782, Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland. The Duke had invited George to Grove House, which was where the Royal Albion Hotel now stands.
The Duke’s passions included fine cuisine, gambling, the theatre and general fast living - all things that his nephew revelled in as well. The young Prince realised that he too could enjoy these pleasures and have a more raucous lifestyle by being well away from London royal circles.
Marine Pavilion, the Prince’s new residence, which we now know as the Royal Pavilion, was becoming an extravagantly appointed new seaside ‘palace by the sea’.
In later years there was a side benefit of having a seaside home. The Prince of Wales could follow his physician’s advice - and bathe in seawater to treat his gout. ‘Dr. Russell's works on the use of sea-water obtained a world-wide renown’. And whatever the Prince did others would copy and so sea bathing became a fashionable pastime.
Being known as a generous and entertaining host - wherever the George went inevitably, would attract the wealthy, the titled and influential followers. Princes, princesses, Dukes and Duchesses, foreign nobility, ambassadors, army generals and naval admirals all flocked to Brighton, and - as it was the preferred route to Brighton - they nearly all passed through Cuckfield.
One notable and regular visitor was the Regent’s French émigré partner and, for a while, his wife - Maria Anne Fitzherbert who was a longtime companion of George IV before he became king. Here was a lady of expensive tastes who must have raised a stir every time she paused through Cuckfield en route for Brighton. According to Outram Tristram:
Her turnout - that is her carriages and horses - was said to be ‘faultless’ and her postillions ‘pictures’. That there was ‘a bevy of frail beauty who posted to and fro from Brighton in pursuit of the Royal George’.
Edward Bates Cuckfield clockmaker recorded some of the travellers passing by his shop in Cuckfield in his diary at the time:
1811, July 4th. Baron Dimsdale died at the King’s Head aged 63. He was on his way to Brighton.
1813, August 26th. The Prince of Orange and the Russian Ambassador passed through Cuckfield.
1813, August 28th. The Prince Regent and the Earl of Fife came down to Cuckfield with news that the Austrians had joined the Russians (in the war against Napoleon).
1814, Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess of Oldenburgh (sister of the Emperor of Russia) went through Cuckfield.
New route leads to loss of trade
But the journey between London and Brighton was long and arduous at the time on the poorly maintained roads. The early coaches were primitive and poorly sprung, and in the early days the road was poor, the ground notoriously boggy, and the journey painfully slow. Efforts were made to improve the road surface for the benefit of the Prince. But as it took five to six hours to reach Cuckfield from London it was customary to take an overnight break at this coaching stage.
In 1811 the health of the King George IIl worsened (he died in 1820), and with the impending likelihood of war with France (the Battle of Waterloo was to take place in 1815) Parliament decided that an interim sovereign was needed. As Edward Bates, the clockmaker records in his journal in February 1811: ‘The Prince of Wales was formally Introduced Into the Office of Prince Regent which made him Ruler of the country. In this position he was bound by the Constitution to live within 50 miles of the Capital.’
By the time George became Regent work on shortening the London to Brighton road had been completed. The new route split off from the old route at Handcross - then was rerouted via Bolney and Hickstead rejoining the old road at Pyecombe. This cut the distance by two miles to 52 miles (some say 51.5) from London and elimonated the steep Clayton Hill from the journey. It opened on 28 June 1810. And while many of the wealthy travellers saved time by taking the shorter route others preferred the more scenic former route and stopping in Cuckfield.
Improvements in coaching technology also had a part to play. Viator Junior, in The Sporting Magazine of 1828 wrote about the Brighton run: ‘Twenty years ago the quickest coaches never performed the journey in less than nine and a half or ten hours … every coach now runs from yard to yard in seven, and some of them … in less than six hours.’
These express journeys, were launched in 1813, and the lightweight ‘safety coaches’ eliminated the need for a night stopover.
Bates recalled in his diary the earlier days when Cuckfield coach business was at its height: ‘Daniel Dench was favoured by the Prince of Wales as the landlord of the Kings Head Inn where he would stay the night before the last stage of his journey from London to the Pavilion at Brighton with his entourage.’
Dench decided to relocate to Hickstead in about 1812. The old Kings Head in Cuckfield High Street survived for a few more years, its business was transferred to where Kings Mews is located today. The old Kings Head was subsequently demolished c1875.
The friendly prince
When Cuckfield was at the height of the coaching boom Dench was just 20. He was a charismatic, welcoming and popular host. Daniel’s daughter Amelia (1804-1890) recalled:
When George lll was king, Cuckfield was an important town and a great place for coaches. To my mind it was almost prettier than now, for an avenue of trees bordered all one side of the town; now there are only a few left opposite the Attrees [known as Kingsleys today].
My father was host of the King’s Head, which stood where Mr Langton’s house now is [on the site of the former Post Office and adjacent retail premises to the north], and many is the royal guest the old inn has welcomed … The Prince of Wales was a constant visitor, for he often drove from London to Brighton in a carriage and four, attended by two outriders and a second carriage and four in which were his pages, and the horses were changed at our house.
He was very friendly with my father and knew all the postillions. We didn't like the outriders for many of them could not ride a bit, and we were obliged to give them some of our best horses, which were sometimes spoilt in consequence.
She added that when the Hickstead route opened: ‘ …my father left the King’s Head soon after this and took the Castle Inn - on the Hickstead road. So poor Cuckfield lost her kings and queens.'
As the Brighton route became increasingly popular and there was fierce competition between stage coach companies, fares dropped. According to Geoffrey Hewlett, in the ‘Coach Roads to Brighton’:
‘The cost of journey in a stage coach was considerably less than in a hired vehicle and depending on whereabouts on the coach you sat. The fare from London to Brighton in 1770 was 14 shillings for an inside passenger, and luggage over one stone in weight cost a penny a pound. By 1808 fares at one office were 23 shillings inside and 13 shillings outside. Growing competition reduced fares and by 1814 the journey to Brighton by the Regent coach cost 10 shillings inside and five shillings outside. [Ten shillings in 1814 is equivalent to £15 today].’
Maisie Wright in ‘A Chronicle of Cuckfield’ visualised the high street scene: ‘The High Street and South Street must have been busy and noisy with clattering hooves, coach horns and heavy goods wagons rumbling down the hill. We can imagine children and tradesmen gathering to watch the grand people alight from their fine carriages at the King’s Head and “The Talbot”.’
The smells, the noise, the speed and danger of high street traffic, horses rearing and bucking and bolting out of control - it was a frenetic environment. But it kept locals fully employed, entrepreneurs grew wealthy from the passing trade, and a small market town physically expanded to accommodate its burgeoning workforce and businesses.
Maria Anne Fitzherbert: ‘Coaching Days and Coaching Ways’, W. Outram Tristram, 1893, P205
The Brighton Road: Speed, Sport and history on the classic highway, by Charles G Harper, 1906
for Brighton population statistics.
The History of Brighton and Environs, etc by Alderman Henry Martin, 1871.
‘The Coach Roads to Brighton’, Geoffrey Hewlett, Pen Press 2014.
‘A Chronicle of Cuckfield’, Maisie Wright, 1971
Notes: Brighton population increase from ‘History of Brighton and Environs’ by Alderman Martin P26 : ‘whose population, numbered at 2,000 in 1761 and 3,600 in 1786, had grown to 5,669 by 1794 and 12,0012 by 1811’.
‘Mail Coach leaving the Post Office’, ‘
'The Tap at Peas Pottage’ both from 'Brighton and its coaches', WCA Blew, 1894
King George IV when Prince Regent (1762-1830), by Henry Bone. Public domain image.
Portrait of Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837), public domain image from National Portrait Gallery. Public domain image.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.