Thursday, 7 May 2015


The second episode of the BBC's 24 Hours in the Past was set in a coaching inn in the 1840s, with the National Trust's New Inn at Stowe providing a very authentic backdrop. Coaching inns (or stages) were the hub of stagecoach activity, providing extensive stables, fresh horses and refreshments for passengers en route. They were also the principal hotels for the towns in which they are located. On a major route, there could be as many as 15 or 20 coaches passing through every day, from early in the morning to late at night.

North Country Mails at the Peacock Islington, 1838, courtesy of Print & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-03502

The six celebrities were given various domestic service roles from maid of all work and potman through to kitchen maid and ostler. Experience with horses and quite technical harnessing expertise would have been required to be an ostler; without these skills, Alistair McGowan and Colin Jackson both found it difficult.

The work of the other servants was made up of more general duties. As the maid of all work, Miquita Oliver's predicament in not knowing how to start a fire in the dining room was fairly common for young girls new to domestic service. She was also required to clean and iron laundry, wait at the tables and service the guests' bedrooms, including emptying the chamberpots.

Tyger Drew-Honey drew the short straw in his role as potman. This job involved being a general dogsbody and jack of all trades from serving drinks in the taproom and washing the plates and cutlery through to butchering a pig! 24 Hours in the Past stressed the importance of the stagecoaches keeping to a strict timetable with all the servants working as a team to effect a quick turnaround.

The County Hotel, Lancaster, circa 1900.

There wasn't much mention of tips in the programme but the staff at coaching inns, rustic inns and hotels relied heavily on tips from guests to augment their meagre pay. On his first visit to England in 1847, the American John Henry Sherburne stayed at the Black Bear in Manchester, but he was unaware that service was not included. He paid his moderate bill and while getting into his cab, he was ‘surrounded by all the servants of the establishment, asking to be remembered from the head cook to the boots’. He was later advised by a friend that, when asking for his bill at a hotel, he should insist that the servants also be charged in it. In this way, he would find himself ‘a few pounds the richer’ and save himself ‘much trouble and mortification’.

Most of the celebrities managed to work well as servants but there was one scene which simply didn't ring true. I'm referring, of course, to the refusal by Ann Widdecombe and Zoe Lucker to skin rabbits or pluck pheasants as part of their work as kitchen maids. In the real world of the 1840s, refusing to do what was asked by a master or mistress would result in instant dismissal without a character (the written reference provided by an employer so that a servant could find another place in service). 

The Cat and Fiddle Inn, Hinton, Dorset, circa 1900
Knowing one's place, being deferential and only speaking when spoken to were the golden rules if you wanted to keep your job as a servant, gain valuable experience and move on to a position with higher pay and better prospects. This was a time when people worked simply to earn money for food and lodgings; there was no choice but to do as one was told.   


  1. The coaching inn is still an institution that fascinates me, in British history and in the British colonies that came to modernity throughout the second half of the 19th century.

    I have gorgeous photos of some inns, but my photos focus on the external architecture as it suited the horses, stage coaches and drivers. It didn't occur to me that the more onerous and more relentless work would be _inside_ the inns.

    thanks for a great link

  2. Glad you liked it! You have some wonderful pics on your blog too. It's interesting to see how different the architecture of Australian coaching inns were compared with British ones, yet they served the same purpose. Thanks so much for sharing the link.

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