Chosen by Kim Leslie, former member of staff
This coaching poster is dated about 1828, when Worthing was an important coaching centre between Brighton and Portsmouth. Stage coaching was at its peak between 1820 and 1840, a time when many coach proprietors were locked in furious competition to outbid each other’s reputation for speed, comfort and safety.
Early coaching posters such as this give the flavour of speed and power by the use of forceful, exotic names given to the individual machines – The Eclipse to Brighton, The Wonder to Hastings, The Defiance to Portsmouth. With galloping horses under the crack of the coachman’s whip, the miniature engraving in the middle of the poster reinforces the notion of speed.
The rivalry between proprietors was sometimes so great that coach-racing seems to have been of far greater importance than passengers’ safety. More cautious coach proprietors, fearing for loss of business, issued emphatic assurances that this sort of rivalry was officially discouraged. A slow coach, The Life Preserver, was even put on the London to Brighton road to win the support of the old ladies and more timorous travellers. Fatal accidents were all too common, so that the wise proprietor, as in this Worthing poster, would advertise not merely ‘…FAST TRAVELLING COACHES’, but ‘…FAST TRAVELLING … SAFETY COACHES’, the ideal combination not always achieved in practice on the open road.
Under good conditions these ‘fast travelling’ coaches from Worthing to London took between six and eight hours to cover the distance of just on sixty miles, giving an average running speed of anything between seven-and-a-half to ten miles an hour. This was the reality behind the poster’s suggestion of speedy travel.
In the early 19th century the single coach fare from Worthing to London was £1 for indoor passengers and 11 shillings (55p) for those seated outside. This was a considerable sum of money in those days, when a Sussex labourer typically earned one shilling and sixpence (7½ pence) for a day’s work. Coach travel was not for the poor.
As a result of the coming of the railways to Sussex in the 1840s, the days of coaching were numbered. Just before the railway line from Shoreham to Worthing was opened in November 1845 (giving direct rail access to London), the last Worthing – London coach, The Accommodation, was taken off the road. In the following year, when the line was extended westwards to Chichester, the cross-country coaches were then put out of business. One of the town’s principal coaching offices, no. 20 South Street (referred to in the poster), closed down to become a grocer’s shop. Coaching from Worthing was over.
More information about Sussex travel and the appalling state of local roads is given in my book Sussex Tales of the Unexpected: Five Centuries of County Life (West Sussex County Council, 2008); copies can be found in West Sussex Record Office’s public searchroom and at each of the county’s libraries.