From the 16th century onwards York was a major travel hub, not for trains as it is today, but for coaching! York was an important stop on the Great North Road for travellers making their way to London from all over the North.
Stage-coaches arriving from the South would have entered the city through the impressive (but in dire need of repair) Micklegate Bar, clattered over the Ouse Bridge then swept left down Spurriergate and finally to bustling Coney street. Here weary travellers' would have ended, or at least paused, their journey at one of the great coaching Inns. Either the Black Swan with its classic facade and striking carved black swan above the door or in contrast The George with its ornately carved mediaeval frontage.
The Black Swan Inn on Coney Street was first mentioned in 1663 around the time that more advanced, faster stage-coaches were rising in popularity. Prior to this ordinary travellers (who were not able to ride on horseback) would have only had access to heavy lumbering stage-wagons which only managed 20-25 miles a day.
The faster, lighter stage-coaches meant long distance travel became accessible to many more people. The first known regular stage-coach service in York started from the Black Swan and arrived (God willing) four days later at the Black Swan in Holbourn; still an incredibly long journey by modern standards. A printed bill advertising this service from 1703 was found in a drawer at the Black Swan Inn.
IMAGE: Coaching Bill (York Explore, Asset ID: 1009719 https://images.exploreyork.org.uk/respages/Search.aspx?stype=2&sword=black%20swan&filefilter= )
Like with any new technology stage-coaching had its critics; at the end of the 17th century a series of pamphlets were published outlining many objections to stagecoaching. The complaints were varied and included claims that the coaches ruin the roads, the services encourage highway robberies and even the rather releveling claim that easy and frequent trips to London with it’s ‘Plays, Balls and Treats’ would ‘spoil’ ladies and gentlewomen and make then discontent on their return to the Country. However these did not convince and the stage-coaches flourished along with the coaching Inns that served them.
As the popularity of coaching soared, so did its technology improve, by 1770 the travel time between York and London was halved to only two days. The Black Swan also saw a huge increase in competition for coaching services, these set off from a variety of rival Inns including the George, the York Tavern in St Helen’s Square, and Etteridge’s Hotel, opposite the public library.
A fleet of dedicated mail coaches had also built up, these travelled fast and overnight arriving from London in a mere 24hrs. Travellers could pay more and travel on the speedy mail coach arriving at the old post office on the junction of Lendal and St Helens square.
The Danger and Romance of Coaching
Travelling by mail coach had advantages other than speed; highwaymen were a constant worry for travellers. However the scarlet coated guards of the mail coaches were armed with a blunderbuss, two pistols and permission to shoot! Coaching was certainly a dangerous business; and coach guards risked life and limb. York guard William Redford died falling from the coach box. Two years previously his blunderbuss had exploded necessitating the amputation of his left hand. York citizens responded generously when the York Chronicle appealed for subscriptions on behalf of his widow and children.
Not all such stories had an unhappy ending. Mr. George Elliott, a guard on the Highflyer coach, was found to be missing half-way through the journey from London. The coach arrived late into York and it was assumed, rather pessimistically, that ‘ benumbed with cold, he might have been thrown over the battlements of Newark Bridge’. His wife, friends and sympathetic public gathered in St Helens square to anxiously await the 8 o’clock Mail Coach bringing news of the missing guard. To everyone’s relief the mail guard delivered a loud ‘ALL’S RIGHT’ to the gathered crowd as he passed by. Elliott had slipped off the wet footboard whilst putting on his overcoat. Not seriously hurt and only a few miles from Newark he had retraced his steps on foot.
Stage-coaching certainly had a certain romance and it was not uncommon for young noblemen and country gentlemen to turn their hand to driving the mail coaches. A notable member of this group was Mr George Lane Fox of Bramham Park who would become Lord Mayor of York in 1757 and whose portrait hangs in the Great Hall of Mansion House. Amateur coachmen were strictly prohibited by the Post Office authorities and the young men would have paid handsomely for all involved to look the other way.
The Black Swan Inn
The Coaching Inns can be spotted easily on maps by their distinctive shape; a courtyard surrounded by buildings. Coaches would have swung into the bustling central courtyard where armies of Ostlers and helpers who would have cared for the horses and changed the spent teams for new. Hoards of travellers, servants carrying luggage, postboys and coachmen would have been busy making preparations for the next journey. The buildings contained communal lounges, tap rooms, travellers' sleeping quarters and stables for horses. In the early 19th century the Black Swan had stabling for about one hundred and thirty horses. These horses served the eighteen coaches that left The Black Swan daily alongside another thirteen which left alternatively from there and the York Tavern. The two Inns had a monopoly on the coach and mail business in York.
In the very early days coaching Inns could be rather uncomfortable; guests would have shared rooms and even beds and travellers would have been rudely awoken in the early hours of the morning to begin the next leg of their journey. However towards the 19th century many Inns began catering for more wealthy clients and improved their service. Indeed, the Black Swan entertained royalty; the Duke of Cambridge stayed there on a visit to York in 1842.
What happened to coaching and The Black Swan Inn?
The rise of railway travel was a death knell for coaching. In 1842 the last mail coach ran from London to York; it had run without intermission since 1786. Lord Wenlock and Sir John Lister Kaye met it in their private coaches and accompanied it as a guard of honour flying black flags, as it made its final journey into the ancient city of York.
Unlike the George Inn the Black Swan did survive the end of coaching, a later owner Mr Clark was so well known that it became popularly known as ‘Clarks Hotel’. In WWII the yard was briefly used as an amusement arcade for soldiers. It closed as a hotel in 1939 and its building met the same fate as the George - it was demolished in 1957 to make way for a new department store, the British Home Stores. The carved figure of a Black Swan that graced the doorway of the Inn for centuries was rescued and now resides in York's Castle Museum.