WhipcrAccy-way! The Accrington Stagecoach Spectacle

Had you been living in Accrington in 1815, you might have passed the time occasionally by just hanging around Abbey Street, or on Manchester Road in Baxenden, for no apparent reason. But in fact, you’d have been loitering with unseen intent because you’d heard tell that a stagecoach would be passing through, writes Roger Cunliffe.

The stagecoach was a tremendous innovation in its day and its arrival in your neck of the woods was met with great anticipation. The passage of the coach from Clitheroe to Manchester was greeted enthusiastically by large crowds that would line both sides of Abbey Street, jostling for a view of the carriage and its travellers, as well as the horses and coachmen.

Stagecoach and four preparing to depart
Travel was extremely costly, and even men of means begrudged the expense of journeying by coach. The fare was twice as much to travel on the inside, with less than two feet width per traveller. Coaches usually accommodated six passengers on the inside. In early coaches, passengers facing the direction of travel would also have the indignity of dust and rain blowing in their faces. Only in later improvements on the coaches were blinds or windows added.
The more modestly priced roof seating could accommodate twice as many as the interior, but there was the ever-present danger of falling off! Not to mention the greater discomfort to external passengers of inclement weather (a virtual certainty in the North of England). The combined load of passengers would bring the weight of the coach to some two or three tons, so gentlemen passengers on the roof were obliged to get off and walk up steep hills to alleviate the horses’ burden (this, incidentally, is said to be the origin of the nickname Ha’penny Brow on the main road north into Preston, where the cheaper fare necessitated a walk up the long incline).
The turnpike roads traveled by stagecoaches were maintained by payments at toll houses along the route (see earlier post on Blind Jack for more on the local turnpike). Accrington’s surviving toll house where tolls were collected on the turnpike between Manchester and Clitheroe, is in Oak Hill Park and can be seen inset into the park’s eastern perimeter wall on Manchester Road. A coach drawn by six horses would have to pay around three shillings to pass.
Former Red Lion, Abbey Street, Accrington

By 1818, there were at least two rival coaches on the road: the Rocket and the Highflyer. Either arrival was still regarded as an event on Abbey Street. The sound of the guard’s horn was the signal for the gathering of townsfolk round the Red Lion Inn (as it then was) to await the arrival of the coach with the latest news from Manchester or Clitheroe way.

Coaching Inns sprang up along the routes for the refreshment of the passengers and no doubt the guards too. The current Railway Hotel at the Baxenden-Rising Bridge border has characteristics of a Coaching Inn. The coaches did not stop for long, however, and if you missed hearing the guard’s horn, you would be left behind.
There was stiff rivalry to get back before the competition, this being a point of comparison in deciding which coach to take, so drivers were happy to take payments for getting back first. Accidents were occasionally the unfortunate result of accelerated speeds on poor roads and hills. The illustration shown above demonstrates how the Highflyer might have raced home in an attempt to beat its rival, the Rocket.
Nowadays, if you’re waiting around with no apparent intent on Abbey Street or Manchester Road, it might just be that your particular bus company has moved on. No names mentioned!

Blind Jack and the Bash road

Hollins Hill, now the Haworth, was built to stand proud above the main thoroughfare between Manchester and The Ribble Valley. Manchester Road (the A680), threads neatly northwards through the hills of Baxenden, passing Hollins Hill, and into the valley of Accrington’s centre before climbing again towards Harwood and on towards Whalley.

John Metcalf, better known as Blind Jack, civil engineer extraordinaire
Astonishingly, reports Roger Cunliffe, this road was built by a blind engineer, whose method for determining the route for his road was to tap it out out with his stick. John Metcalf – widely known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough – supplied the winning tender to the Bury to Whalley Turnpike Trust and built its Baxenden leg in the late 1700s. Prior to this, the route through Baxenden snaked along Back Lane, down past Lane Ends Farm (later demolished to build Hollins Hill), along the hill and down the steep incline of Hollins Lane into town.

Blind Jack lost his sight to smallpox at the age of six. But this didn’t stop him leading a full and fascinating, if sometimes fraught, life. He earned his early living as a fiddle player, playing in local inns, then as a goods carrier, which helped him master the geography of the region. Jack used his transportation expertise to help the English army mobilise its weaponry around the Scottish Highlands during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. He was captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s adherents and court martialed as a spy, but was acquitted on grounds of too little evidence. A narrow squeak, and further testament to Jack’s seemingly unbounded resourcefulness.

Not only was Jack prolific and successful in his road-building career – he built around 180 miles of turnpike road, mainly throughout northern England – he was also extraordinarily inventive. He devised a method of packing his roads with heather and gorse bundles to get them across marshy terrain, which gave him a significant advantage over his competitors. Jack built roads in five counties and his roadbuilding career would last for decades, but Manchester Road, completed in 1791, turned out to be the last of Jack’s turnpike roads.

Statue tribute to Blind Jack, surveyor’s wheel in hand, in his native Knaresborough
Jack’s last road was also a losing venture for him. Although the project paid the princely sum of £3,500, he ended up being £40 out of pocket, which might account for the fact that he built no more. That said, he was by this time a spry 74-year old!

Stagecoaches traveled the turnpike for those who could afford them, revolutionising longer distance travel along the national network of turnpikes. A century later, trams would ply the route between Bash at the top of the hill and Accy at the bottom. But that’s for future posts! Stay tuned…