Posting early for Christmas in village Weston days

JUST over a hundred years ago it was announced that the donkey that conveyed letters from Cross to Weston twice a week had been replaced

JUST over a hundred years ago it was announced that the donkey that conveyed letters from Cross to Weston twice a week had been replaced by a horse making the journey three times a week.Obviously it was necessary to post very early for Christmas in village Weston days. There was a time when Weston's postal address was 'Weston-super-Mare, near Cross'. The explanation is that the now rather insignificant little hamlet of Cross beside the A38 near Axbridge was an important stage-coach posting station early in the nineteenth century, being the half-way stopping place between Bristol and Bridgwater.Two of the former-day coaching inns survive, the White Hart and the New Inn, and stables that were used in the old coaching days can still be seen."I have look down upon the now lonely village of Cross," wrote Theodore Compton in A Mendip Valley over 100 years ago, "without thinking of the many four-horse coaches that used to stop there to change horses and refresh their passengers on the way between Bristol and Bridgwater."Today's good roads are comparatively modern innovations. Way back in 1660 if a person in Axbridge or Wrington wanted to send a letter to Exeter, it had to go first to Bristol, and then by the post-road to London, and back again along another post road.It was not until 1696 that a post was established between Bristol and Exeter, the first cross-post in England. It was necessary to get the King's personal assent to start it.The postboys and carriers in this service, who were leisurely, inefficient, and often dishonest, used to halt at Lower Weare for refreshment. Later, when hour-horse stage-coach services were started, Cross became the official stopping point.The success of the Bristol to Exeter cross-post led to similar experiments. Eventually 'Allen's Postboys' were familiar all over the country.But it must not be imagined that they were smartly uniformed young men ranging the countryside at speed on fast horses. Many of them were old men on broken down nags. They were often robbed, found drunk under the hedges, or decamped with the mail.A better system was needed, and again the postal service got a lead from the West Country. The first horse-drawn mail coach left Bristol for London in 1784, and mail coaches were soon speeding all over England.On April 6, 1817, a new coach, gleaming in fresh paint and shining harness, left the famous Bush hotel, in Corn Street, Bristol (the same hotel to which Mr Winkle, of 'Pickwick Papers' fled after the unhappy episode in Royal Crescent, Bath), and reached Exeter 14 hours later, the 75 miles having been covered at an average speed of more than 5.3 miles an hour. This was thought to be almost incredible.This record-breaking coach had to pass through Cross, and undoubtedly stopped there to change horses. It possibly carried mail for Weston. The first Weston guidebook, dated 1822, contained the following: "The Post Office, kept by Mrs Sawtell, is in the centre of the village. Weston is a penny post from Bristol; here letters are regularly brought by a letter carrier from Churchill every evening, from May to November; and from December to April they are delivered every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning."In the winter Westonians had to make do as best they could with only three deliveries a week. Letters for a number of places in the district used to be thrown off the mail coach as they went through the turnpike at Churchill. A postman on horseback took Weston's mail to and fro, and later there were mail carts.A book dated 1808 giving details of mail coach and posting services then operating in England and Wales, states that a letter from London to Axbridge cost ninepence. Axbridge was then the nearest town to Weston and a mail coach arrived there at 5pm, and one left at 5am. Mrs Sawtell, who is mentioned as having had charge of Weston's village post office in 1822, came to Weston from London. When she presided at the post office, letters had to be called for, and a charge of 9d was made. A small clock that used to hang in the post office and a silhouette of her were given to Weston Museum many years ago by her granddaughter, Mrs Mary Ann Purnell. A former day postmaster at Worle, William Pimm, used to take mail to and from Weston in a little cart drawn by two dogs. He was a wild driver and was known as 'Reckless Pimm'.His career ended on a January day in 1854 when he was thrown from his cart and died instantly from a fractured skull. The inquest was held at the Windsor Hotel, which was then known as the Mason's Arms, and was kept by John Banwell.Inquests were often held on licensed premises in those days, and Pimm's body was lying in a back room where the jury viewed it before the inquest opened.The coroner opened the inquest by criticising the bad state of the roads at Milton! Jane Banwell, the innkeeper's wife told how Pimm arrived at about 8pm on the previous Saturday and called for three pints of beer. He treated six customers in the room, and then remarking, "Love me, love my dog", went outside to give his dogs a drink.In all the dogs are said to have had three full glasses of beer. The landlord's wife said that Pimm was quite sober when he left, but James Bisdee, a Milton farmer, thought "he could not have been fresher". The jury was unable to form an opinion as to whether it was Pimm or his dogs that were "under the influence" and returned a verdict of "Found dead".Had William lived a few months longer he would not have met his death by a fall from a dog cart since about that time a law was brought in prohibiting the use of dogs as beasts of burden.The time came when Weston arrived at the dignity of a horse drawn mail cart. On one occasion the mail set out from Weston and the driver stopped at Locking for a cup of tea. It continued its journey but did not stop as usual at Banwell. When the horse pulled up outside Winscombe Post Office the driver was found dead in this seat.Rutter's Weston Guide of 1829 contained a postal service complaint. It stated: "The conveyance of letters to and from Weston, loudly calls for reformation; they are now from five to six hours coming from Bristol to Weston, and a London letter cannot, at present be answered by return of post; a strong objection to many who would otherwise frequent the place."The Worle and Hewish area once had a postman who sometimes went the rounds on horseback. Basil Herbert Light was the postman for 45 years, and reckoned he had covered 300,000 miles during his service. "Many's the time in winter I've braved the floods on horseback," he once said. With the growth of Weston and that of public transport generally, the resort's communications with the outside world improved. Even the first guidebook of 1822 was able to include a "List of Coaches and Caravans between Weston-super-Mare and Bristol, and Bath, the hours of starting, and the inns at which they stop.""Harse's coach, we are told, "leaves Weston every Morning at eight o'clock; leaves the Swan Inn, Bristol, the same day at four o'clock in the afternoon, and arrives at Weston at seven o'clock." That is three hours from Bristol to Weston."Goodman's Coach starts from the White Hart, Talbot, and Hope and Anchor, Redcliff Hill, Bristol, to Fry's Hotel, Weston-super-Mare every day in the week at eight o'clock, and returns the same evening at six.""'Hawkins' Coach leaves the Angel Inn, Bath, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, at twelve o'clock, and passing through Bristol, arrived at Weston about five."Harse's Caravan leaves Weston Tuesday, and Friday evenings, arrives at the Queen's Head, Redcliff Street, Wednesday morning at eight o'clock, and leaves Bristol at two the same day."Richard West's Cart leaves Weston Monday and Thursday nights, arrives at the White Lion, Thomas Street, at eight on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and returns to Weston the same day at four o'clock.The chief Weston conveyance appears to have been Harse's caravan. Harse apparently lived in the 'The Street'. The travelling by his caravan was cheaper than by coach, but the vehicle was no more than a large travelling cart without springs.The single coach fare to Bristol was, outside, half-a-crown, inside three-and-six or four shillings. In 1841 the coming of the railway revolutionised not only public transport, but also Weston's way of life generally, and started the resort on its swift rise to fame. Many older Westonians can remember as children going out to the Old Junction, as it was known, to see trains going by at the express speed depositing mail in nets at the side of the line and also picking up the bags of Weston mail for destinations down-country.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 8, 1967

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