Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Historical Novel - laid bare (Part 1)

No novel has ever taken me so long to write as Coachman, which has gone onto Kindle in the past few days and will be in print shortly. Here is a taster of the background, which is included in full at the back of the novel in both formats.


In the 1990s I had the idea that I would chronicle the life of William James Chaplin, who was a huge force in the London coaching business in the 1820s and 30s.

The Dictionary of National Biography says of him:

Chaplin, William James (1787–1859), transport entrepreneur, was born on 3rd December 1787 at Rochester, Kent, the son of William Chaplin, a coach proprietor on the Dover road, and his wife, Eleanor. Chaplin was educated at Bromley, and on 11 July 1816 married Elizabeth Alston at St Nicholas, Rochester. They had sixteen children.

About 1823 Chaplin succeeded William Waterhouse at the Swan with Two Necks inn, Lad Lane, London, and he was to become the largest ever coach proprietor. In 1827 his coach business employed 300 to 400 horses; by 1835 this had risen to 1200. As well as three London inns, he had extensive stables at Purley, Hounslow, and Whetstone, and was said to employ 2000 people. In 1836 he had ninety-two coaches leaving London every day, serving all the main roads from the city. He horsed fourteen of the twenty-seven mail coaches leaving London each night. His annual turnover was said to be £500,000.

Chaplin’s vision was so clear that when the railways came to change long-distance travel he was able instantly to step back and rebuild his business in relation to the new technology. He liquidated all his coaching assets, though he kept the inns, and he went away for six weeks to Switzerland to do his planning. Once his carrier partnership with Benjamin Worthy Horne was established, he invested heavily in railways.

The few stories about Chaplin that are recorded in books by his contemporaries all show him in an affectionate light. He was largely responsible for the abolition of heavy brutal driving whips in London’s coaching trade, and despite his nickname “Bite-Em-Sly,” everybody he employed seemed to like him. He was elected MP for Salisbury, and at his death his business was worth around £300,000. A thoroughly solid, sound, clever fellow.

When I realised how damn boring that story would be – Dallas with only the nice bits on display – I knew I had to invent someone whose life would touch his, so I could show what might have happened to the drivers, stablemen and horses when railways took the heart out of coaching.

My own great-grandfather was a coachman. He was in domestic service, not on a commercial route, and he lived 50 years after Chaplin’s time, but his existence in my family tree gave me a name to hang my story on: George Davenport. And my great-grandmother really was called Lucy Hennessy, though she didn’t live in Carlisle and my relatives will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have completely invented her unpleasant mother and their unsavoury history.

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