Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Napoleon of Coaching

Chaplin, William James (1787–1859) 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 Mountain.

Chaplin was educated at Bromley, and on 11 July 1816 married Elizabeth Alston at St Nicholas, Rochester.

Whatever Chaplin did, he did thoroughly. He and Elizabeth had sixteen children:

Eleanor – 1817 – 1865
Sarah – 1819 – 1870        } twins
Marianne – 1819 – 1879    }
Rosa – 1821 – 1829
William Augustus – 1822 – 1896
Horace – 1824, died in infancy
Horace – 1826 – 1907
Alfred – 1827 – 1901
Isabel – 1828 – 1871
Caroline – 1829 – 1886
Ernest – 1831 – 1902
Edwin Charles – 1833 – 1860?
Rosa – 1834 - ?
Eustace de St Pierre – 1835 – 1879
Percy – 1837 – 1891
John Worthy – 1840 - 1920

Pollard's depiction of Mail Coaches leaving The Swan With Two Necks
In business too, Chaplin’s thoroughness carried him to the forefront. About 1823 he succeeded William Waterhouse at the Swan with Two Necks inn, Lad Lane, London, and by 1827 his coach business employed 300 to 400 horses, which by 1835 had risen to 1,200.

The inn was built on the classic plan of a central yard with galleried buildings around it – the kind of inn Shakespeare would have been familiar with as a venue for staging plays. Building space, however, was non-existent around the outside of the Swan so the stables for the horses were underground.

Chaplin owned other London inns: the Cross Keys, the Spread Eagle in Gracechurch Street and the White Horse in Fetter Lane.

He had extensive stables at Purley, Hounslow, and Whetstone, and was said to employ 2,000 people. In 1836 he had 92 coaches leaving London every day, serving all the main roads from the city, to all points of the compass. He horsed 14 of the 27 mail coaches leaving London each night, including Exeter, Wells, Poole, Port Patrick, Stroud, Liverpool, Falmouth, Pembroke, Holyhead and Devonport. His annual turnover was said to be £500,000.

According to Thomas Cross, one of his former coachmen: ‘Downright industry, and a systematic application to business, in which the female members of the family were called to assist, formed the foundation of his elevation’; he had excellent knowledge of both horses and men, and ‘an intellect superior to most of his class in shrewdness and tact, and this with a soft, oily expression, that procured for him the soubriquet of “Bite 'em sly”.’

The Edinburgh to London Royal Mail Coach
Harris, writing in 1885, stated that he had never heard any of Chaplin's former coachmen or guards speak ill of him.

According to the Dictionary of National Biography Chaplin lived “at a hotel he owned in the Adelphi”. The addresses recorded for the births of his children show the movements of the family. Eleanor, the eldest, had been born at Rochester, before they moved to London. The twins Sarah and Marianne were born at Gracechurch Street, as was Rosa, who died aged only 8; so was William Augustus who was to follow his father into innkeeping at the tender age of 17.  Presumably the Gracechurch Street address was either the Spread Eagle or a house very close by. By 1824 the family had moved to 1, John Street, Adelphi, much further “up West” where the next 8 children were born. 

Eustace in 1835 was the odd one out as he was born at the Kingston Hotel in Calais. Although October might seem a little late for the family to be en route to or from a holiday, Chaplin wrote to a fellow coaching contractor on 27 December 1835: “yr letter came on the Eve of my departure for a holiday, and I carried it to the Alps, thinking to catch an Evening to give you my sentiments on yr suggestions… I returned in Octr & thought yr letter as well unanswered till…Decr” Possibly Chaplin had also been distracted from his colleague's letter by the concerns of travelling with a newborn baby.

In 1837 Percy was born back at 1 John Street, Adelphi, and finally offspring number 16, John Worthy, was born at 1 Royal Terrace, Adelphi. I’m not sure whether this simply reflects a name-change for John Street or whether it shows a move to a new address in the same very small district. However, John’s middle name does reflect the friendship between Chaplin and his business partner Benjamin Worthy Horne, with whom he established the railway carrying firm of Chaplin and Horne.

There are a few anecdotes about Chaplin in his business life which have been recorded by coachmen and businessmen who worked with him. He wasn’t above driving his own horses, which apparently he did very well. One day George Denman, toll collector at Kensington Gate, issued Chaplin a toll ticket bearing the improper amount for his coach. During the ensuing argument Denman took hold of the horses and Chaplin used his whip to make Denman let go. He was summonsed and later fined 12s and court costs.

Chaplin in his turn censured a well known coachman for driving a team out of the Swan with Two Necks in ring-snaffles instead of the more severe curb bits, and told him if he did it again he would lose his position. He was sharper still with a man whom he suspected of stealing oats overnight: he lay in wait inside the corn-bin and when the man lifted the lid Chaplin jumped out, pitched into him and sacked him there and then.

However, like most coach proprietors he turned a blind eye to the practice of “shouldering” – driver and guard taking fares from customers on the coach without entering them on the official waybill. When he presided over coaching dinners for his drivers it was considered a good joke that he proposed “Shouldering” as a toast.

Because he ran large businesses in London, Chaplin’s name crops up occasionally in Old Bailey records of the period. On 12 April 1824  Edward Archer was indicted for stealing “seven 5l. Bank notes, and five hundred 1l. Bank notes , the property of William Chaplin and others, his partners.” A case that was heard in May 1838 gave me the name of Mr Ibbotson, the head book-keeper at the Swan with Two Necks, during the conviction for fraud of Sharpe, a booking clerk. I made use of Sharpe’s departure to switch Sarah into my story in his place. 

Chaplin was known to grumble about the actual profits he made, stating in 1827 that, “I have not a shadow of a doubt that, were the coaching account of the nation kept regularly, the whole is decidedly a loss and the public have the turn.”

Another coaching proprietor, Thomas Cross (Autobiography of a Stage-coachman) – like many others – failed in business due to the railway boom. He petitioned the House of Commons for help in 1845: “in passing any Bills having reference to railroads, in some or one of them such provision shall be made as shall prevent your petitioner and his family from coming to the extreme of misery.”  Chaplin, however, had already clearly anticipated the effect of the railways on his business, and in 1838 he had pre-empted the difficulty with characteristic thoroughness. He sold most of his coaches and horses. He left the proceeds of the coaching sales on deposit, and went off to Switzerland for six weeks, according to the National Dictionary of Biography, to “contemplate his future.”

Since Chaplin was probably still in England in May 1838 when the last Mail Coach Procession took place – at any rate he hadn’t sold out his interests in the Mail Coaches at that point – I suppose that he must have gone to the Alps later in the year. The Post Office had by then transferred a large amount of its Mail business from the coaches onto the new railways.

I wondered when I was writing COACHMAN whether Chaplin took all his huge family abroad with him at that time. For instance, he had retained his inns; it seemed reasonable to speculate that for the sake of giving his elder children experience in business he might leave them in charge there. William, for instance, was certainly named as the landlord of the Swan with Two Necks the following year, when he was only 17. The National Dictionary of Biography says that Chaplin “ensured that no business communications could reach him” while he was abroad in 1838. I exploited this interesting break in his family pattern as an opportunity for his daughter Sarah to pursue my hero George!

On his return Chaplin invested a large sum in the London and Southampton Railway (later the London and South Western Railway, or LSWR). By 1840 he was its vice-chairman and in 1843–52 and 1854–8 he was chairman and guided the company through its formative years.

In 1840 Chaplin and Horne became agents to the Grand Junction Railway, and from 1847 the company shared an exclusive goods and parcels agency with Pickfords on the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). Chaplin retained a share in this until his death on 24 April 1859.

He was buried at Strood, Kent.

Victorian Historical Novel - COACHMAN -

"K M Peyton meets Malcolm MacDonald."

Good-looking and ambitious George Davenport travels to London with his bride Lucy, determined to make the most of his skill in driving a four-in-hand of horses. It’s 1838. Queen Victoria is crowned, and England is at peace, but it isn't a good time to be a coachman.

As George finds employment with William Chaplin, the “Napoleon of coaching”, the first railways are about to open across the country. Their competition will kill off the road-coaching trade. George loves both his work and his wife, so he has a lot to come to terms with… even before the boss’s daughter starts to stalk him.


Dorian Gerhold, ‘Chaplin, William James (1787–1859)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 19 April 2007]
S. Harris, The coaching age (1885)
T. Cross, The autobiography of a stage-coachman, 3 vols. (1861)
C. G. Harper, Stage-coach and mail in days of yore, 2 (1903)

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 [ accessed 30 March 2013]


Jac said...

Sue, Thanks for all your research. It is great to get a real 'feel' of the times and one of your book characters.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was so informative! I've bookmarked it. Thanks for your this share.

Sue Millard said...

Glad you enjoyed it. Do share it!

Rob said...


I'm doing research on my family tree which brought me to your site. I see you have William Chaplin succeeding William Waterhouse as the keeper of the Swan With Two Necks Inn around 1823. I have a relative who was transported for stealing a letter from the mail coach. Thomas Felgate, book keeper for the inn, appeared as a witness at the Old Bailey on 15/1/1829 and stated that the keeper of the inn at that time was William Waterhouse & Co. Not much information I know, but indicates that William Chaplin may have taken over at a later date.

Sue Millard said...

Thanks, Rob - I trust that kind of primary information. I've used the Old Bailey records myself. It's also possible, given Chaplin's business acumen, that he managed the Swan at some point as an employee or subcontractor of Wm. Waterhouse "& Co". I don't assert that, but throw it in as a suggestion. I'd have to go back through my sources to find out where the 1823 date came from - probably from a site listing vanished inns and pubs.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sue for your very interesting article; I look forward to reading "Coachman" as I know very little of the role they played. Joseph and William Waterhouse jnr were declared bankrupt in May 1831 (papers at The National Archives), thereby being forced to sell their property. Advertised for auction in The Times on 8th July 1831 are their various interests in the Swan with Two Necks family inn and hotel, coach yard, stabling, and various booking offices plus extensive stabling and buildings in Cripplegate, Finchley, Hounslow and more. So large was their coach and mail concern, that in August 1831, the Vice Chancellor remarked that an injunction to prevent them from trading from a particular booking office "would have the effect of restraining one half of mankind from travelling". William Chaplin was certainly on the scene by 1818, as he partnered William Waterhouse's brother Samuel on the routes to Harwich and Colchester (Ipswich Journal). William Chaplin announced on 18th August 1831, in The Times, "his acquisition of this well known and long established concern".
Anne - nee Waterhouse.

Sue Millard said...

Thanks, Anne - Chaplin partnering the Waterhouse family on certain routes, prior to purchasing the Swan, certainly sounds like his business methods. He did this in various areas over the years right up to the time he sold out in 1838; and then he went into partnership with BW Horne as a carrier. It obviously worked well for him.

John said...

Nice post Sue and well researched. I am researching William Augustus Chaplin who brought his father's considerable wealth up to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire (a place of which I know that you are well cognisant! He was here for at least three decades and seemed to have had a grand retirement in hunting country. I live opposite his country pile. See my blog:

Sue Millard said...

Thanks, John, I'm glad you found the post useful :) I don't know an awful lot about Wm Augustus apart from his inheritance of the Chaplin businesses and his early listing as the licensee of the Swan with Two Necks. Your blog suggests he carried on Wm senior's reputation for generosity.