Friday, 12 December 2014

Travel Tuesday: Stagecoaches - Romance v. Reality

When we look at the Images of stagecoaches on Christmas cards,   they look colourful, dashing and rather romantic, but what was the reality like for our ancestors traveling 170 years ago?

Stagecoaches were public service vehicles designed specifically for passengers and running to a published schedule.  Eight passengers could be packed inside, with others sitting at the back of the coach and the poorest passengers atop along with the luggage. A newspaper report  of 1846 (below) refers to a heavy coach of 18 to 20 passengers.  

The coaches ran in stages, usually from 10-15 miles depending on the journey, the type of countryside travelled and the availability of inns and staging posts en route. 

The  driver was often the sole crew member responsible for the coach, the passengers, timekeeping and dealing with minor incidents.  Coaching inns acted as stopping points for travellers and  were where  the ostlers changed and fed  the teams of horses   On the Edinburgh  to London journey there were twenty eight changes of a team of four horses.  In 1819 in the Scottish Borders  the published time for a journey from Edinburgh to Hawick was just under six  hours for the 54 miles distance - a twisting route over rolling hills -  and  could involve three changes of horses.
For Mail Coaches the primary concern was the delivery of mail  although passengers were also taken.   In 1786 the first mail coach arrived in the Scottish capital from London. welcomed by the ringing of church bells,  and guns fired from the castle ramparts - even though on its inaugural run it was twelve hours late!  

The hey day of stage coach travel was the early 19th century, with  improvement in road building techniques, the development of the turnpike system (where tolls financed  road consgtruction),  and  increased comfort of the coaches themselves.  

The romantic picture  of stagecoach travel has been   perpetuated by many writers including Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.  American author  Washington Irving (1783-1859)  described his experiences in England  in his "Old Christmas" sketches, 

"I rode a long distance in one of the public coaches on the day preceding Christmas   The coach was crowded both inside and out with passengers who by their talk seemed principally bound for the mansions of  relatives or friends to eat their Christmas dinner.  The coach was loaded with hampers  of game and baskets and boxes pf delicacies....

A stage coach carries animation along with it and puts the world in motion as it whirls along.  The horn sounds at the entrance to a village  and produces a general battle.    As we drew into the great gateway of an inn, I saw on the  one side the light of a roaring fire kitchen fire, beaming through a window.  I entered and admired the picture of convenience, neatness and broad honest enjoyment  - the kitchen of an English inn,  it was of spacious dimensions hung around with copper and tin vessels, highly polished and decorated here and there with Christmas green".
Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" published in 1850 painted a rather different picture of the reality of a winter stagecoach journey. 
"How well I recollect the wintry ride! The frozen particles of ice brushed from the blades of grass by the wind and borne across the face; the hard clatter of the horses' hoofs beating a tune upon the ground;  the stiff-tilted soil,   the snowdrifts, lightly eddying in the chalk pit as the  breeze ruffled it;  the smoking team stopping to breathe on the hill top and shaking their bells musically,..........

Less poetically local newspapers are full of items on stagecoach travel:

"The Border Watch" - 19 November 1846: 

“A SLOW COACH. – The Edinburgh and Hawick coach, which left Princes Street, Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon at 4pm  did not reach the Bridge Inn, Galashiels, until about 10pm; thus accomplishing the distance of thirty-two miles in the astonishing period of six hours!   

The pace was such that an ordinary pedestrian would have found little difficulty in keeping up with the coach. The road was by no means heavy, although in some places newly laid with metal. The coachman did his duty well with whip and voice, constantly urging forward his jaded steeds, and employing the box seat passenger to assist him with a spare thong.
But it was all of no avail. The animals would not move one foot faster than another. Up hill or down hill there was little perceptible difference, and several times the vehicle came to a dead halt, almost on a level.

The coach was full from Edinburgh, but a passenger having been let down on the road, another person was taken up. In spite of the loud remonstrances of the passengers, a second was buckled on behind, and a third was allowed standing room beside him. It appears there is now no restriction as to the number a stage coach may carry, and consequently three poor miserable horses were forced to drag, throughout a weary stage of fifteen miles, a heavy coach loaded with eighteen or twenty persons.

If there is any law against cruelty to animals, surely it must apply to a case like this. Whatever grievances attend railway traveling, it will be something, at least, to get rid of this wholesome horse murder.”
Reports on accidents,  present a graphic picture of the perils facing passengers and  (and pedestrian) alike.

"The Kelso Chronicle": - 16 June 1837: 

"ACCIDENT. – On Tuesday evening when the coach from Kelso had passed Ord, the reins broke, and the driver left his seat, and went along the pole to recover them. His foot slipped, and he fell between the pole and the horses to the ground. Fortunately, the wheels passed on both sides of him, and he escaped with no other injury than a slight blow to the head.The horses set off at rapid pace, and ran through Tweedmouth. The passengers kept their seats, and the horses while running furiously along the bridge, were stopped by a young man named Robert Robertson, who, with great personal risk, seized the horses’ head.Had they not been stopped, in all probability, from the speed with which they were proceeding, the coach would have been upset at the turn of Bridge Street.  The conduct of the young man deserves great praise.”
"The Kelso Chronicle" -  4 October 1844:
“WONDERFUL ESCAPE. – As the Defiance Coach was leaving the town on Friday last, a girl, about 10 years of age, daughter of Mr. Ferguson, tailor, who was hastily crossing the High Street, and not perceiving the coach, ran in betwixt the fore and hind horses, by which she was struck down, when the horses and coach went over her, to the horror of the spectators, who could do nothing to save her. The wheels on the one side passed over one of her legs, bruising it most severely in two places, while the opposite wheels went over the top of her bonnet, close to the head, but without doing any injury. The poor girl’s thigh was also much bruised, apparently by one of the horses’ feet. We are glad to state that she is recovering from the effects of her injuries.”.

But the iconic image remains of a mode of travel that still captures our imagination. especially at Christmas time.  

Border Highways by John James Mackay, 1998
Local newspapers of the Scottish Borders 

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at" 

Adapted from a posting that originally appeared  

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 9: Crafts

  I come from a family of crafters on my mother's side, so I grew up encouraged to make little gifts for relations and followed  this through with my own daughter and now my  granddaughter.  It began with making Christmas cards (be prepared for glitter all over the place!)  and then went onto calendars, bookmarks and decorated felt mats.

Right -  is one of my mother's creations, brought out at Christmas time.

When my daughter was little (and money was short),  I made felt or knitted toys (such as the Bronwie below),  collage nursery pictures for her bedroom and rooms out of shoeboxes to create a doll's house - patterns courtesy of "Women's Weekly" magazine.  
 Last  year our  granddaughter wanted a bed for her favourite "White Ted" (no longer very white!) so  Santa brought a home-made  crochet blanket and a pillow & quilt to go with the home-made cot.  
One of my early efforts were simple patchwork stockings which we still use today.   
Then I became a cross stitch enthusiast  - so here are some tree decorations.

To mark my daughter starting at the High School, I made a new stocking of various cross stitch motifs (not the easiest task to  work out the spacing)  with Christmas greetings in different languages - plus a tartan ribbon to reflect our Scottish connection.  This still comes down from  the loft every year.

 For birthdays and Christmases I  always made my parents a cross stitch card.   Following their deaths, I discovered that they had kept them all, which I now have compiled into a scrapbook collection, 

  Finding a little something little to add to stockings was always a challenge, and home made bookmarks filled this gap beautifully.

 I took part in a workshop on Christmas decorations and came home with this  cheerful bell  - simple and easy to do. 


  When I was working full time, a gift to me of home baking was a much valued present. In turn my daughter appreciated a hamper of home made soup, crumbles, cottage pie and lasagne for the freezer when she was just home with a new December baby.   

 The gift of time and tasks is also  one full of pleasure - my daughter has taken me on shopping trips to places I could not get to easily and I have done household tasks for her. The fun comes in composing a witty gift voucher for the task, so there is at least something of a surprise  to open on Christmas Day.  

For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without the enjoyment that comes from making something.   I recommends it! 

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at
Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memoriess 4: Lighting up our Village

The film "National Lampoon - Christmas Vacation"  and the family's  over-the-top lights displays immediately come to mind here with this prompt. 

Britain has  been slow to adopt the American custom of Christmas lights  outside the house, but there are signs we are getting there! 

In the Scottish Borders my village of Earlston (population 1,980)  puts on a grand display, thanks to a hard working team of volunteers.  

We might not have many shops - just two convenience stores, post office, butcher, baker, fish & chip and Chinese takeaways, three pubs  and one cafe - plus school, church and rugby club,  but we have one of the best Christmas displays in the Borders to light up the approaches to our Market Square.   See for yourself!   

And so: 

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved

Friday, 5 December 2014

Sepia Saturday - Man's Best Friend


Sepia Saturday give bloggers an opportunity to share their family history through photographs.

Man's Best Friend had to be my theme for this week. 

 The fashions are probably more  of interest than the dogs in these  first  photos featured here from husband's album. 
My husband's older brother, well wrapped up in his thick coat, cap and gaiters - 
with his best friend, c.1937

Solemn expressions from my husband's grandmother  with her granddaughter and dog Beauty,

  That hat stands out more in this picture taken on the cliffs near  South Shields. 

 We move on several decades.  Our daughter was 5 years old and Crufts Dog Championships Show was on television - how could we resist that combination. The result by the summer was that Beauty a golden cocker spaniel became part of the family.

Daughter and her cousin with their respective pets  - enjoying the beach at South Shields 

It was a sad time when we lost Beauty at the age of nine, and we said we would not go through that again. Bur surreptitiously we were all looking at adverts in the loval papers, and within a month we had Colleen - a 2 year old gentle blue roan cocker

Colleen died suddenty at seven years old at a time when there were other stresses in the family. We could not imagine family life without a dog and that had to be a cocker spaniel.   So within a few months we had puppy Casmir (Cass) - an orange roan cocker - she had such a distinctive colouring, she became well known around our small town and lived to the grand age of 13.  A pet and great friend of all the family. 



And finally our  litle granddaughter surrounded by her menagerie - including at the front,her favourite  Puppy Dog.

Click HERE to read tales from other bloggers of men, boys, steps and dogs.

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Advernt Calendar of Christmas Memories: 3 - Music

To me Christmas means singing. One of my earliest memories is taking part in a primary school (girls only) nativity play, singing solo the first verse of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and wearing a cardboard crown with jewels made from fancy sweetie papers. I have never wanted to sing solo since.

 In another Christmas concert, my role was to play the triangle in the percussion band - a bit of a come down from the most desired instrument that everyone longed to get - the sleigh bells.

One family get-together, after the meal, we children did our party pieces, with mine on the piano. My little brother decided to plough his way through all 12 verses of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". He developed hiccups and his long socks kept falling down - this was the days of lads in short trousers, despite the weather.   But he was determined to finish singing the carol, kept pulling his socks up and by the end, we were all falling about laughing and we never allowed him to forget this occasion.

At secondary school we always had a carol service where the tradition was to sing some carols in foreign languages - so for French "It est ne le divin enfant" or "Qui est cette odour agreeable", German was "O Tannenbaum", "Es ist ein Rose entsprungen" or "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" and Latin always "Adeste Fideles".

My father sang in the church choir and my mother in the Townswomen's Guild Choir and being a choir member myself has been one of my key interests. In autumn, out came the orange, green and blue books of "Carols for Choirs" (Oxford University Press) as we prepared for our Christmas concerts, looking for a mixture of old favourites and newer arrangements and trying to come up with slightly different themes e.g. Carols from Around the World, Carols Down the Centuries, Carols for All Ages etc. (I know, not exactly original, but then Christmas is a time for tradition). 

My own favourite carols  have not changed much over the years "Silent Night", "In the Bleak Mid Winter", "Three Kings from Distant Lands Afar" and "O Holy Night". I like the simple unadorned arrangements best - nothing too fancy, but the descants of the standard choral classics such as "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", I find it so uplifting as the sopranos soar up to the high notes. We always ended the concert with a lively rendition of "We wish you a Merry Christmas" followed by the serving of mince pies and mulled wine to complete one of my "must do" Christmas activities - a great start to the Christmas Spirit.

It is much the same with that other staple Christmas music - Handel's "Messiah" which I have sung many times and it never palls. An unforgettable, wonderful experience was singing in the Royal Albert Hall in London in a "Come and Sing" Messiah in a choir of 1000, with orchestra, organ and a packed audience. Singers came from all over Britain and Europe to take part, so there was a great buzz and camaraderie as we found our seats. It was altogether marvellous, moving and exhilarating, and at the end, I walked out on a high!

Classic FM is my favourite radio station and come December 1st we know we are in for a feast of carols and Christmas music. On Christmas Eve, it is time to watch on TV the beautiful candlelight carol service from Kings College Chapel, Cambridge.

So for me, Christmas would not be Christmas
without the enjoyment of seasonal music!

Christmas Music – 3 December 2013

Adapted from a posting of 2013, but I hope it will be of interest to my new readers.

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2 - Cards

In previous Advent Calendar posts on today's theme, I have written  about my  Christmas Card Scrapbooks - a favourite post-Christmas occupation.   It seems such a shame to bin so many lovely images that I have come up with my own way of retaining the cards to give lasting  pleasure. 


 This year I thought it time for a change and am focusing on vintage cards. including ones with a First World War connection.

My husband's uncle's wife was from Germany  and 
here is a typically charming card from that country. 

The postcard above, sent in 1877,  was in the family collection of a distant cousin.  The verse reflects  Victorian maudlin sentiment of the time,  
but it is still a lovely picture.  

Below are embroidered cards in  the collection sent back by my grandfather from Flanders during the First World War 

A further embroidered  card in the family collection of my cousin Stuart

A 1915 card sent to the "Earlston Boys on the front from their home village -
Earlston in the Scottish Borders 
           A French card in my cousin Stuart's ' collection 

Where I live there is little opportunity to find old postcards, so I was delighted to come across this delightful picture in a recently opened vintage shop in a nearby town. 

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 1 - Chritmas Tree

It would not be Christmas without a Christmas tree.  We did start off married life with the real thing - but I had enough of trying to get  pine needles off the carpet, so we went onto an artificial tree - traditional style  - no modern, minimalist designer trees in our home!

Reading some of the house-style magazines, some people focus on colour themes such as silver & blue, or red & gold etc. for their Christmas Trees.

For our family the Christmas Tree is one of happy memories.

In the past it featured my young daughter's home-made decorations - who can forget the bells made from egg cartons covered in baking foil?

Now the Christmas tree signifies our hobbies and holidays

At one stage I was an avid cross stitcher and made a series of little stockings to hang on the tree.  (I bought the cross stitch ball on the right in Austria). 

I enjoyed taking part in a  Christmas crafts workshop 
and came home with this decorated bell.


Reflecting our other pastimes are miniature instruments and a music scroll.

Ballet is my favourite art form and I bought this stocking one December  at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, after seeing a magical performance of "Sleeping Beauty"/

Holidays have been a rich source of delights for our Christmas tree with decorations here from Austria, Bruges and Poland.  Bells, stars. hearts and "zwiebel turms"  - the onion domes that are such a feature of the churches in Austria.

Other favourites:

Discovering the decorations again when we get the boxes down from the loft is pleasure in itself. Our tree is quite small but looking at it every year, brings back memories of happy times.  

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted from earlier Christmas postings but with new photographs. 
I  hope it will be of interest to my newer readers.

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at