1891 – The year mail coaches got stuck in the snow

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A couple of winters ago, hundreds of cars were snowbound for 12 hours on Handcross Hill.
While it may not have been the best way to spend a night, the cars were mostly warm and the occupants were sheltered from the wind and snow. 
Imagine what the same experience must have been like for the Post Office coach drivers who went through a similar experience in 1891 - not to mention their poor horses! 
Michael Bament wrote the following article for the Crawley Museum Society newsletter.
“An article in the Post Office Magazine of 1891 provides much information about the very severe winters of the late 19th century and the hardships endured by the men who were employed by the Post Office to carry the mail.

The horse-drawn mail coach had been largely a thing of the past from about 1850 after the railways had taken over from all other forms of long distance transport.

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The very first mail to travel by rail took place on November 11 1830, between Liverpool and Manchester, in the reign of William IV.

Its advance was rapid and appeared unstoppable.

The Post Office had agreed to an Act of Parliament which, when related to parcels, was very much in favour of the railways. In a nutshell, the postage on a parcel was split, with 55 per cent going to the railway companies and only 45 per cent going to the Post Office.

The Post Office felt aggrieved, since they paid all the labour costs in getting the parcels to the stations on time, loading them into the sorting carriages, sorting them en route, then off-loading them at their destination.

They also, of course, had to deliver the parcels after they had unloaded them at the stations. The mid-1880s saw the Post Office re-introduce horse-drawn coaches to carry parcels in an attempt to break the monopoly held by the railways. In 1887, the Brighton parcel coaches were back on the road. In March 1891, the Chief Post Office in London received news from Brighton that both that both the “up and down coaches were snowed up near Crawley, one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill”.

An employee of the Chief Office in London, Mr W Roberts, was despatched to Crawley to seek the facts and to take charge of the situation. On arrival, he soon established that the up and down coaches between London and Brighton were locked in snowdrifts at Handcross, where the Brighton coach was embedded at the brow of the hill and the London coach at the bottom - about a mile separating the two vehicles.

On his return to London, Roberts submitted the following report to his superiors.

‘The guards, who looked worn and cold, stated that the coaches were running about three hours late owing to the heavy snow fall, and on reaching Handcross Hill at 6.30am, they ran right into snow drifts and got so blocked that they could move neither one way nor the other. After the drivers had put up the horses of the up coach in the neighbouring cow shed, and those of the down coach at Handcross Inn, the guards went for assistance, and about 10am the highway authorities sent a gang of men to make a road for the vehicles.

‘The snow, however, was lying in enormous drifts - for more than a mile on parts of the hill - that it was not until 3pm that the coaches could be moved. Arrangements were then made, with the assistance of the men on the spot to turn the down coach so that it could return to Crawley Station. The road was then clear for the up coach, which had been dug out and, by dint of whip and assistance of the men on the road, it was eventually got up the hill.

Both vehicles then proceeded to Crawley Station and the parcel baskets were forwarded to their destination by the 4pm train.’

The Handcross Inn referred to by Roberts in his report in his report is, of course, known today as the Red Lion, situated in Handcross opposite Nymans on the B2114 which runs down the hill past the Jolly Tanners at Staplefield Green and on to Cuckfield and continuing on to join the old Brighton coaching road at Pycombe.

Re-introduction of the mail coaches in the late 19th century to carry parcels did help the Post Office to negotiate a fairer deal with some of the railway operators. But in just a few years, the Post Office had introduced their new motorised mail vehicles and that really did mean an end to the horse-drawn mail coach era.

By all accounts, Mr Roberts was not the kind of postal officer to miss a good opportunity and, as there was no professional photographer available in Crawley at the time, he secured the services of an amateur to photograph the coaches as they stood in the snow. It is known that at least one of the pictures included the driver, the guard, the contractor’s secretary and Roberts himself.

Perhaps somewhere in an album of some local collector there is a postcard of this fascinating event recorded some 124 years ago.”

To find out more about the Crawley Museum Society, log on to www.crawleymuseums.org or visit the museum at Goffs Park House, Old Horsham Road, Crawley RH11 8PE. Email address is office@crawleymuseums.org and phone number is 01293 539088.

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