Today, the prospect of driving nearly eight hours seems daunting, but can you imagine difficult it would’ve been in the 1800s when cars were not yet invented and roads across the country were hardly more than dirt paths? On this day in 1888, James Selby, a past resident of Edgware Road, and famous stagecoachman, did just that – traveling 108 miles in 7 hours and 50 minutes and changing horses 13 times. To this day, Selby’s feat is the most celebrated stagecoach event in British history.
Why would anyone take on such a task, you ask? To win a bet, of course. For context, driving a stagecoach in the 1800s was quite a lucrative business. Many people could ride a horse, much like driving a car, but few people had the skills to steer four horses in harness, which could be equated to driving an articulated lorry. Due to the rarity of skill, ‘driving clubs’ starting popping up around London. Members were wealthy patrons coming from all over the country and purchasing their own coaches to use for private trips with friends. Driving and owning a stagecoach became so much of a status symbol that annual parades were held in Hyde Park. In fact, the Duke of Edinburgh took up carriage driving for a while after giving up polo.
As the ‘driving clubs’ gained popularity, a new season evolved lasting from April to September – ‘Coaching Season’ – in which these clubs would go on day trips to popular destinations about two to three hours away. These were tiring and thought-out journeys stopping at inns to switch horses or rest. For instance, a trip to Virginia Water, today an hour’s drive, would involve four changes each way, thus twenty horses in all, and stopping at The Greyhound Inn in Sheen, The Kings Arms in Hampton Court, The Bear Inn in Walton and The Crown Inn in Weybridge.
The driving clubs created a circle of friends, one of which included James Selby. At Ascot in 1888, James Selby was with his driving club friends and a wager of a thousand guineas to 500 was made that a coach could not be driven to Brighton and back in eight hours. At the time, the current record for the one-way journey was four hours and 21 minutes. As a well-known professional coachman, coachbuilder and public figure, James Selby accepted the challenge.
At 10:00 am on 13 July 1888, Selby left The White Horse Cellars in Piccadilly with six of his driving club friends as passengers. The event was so well-known that police on route from London to Brighton were briefed to keep key intersections clear and ostlers at each inn stop were prepared to assist Selby in changing the horses. Overall, Selby changed horses 16 times, often in record time with one change taking only 40 seconds! Move over, Formula 1. During this time, Selby never left his seat in order to save time. He only paused once at The Old Ship Inn in Brighton – the half-way point as it was round-trip.
He did it! Selby arrived back at The White Horse Cellars in Piccadilly 10 minutes within the challenge – totaling 7 hours and 50 minutes. It is recorded that ‘half London’ turned out to see him pull up.
Sadly, Selby died in only 5 months later. It was said that his funeral procession from his Edgware Road home to Highgate was a mile long and included almost every road coach in operation to honour him. His grave, located at Highgate Cemetry, has a whip on it to resemble his stagecoach career and fame.
A plaque commemorating James Selby’s journey was placed at his former residence in 1938, but has since been removed. It sat at the location of an extension to the Victoria Services Club following World War I.