On this day in 1888, James Selby of Edgware Road, a famous stagecoachman, drove 108 miles in 7 hours and 50 minutes, changing horses 13 times.
Selby’s feat remains the most celebrated stagecoach event in British history.
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 compared 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.
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, coach builder 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 junctions 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. 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 on the round-trip.
Selby arrived back at The White Horse Cellars in Piccadilly with 10 minutes to spar. It is said that “half London” turned out to see him pull up.
James Selby died 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 remember 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 is now sat within the Victoria Services Club.
Carriage driving is still a competitive sport, which even Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has competed in at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.