THE golden age of the stagecoach lasted only about 60 years, but Southampton was one of the main centres for transport during that period in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Long before that time, the town played a vital part in travel when it was the destination in the earliest recorded coach journey in England. The three-day trip set off from London and was described in rhyme in an old booklet from 1648.

“With fiery speed the foaming bit, they champt on. And brought us to the Dolphin at Southampton.”

In order to bring down the travel time, better roads were needed. The first turnpike road was opened in 1663 and many more followed, including on The Avenue in 1758.

This cut the Southampton-to-London journey time down to ten hours.

In August 1784 the first mail coach service was introduced between Bristol and London but by the early 1840s the majority of coach proprietors had been driven out of business by the railways.

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During the heydays of coaching Richard Andrews, one time Mayor of Southampton became a well-known coach maker working from imposing premises.

In fact, business was so good that he sold 300 new and secondhand carriages in 1845 alone, earning £22,000 – more than £2.7 million in today's money.

Daily Echo: Richard Andrews.

Besides the Southampton inns of the High Street, there was also the appropriately named Coach and Horses which once stood in Above Bar. It survived in various forms until the end of the 1890s when the old Georgian façade vanished forever.

Coaching Inns were vital as horses needed to be changed every seven miles. This required a vast network of Inns and hundreds of thousands of horses.

The Inns were the beginning of the journey for many. Roger’s Coaches departed from the Coach and Horses in Above Bar as well as from the Vine in the High Street.

Collyer’s Long Coach left every morning from the Star to Ludgate Hill.

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Although passengers turned to the train for speed, the age of the coach did not end completely. Well into the Victorian era there were horse-drawn services between Southampton and Weymouth and also Bristol.

The last public stage-coach to leave Southampton was in 1892 when the route took the carriage from the South Western Hotel to the New Forest.

But travelling by stagecoach wasn't always a smooth ride – there were many hazards faced by drivers and passengers.

In one incident a passenger returning on the Southampton coach was accidentally shot in the back by a guard and, on another occasion, a coachman lost his life in Stony Cross when his coach overturned.

There was reportedly a scam being operated by some in which passengers would pay for food and drink at an inn before quickly being ushered back on to the coach by the coachmen. The refreshments were never prepared and the innkeepers and coachmen would split the cash.

Even at the end of the 19th century there were horse-drawn rail feeder services, such as the one operated with a four-in-hand stagecoach between Bournemouth and Holmsley Station in the New Forest.

Daily Echo: The coach making premises of Richard Andrews in the High Street pictured left is Richard Andrews.

The proprietor was Tom Elliot, coachbuilder, saddler and blacksmith of Royal Blue and Branksome Mews, Bournemouth. Subsequently, he was joined by his three sons, Jack, Harry and Ted, who delivered the first copies of the Bournemouth Evening Echo by pony and trap and were the youngest four-in-hand drivers licensed to carry passengers in the country.

The Holmsley Station service was started in 1880. Horses were changed at the Cat and Fiddle Inn on the road to Lyndhurst, and the overall journey from Bournemouth took about one and a half hours. Tom Elliot laid down a strict schedule for the coaches of seven minutes per mile, including all stops and change-overs.

So began the Royal Blue express services, a name which continued right up to the days of motor coaches and was a well-known sight at Southampton’s old coach station in Bedford Place.

During the Second World War the Royal Blue coaches were used to carry evacuees and troops. Most of the regular services were suspended in 1942, through a shortage of fuel. They were resumed in 1946.

Daily Echo: Telegraph Southampton coach at Fleet.

There were some hair-raising tales from the drivers who drove from Southampton to London often dodging falling bombs.

One such tale came from November 7, 1940, when a driver told the Daily Echo: “I was actually on Putney Heath when there was a terrific explosion and the coach seemed to shoot away from under me. I felt as though I was flying through the air with the coach.

“I clung to the steering wheel although this did not stop me from being bumped around inside the cab.

“I found myself rushing towards some trees, then the coach swerved and hit a fence and wall.

“As soon as I recovered my senses I rushed round to the passengers and found them shaken but unharmed.’’