You have mail (1)

This post relates to two early pupils and their connection to the early mail system – hence the title. Mary Simpson and Mary Ann Skudder were born in different years and different places and (of course!) had different parents but they also had similarities. Firstly, the obvious one of the same forename and a surname beginning with S; secondly, both were pupils at the Freemasons’ School, then in St George’s Fields, where their time overlapped by approximately eighteen months – Mary 1 was there 1804-1811 and Mary 2 between 1810 and 1816 – who knows, perhaps they shared a ‘dorm?

The plan of first floor of the School at St George’s Fields

Thirdly, their respective fathers, whilst probably not knowing each other, shared common ground in their occupation. James Simpson was a servant at a coaching inn and John Skudder was a mail coachman who may well have called at the inn in question.

When Mary Simpson was admitted to the School, her home address was recorded as The Swan with Two Necks with the parenthetical qualification (servants). This laconic statement tells us two things: firstly that probably both her parents were employed there and, secondly, although there were other inns with that name, the absence of any other information implies that this was the most noted one. We are not given the information about what either parent did but we might surmise that the mother, another Mary Simpson, was employed in a domestic capacity whereas the father may have worked with the coaches and/or horses (but see later).

‘This was one of the really well-known inns of the City of London. It was first mentioned 1556. Its site was between Wood Street and Milk Street beside a short street called Lad Lane.’ Nothing now remains of it and even Lad Lane has disappeared being absorbed into Gresham St. The image below is captured from Google Earth street view.

Swan Gone
Corner of Gresham St and Milk St where the inn stood

John Taylor’s 1637 Carriers’ Cosmographie notes that the inn received the coaches from Manchester ‘every second Thursday’ and that the coaches that passed through Stafford en route from other Lancashire destinations arrived on Thursdays. By 1829 there were ‘23 daily departures by mail coaches’ and by 1855 ‘John Timbs, in his Curiosities of London … [describes it as] the head coach-inn and booking-office for the North.’ (knowyourlondon)

In 1798, in a letter to Charles Upton sent from Jermyn St, London, the inn is mentioned.


Dear Sir,

I sent your bill and my Bills on the late Mr. Broadhurst in a parcel to the Swan with Two Necks in Lad Lane last night to go by this mornings coach to Derby so that you will receive them tomorrow evening.

(This letter was ‘graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web by Eunice and Ron Shanahan from their website, Letters from the Past’)

It had cost 7d to send and shows that, by this point, the mail coach system was reliable enough that items could be despatched with confidence that they would arrive safely. Competition was clearly keen but The Swan with Two Necks was the leading contender. ‘Of the 28 mail coaches which left London every evening, half were horsed at this inn.’ It was famous enough that it appeared on stamps in the C20th in 1984 and 1994.

Swan stamp
Royal mail stamp cover

The Swan with Two Necks stamp was issued in January 1994, the illustration being by Andrew Davidson. Information from

Swan as was
Images of the inn

The image on the left (attrib. Pollard) dates from circa 1820 and shows a coach about to leave. The galleried areas had the rooms for those travellers who stayed overnight before departing on the coach. The image on the right is slightly later (1831) showing the growing prosperity of the inn.

William Cobbett wrote, ‘Next to a fox hunt the finest sight in England is a stage coach just ready to start…The vehicle itself, the harness, all so complete and so neatly arranged, so strong and clean and good; the beautiful horses, impatient to be off; the inside full and the outside covered, in every part, with men, women and children, boxes, bags, bundles…’

It should be noted, however, that not all of the proprietors of The Swan were successful. In the Morning Advertiser of 1807, the proceedings of the Old Bailey on 11th April records that William Williams was indicted for attempting a shortcut method of raising capital!

Newspaper report

The Swan with Two Necks was described in The British Almanac in 1862 as having been ‘built for Messrs. Chaplin and Horne, the railway carriers, and has a frontage of nearly 100 feet, a depth of 150 feet, and a height of 64 feet above the pavement, while beneath are warehouses and extensive stabling.’ (knowyourlondon). By this stage it was no longer an inn but had become the receiving offices ‘for Goods for the Great Eastern, London & South Western, South Eastern, London, Brighton & South Coast & London, Chatham & Dover Railway Companies’ as listed in an 1869 Trade Directory (ibid).

William Chaplin succeeded William Waterhouse at the Swan with Two Necks inn in about 1823 and by 1827 his coach business employed 300 to 400 horses, which by 1835 had risen to 1,200.

Swan out
Two adverts for coach travel

The two newspaper adverts above are from the early nineteenth century.

Intriguingly, lists a James Simpson connected with the inn at about the right period

1802/James Simpson/../../../Sun Fire Office records, held at Guildhall Library

1804/Messrs Simpson & Williams / Innholders /../../../Sun Fire Office records

(Information provided by Stephen Harris for the website)

Whether this is the father of Mary is impossible to say: neither James nor Simpson are uncommon names and it may simply be coincidence. It does, however, present the intriguing chance that we can place him right at the scene and in more than just a servant capacity.

swan logo
Logo for a modern pub of this name

The curious name of the inn is generally thought to derive from a corruption of the words ‘nicks’ rather than ‘necks’ and relates to the marking of the ownership of the swans. All swans on the Thames without marking belonged to the Crown; those with one nick in the bill belonged to the Dyers’ Company and those with two nicks belonged to the Vintners’ Company. This marking still happens annually, known as swan-upping, although today the swans are fitted with leg rings rather than having their bills marked. Another version of the name derivation is that swan neckes [sic] are actually the cygnets and there is one pub in Lancashire with this name which has a sign depicting a swan with two cygnets. The logo above is from The Swan with Two Necks in Blackbrook, Staffordshire. For many years it had a sign which read ‘The Swan with Two Neck’ [sic]. It was never clear whether this was an error on the part of the sign writer or a vernacular form. The Midlands and Northern dialects have many examples of a singular being used as a plural, as in “My holiday were for two week”. When the inn was renovated a few years ago, the logo was redesigned as shown. It may now be grammatically correct but, somehow, it has lost some of its charm!



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