You have mail – Postscript

Just as a PS should be, this posting is an add-on drawn from the main theme but at a tangent. In this case, it concerns the post-education life of the coachman’s daughter. Whilst we do not know what happened to Mary Simpson after she left the School in 1811, Mary Ann Skudder (because of the more unusual name) is more traceable. She was ‘returned to her mother’ in 1816 – the School parlance for when she left school – and the next record we find for her was her marriage four years later to Garnett Benjamin Francis, an undertaker by profession. They were to have at least five children and we can follow their progress through the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns. Interestingly, none of the sons followed their father into the undertaking business, which was often a steady business and frequently lucrative. What we might make of that is open to interpretation.

Surprisingly little is written about the Victorian undertaker despite the fact that Death and Mourning was Big Business at the time. Or perhaps that is the very reason why.

‘Since it was in the best interest of the undertaker to promote the big expensive funeral, these men often became master manipulators, convincing families that they needed to add that extra coach, horse, mute, whatever in order to properly celebrate the death of a loved one.’

To find out more about Victorian undertakers, we are left to draw upon literature and Dickens, in particular, seemed agin undertakers. They are portrayed unsympathetically by him three times: Mr Sowerberry (Oliver Twist), Mr Trabb (Great Expectations) and Mr Mould (Martin Chuzzlewit).

“Pocket-handkerchiefs out, all!” cried Mr Trabb at this point, in a depressed business-like voice. “Pocket-handkerchiefs out! We are ready!” So, we all put our pocket-handkerchiefs to our faces, as if our noses were bleeding, and filed out two and two; Joe and I; Biddy and Pumblechook; Mr and Mrs Hubble. The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers — the postboy and his comrade. (Great Expectations)

Victorian undertaker images

Mr Trabb (left) and (right) a member of a re-enactment society dressed in his Victorian undertaker’s costume.

the whole of Mr. Mould’s establishment were on duty within the house or without; feathers waved, horses snorted, silk and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr Mould emphatically said, “Everything that money could do was done.” (Martin Chuzzlewit)

But it wasn’t just Dickens who castigated the greedy undertaker:

Every undertaker thinks it incumbent on himself to outdo every other undertaker in ridiculing the dead. The shops exhibit from the ground to the roof all kinds, sizes and shapes of coffins; beautiful epitaphs for the tomb of the dead; neat positions for “laying out;” and pictures of funerals underwritten thus: – “funerals got up in this style for £10,” or plainer funerals, for less money. W. O’Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859, cited by

At least one Dickensian undertaker is regarded well by Dickens and – coincidentally – it happens to be a Great Yarmouth one! Mr Omer is described as “a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat”.

A mid-century advertisement in The Times offered six classes of funerals ranging in price from £21 for a first-class burial down to £3 5s for the sixth class. The cost could be further reduced ‘by dispensing with the funeral cortege through the streets of London.’

Quite what sort of undertaker Mary Ann’s husband was we have no idea but they lived in an area that later declined. In 1841 and 1851, their address is given as Brick Lane, an area very much influenced by the incomers attracted to it.

‘The cultural mix turned again with the massive Jewish immigration of the late 1800s. Escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, they alighted at Wapping and headed for the cheapest part of London, Brick Lane.’

Re-named from Whitechapel Lane (in the days when it crossed fields), Brick Lane was so called because of the brick and tile manufactories that sprang up there.

Brick sign
Brick Lane street sign

Image by James Cridland –, CC BY 2.0,

Interestingly, but probably unknown to the Francis family, Brick Lane has a connection with death. ‘[It] was originally the home of the dead. For centuries it was a Roman burial ground, positioned deliberately outside the walls of the City of London.’ Its position outside the City saved it from destruction in the Great Fire of London which started 350 years ago today, to the day (September 2nd 1666).

Fire and brick
Eastern extremes of fire and Brick Lane’s proximity

Image from

In the 1880s, Brick Lane was in the haunt of Jack the Ripper but this was long after Mary Ann Francis had died.

Charles Booth’s map shows an interesting mixture of middle-class (red colour) butting up against poverty (black).

Bricken booth
Brick Lane from the Booth maps

(Image from the Charles Booth Online Archive )

By 1861, Garnett & Mary Ann had moved to Cavendish Street, defined by Booth as ‘Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family’. Perhaps Garnett was not making his fortune out of death which is why his sons did not follow the profession. This area has since been subject to slum clearance and rebuilt and the modern image below shows no trace of what Charles Booth saw in 1898.

Google Cavendish
Cavendish St from Google Earth street view

Garnett Benjamin Francis died in 1862 and Mary Ann did not long survive him. She was buried at St James, Pancras on 15 November 1867. If Mary Simpson married and when she died is not known but both Maries would probably be surprised to find their stories being told in the 21st century!

You have mail (2)

Previously, the focus was upon the coaching inn and its connection to Mary Simpson. Now we turn to Mary 2 – Mary Ann Skudder – and her association with mail delivery.

Mary Ann was born in Great Yarmouth, described in Great Expectations by Peggotty as the ‘finest place in the universe’, and baptised in the same church in which her parents married, now designated a minster church and possibly the oldest building in Great Yarmouth.

church of St Nicholas
St Nicholas, Yarmouth

Mary Ann’s father, John, married Elizabeth Fleming on 10 June 1798 and is recorded in Lane’s Masonic Records as being a mail coachman.Whilst there is an outside possibility that he visited The Swan with Two Necks, ‘Aldgate was the general starting point and terminus for all East Anglian coaches.’ This perhaps suggests that it is unlikely that James Simpson and John Skudder met in the course of their employment. (

Coachman were not postal employees but hired by the inns at which the coaches arrived. They were famous for their driving ability, so famous in fact that gentlemen adopted the coachman’s dress style rather than the other way around (working people mimicking gentlemen).

They wore a drab great coat that might have many short capes layered at the shoulders to lead rain away from their bodies and provide under layers that were not readily wet through. They wore a spotted Belcher handkerchief instead of a cravat, a tall beaver hat, striped waistcoat, white corduroy breeches, and boots. A coachman carried a whip with which he was said to be so expert that he could flick flies off his horses without startling them.

Mail driver
The coachman

The mail coach is believed to been the brain child of John Palmer. He certainly made his fortune from them! The first designated mail coach was in 1784. Before this, letters had been carried to their destinations by a horse and rider but it was a system riddled with problems:

Over-ridden horses fell lame or ill, the temptation to linger with a mug of beer over the ale-house fire was too great to be resisted, on lonely country roads the boys were sometimes set upon and robbed. So many letters never reached their destination that correspondents hesitated to use the post

In 1784, Palmer advertised that the coach Diligence would convey the mail with an armed guard for protection and could also carry four passengers. Beginning on August 2nd, it

will set off every Night at Eight o’clock from the Swan with Two Necks Lad’s Lane London, and arrive at the Three Tuns Inn Bath before Ten the next Morning

The price for passengers was twenty-eight shillings and, perhaps aware of the previously poor reputation of coachman

Both the Guard and the Coachman … have given ample security to the Proprietors for their conduct, so that those Ladies and Gentlemen, who may be pleased to honour them with their Encouragement, may depend upon every Respect and Attention.

The terror of road travel at the time was the highwayman but second to him was the mail guard! Rosamond Bayne-Powell in Travellers in Eighteenth-Century England cites Pennant (1792): ‘these guards shoot at dogs, hogs, sheep and poultry as they pass the road, and even in towns to the great terror and danger of the inhabitants’

Coachmen supplemented their low wages in tips for carrying mail, undercutting the official charges. On good routes, income could rise from 12s per week (for the night coach, best to be avoided) to £400-£500 annual income. These were the ‘kings’ of the road. ‘The men who drove the mail-coaches were a brave, hardy race, many of them great characters.’ One of them, William Salter, drove the Yarmouth stage-coach (no dates cited so not possible to know if he were contemporaneous with John Skudder); part of his epitaph reads:

Here lies Will Salter, honest man

Deny it Envy if you can

True to his Business and his Trust

Always punctual, always just …

The coach called The Star ‘started from Yarmouth, [and] was the only coach stopping at Harleston that went on all the way to London without passengers having to change to another coach.’ (Again, no dates cited so impossible to say if this were the coach on which Skudder was coachman.) A German traveller, J. H. Campe, found his journey from Great Yarmouth to London a ‘veritable torture’. [no date given but early 1800s]

Whether John Skudder was a ’king of the road’ or one of the poor earners is unknown but when his daughter was admitted to the School, the home address given was Eagle Assurance office which rather sounds as if he had perhaps changed occupation.

However, a direct descendant of John Skudder later pointed out that ‘On the 22nd of April 1802 he was made a Mason in the United Grand Lodge of England, his occupation shown as Mail Coachman. His age is given as 32’. Seven years later, when he died (in 1809) his age was given as 49. He was buried in Great Yarmouth on the 18th June 1809. Mary Ann was admitted to the School in 1810 which fits with the death of her father but it does not explain why the ‘family’ address given in the School registers is the Eagle Assurance office. It seems unlikely that this little mystery will ever be solved!

The Eagle Insurance Company was founded in 1807, the purpose being ‘for fire and life assurance and for granting annuities’ and its City office was at 41 Threadneedle Street. (info from

Newspaper ad
Advertisement in Bell’s Weekly Messenger 07 August 1836

Following its success, many other companies set up similar businesses. ‘Initially, each company employed its own fire department to prevent and minimise the damage from conflagrations on properties insured by them.’ . They issued firemarks (now very collectible) to denote which premises were insured. This system had an unfortunate flaw in that burning buildings were ignored if seen not to be ‘one of theirs’. The solution was eventually to establish a municipal authority to which the insurance companies contributed to establish a town fire brigade. This almost worked in that the fire fighters took no notice of whose firemarks were there but rather favoured those buildings that were insured against those that weren’t!

contract Hogarth
C18th contract & Hogarth print

18th century doc image By Charles Simms [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Cartoon by Hogarth recalling the position of prominence held by the Union Fire Office, 1762 from

It is interesting, but entirely coincidental, that one of the early companies, several mergers later, became what is now Aviva but which was for many years Norwich Union – another East Anglian connection?

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!