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!




Pupil No.189 at the Royal Freemasons’ School was Louisa Ashford Brooke Vavasour. The school register gives her birthdate, the names of her parents and her home address and from this it has been possible to research her life.

Louisa’s name in the register

Born on November 6th in Topsham, Devon, she was baptised at St Margaret’s in Topsham on 12 June 1803, the fourth child of Nicholas Vavasour and his wife Dorothea.

parent church

Her parents had been married by licence on 14 February 1793 in Kingston, Devon, which refers to them as Mr Nicholas Vavasour of Ermington and Miss Dorothy Frowde of this parish and the use of a courtesy title implies families of good standing. Dorothea, interestingly, signs her name as ffrowde, the double ff originating as a variant script for capital F.

“When the modern capital F was introduced along with Italic writing in the Elizabethan era many of the “ff” families retained their double initial small f; presumably to retain continuity with records such as patents of nobility, land deeds, court rolls, and qualifications etc.”

The surname Vavasour belongs to an English Catholic family dating back to Norman times and amongst other Vavasour antecedents are included Thomas Vavasour (c. 1536–1585), physician and recusant of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas Vavasour (1560-1620), Knight Marshal to King James I and the London publisher of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 1630, Nicholas Vavasour.

On the female side was Anne Vavasour who was at the court of Elizabeth I c.1580. Whether one views her as an independently-minded lady or a woman of independent morals, the fact remains that she became mistress to two high-powered men and had sons by both. Her first lover was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and both she and the Earl were sent to the Tower of London by the Queen because of their illegitimate son. Anne later became the mistress of Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley by whom she had another illegitimate son. In 1590, she married a sea captain but then married again whilst the first husband was still alive. She was brought before the High Commission charged with bigamy and was fined the eye-watering sum of £2000 – the equivalent today of some quarter of a million pounds.

The poem Anne Vavasour’s Echo, most often identified as being written by de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is likely to have been inspired by Anne and may even have been written by her. However Steven May, in The poems of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford and Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex (in Studies in Philology, 77, Winter 1980, Chapel Hill), is less inclined by this view and believes that the authorship may be neither of them.

poem pic
Anne Vavasour’s Echo and her portrait

Anne Vavasour (c. 1560–c. 1650), Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth I, and mistress of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford;    Attributed to John de Critz the Elder,

Whether Louisa is descended from any of these persons would take much more detailed genealogy to uncover but she certainly shared their name.

It seems likely that Louisa’s father (born c. 1759) died in 1799 in Kingston, Devon. Subsequently, Louisa joined the School on 11 October 1810 when it was at St George’s Fields.

Euro mag of school
The School at St George’s Fields

Her time at school having passed without note, she left in November 1817 and returned to her mother then living in Topsham. What she did there for the next few years is not known but in 1836, having spent some time on the continent to perfect her French, Louisa opened a school for young ladies which she ran with her sisters.

Louisa's school
Royal Cornwall Gazette 1836

Operating from premises in Lemon Road, it became known as the Lemon Villa Establishment.

Lou's sch
Royal Cornwall Gazette 1837

This indicates that not only was Louisa running a school from her residence but that this continued to be her home after her marriage.

Sch post marriage
Royal Cornwall Gazette of 6 July 1838

She clearly maintained her school after her marriage, somewhat unusual for the time. She had married Philip Mitchell on 25 June 1838 at Kenwyn church. Her announcement that the school would be re-opening – a standard indication that a new term was beginning; she uses similar wording in all of them – just a month after her wedding does seem to indicate ‘business as usual’.


Another in 1840 clearly indicates that, not only was Louisa continuing the school that she and her sisters had been involved in, but she was also expanding its remit.

Louisa's boys
Royal Cornwall Gazette

Sadly, the same church in which Louisa and Philip were married was to be the place of an unhappier occasion not long afterwards as the Royal Cornwall Gazette on 07 May 1841 carries the announcement of the death of Dorothea Vavasour, Louisa’s mother. Her death in Truro also acknowledged that their home had been Topsham. She is buried in Kenwyn churchyard. (Image of Topsham from

A view of Topsham

Although frequently ‘disguised’ by inaccurate census returns, it is clear that Philip was younger than his wife – he was born in 1814, making him some 11 years younger. Although census returns are notoriously inaccurate about ages, the discrepancy in ages was ‘diluted’ in every census return in which Louisa appears which might suggest that they were perhaps a shade embarrassed about it.

In 1841, the couple lived at Lemon Villa, Truro then in the equally delightfully named Summerland Terrace in 1851, although this was in Plymouth. It is believed that the family moved to Plymouth shortly after their third child was born. Ten years later and their address was Hill Park Villas, followed by Bedford Terrace. Of the Plymouth residences, only Bedford Terrace remains extant. Lemon Street in Truro still survives and at No 13 currently (Louisa’s school appears to have been at No. 46) is the Lemon Street art gallery, an interesting development given Philip’s occupation. The image below (from Google Earth) may be Lemon Villa although it is not certain. All that can be said is that it is in about the right place in lemon St, and of the right sort of age and size.

Lemon Google Earth
Image of (possibly) Lemon Villa from Google Earth

Philip earned his living as an artist and took frequent sketching tours through Cornwall and as far afield as Derbyshire.

Mitchell work
3 of Mitchell’s paintings

The Angler’s rest – Miller’s Dale, Buxton, Derbyshire; Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse looking Towards Mount Edgecumbe; The beach at Cawsand.

He exhibited first in 1846 at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Annual Exhibition where he won a Bronze Medal for a watercolour and a First Class prize for his chalk drawing. He became an Associate of the Royal Institute in 1854 and a Full Member in 1879 entitling him to add the initials RI after his name.

(Information from

The 1871 census is the last public record in which Louisa appears. She died in 1873 aged 70 (finally the records noting the correct age!) but Philip continued to live in Plymouth (at 7 Alexandra Road) until his own death in 1896. Probate was granted to his daughter Juliet Vavasour Mitchell.

Alex Google Earth
Alexandra Road houses from Google Earth

The little girl of seven years of age who left her home in Devon to attend a school in London for seven years lived for seven decades: an interesting symmetry.