William the Postboy

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May 14, 2017 by auntkatefirmin

Harriet Blackford had an older brother, William, who was baptised in 1789. William would have been about 13 when their father died in 1802 and I imagine that he would completed any schooling and started working by that time. Whatever talents or skills William acquired, it seems that he was good with horses. I’d been meaning to write up William’s life but was nudged when I turned up the following wonderful (romantic) image of a “post boy.”


A nostalgic view of the Post Boy (who delivered mail) as depicted in Coaching Days and Coaching Ways by W Outram Tristram via the British Library on flickr.

William’s paper trail often records him as William the post boy of the Marlborough Arms. I suspect that he was a postilion rather than a post boy in the sense of of a rider who delivered the mail.

My understanding is that in William’s era an innkeeper often doubled as a the local postmaster, and the postmaster hired the post boys (who wore smart red coats) to carry the mail from one location to the next. Perhaps William did deliver mail at one time in his career or work on a mail coach, perhaps not. Marlborough was on the post road and received mail that was traveling in either direction from London to Bath. By William’s day there was also mail service via “cross post” to Swindon and Wootton Bassett, as those towns did not lie on the direct post routes. There was another sense in which “post” refers the stopping points in a journey taken in “stages,” that is to say a journey broken up into shorter intervals. In that sense, the a postilion or post-boy was the driver of the vehicle and usually rode on the near-side lead horse (as opposed to the coach-man who sat on the coach to drive). I’m sure it was all perfectly clear at the time!


A drawing to illustrate the term postilion, after a 1793 drawing by Rowlandson. (Fairman, A Manual of Coaching, via google books).


Either way, William would have traveled more or less the same roads, as Marlborough was a way-point on the Great Bath Road and in the heyday of coaching over 40 coaches a day might pass through; there was plenty of work for postilions and coachmen. In 1815 Marlborough had 445 houses and a population of 2579. Until the coming of the railway, Marlborough was noted for the hospitality at the Castle Inn (built originally as a mansion by Francis, Lord Seymour). Depending on where William worked in Marlborough he might have come into close contact with notable figures of his day. Beau Brummell would have traveled on the Great Bath Road and stayed in the Castle Inn in Marlborough as did many other famous individuals of the time. But perhaps William (since his father was a noted fighter) would have been more interested in meeting Gentleman Jackson the boxer.

Because William married in Marlborough I presume that he started working in either Swindon or Marlborough and worked his way up to larger inns in larger towns. I wonder if in his youth William had ever accompanied his father to Marlborough market or assisted him with his preparations. He was certainly might have learned something of the handling of horses from his father as Robert would not have walked from Swindon to Marlborough with meat to sell, though he may have hired rather than owned whatever horse and/or cart he used for the journey. Horses were expensive to buy and keep and I’m not clear as to whether Robert was ever wealthy enough to own a horse or a mule. (Another possibility is that Robert had an arrangement with a person traveling to Marlborough with goods to sell.)

William’s job would have taken him out in all weathers and was no doubt physically challenging as there would be long hours of travel. The Blackfords appear to have been a family with a lot of stamina. Coaches and horses require constant attention while driving and the state of the roads, even though the through roads were maintained by the turnpike trusts, caused many accidents as the weather and heavy traffic created difficult conditions. For example, while not common, severe snowstorms and cold weather could lead to the deaths of passengers. Was William working in 1836 during one of the most “notorious” snow storms of the 19th century? Depending on which “stages,” or lengths, of the route William rode he would be more or less subject to the dangers of highwaymen who took advantage of the lay of the land and available cover to chose vantage points that were somewhat predictable.

Map of 18th century Marlborough.

Marlborough, showing the mileage from London (74 & 75 miles). Savernake Forest is visible in the lower right.

I have not located specific information on the wages of a rural post boy around the turn of the century, but I have to assume it was not a highly paid position. Was William ever a bit of a dandy who liked to make a good appearance in his uniform as he rode by, or was he simply content to have steady employment? It was not until William was 27 that he felt he had enough savings or steady income to support a family. On 27 Jan 1817 he married Jane Blackford of Marlborough in St Peter’s Church. It’s quite possible that Jane and William were cousins but the details are yet to be worked out.

William would have only ridden a portion of the 105 miles between Bath and London at any one time, as the postilions were changed from time to time while the passengers continued on. The fastest coaches could cover the distance in twelve and a half hours – whether William ever worked on an express coach service is not known. Over his career he may have become familiar with a good portion of the road between Marlborough and London. It is possible that the family left Marlborough to live in Chelsea for a time  – similar to other Blackford family members who were drawn to the greater London area.

1802 – William’s father Robert died and was buried in Swindon. William was thirteen.
1817 – in January William married Jane Blackford in St Peter’s, Marlborough; he was 27.
1817-  in December William and Jane’s son Robert was baptised at St Peter’s, Marlborough.
1819 – in October William and Jane’s son Henry was baptised at St Peter’s, Marlborough.
1822 – in May William and Jane’s daughter Rosaline Dorothy was baptised at St Luke’s, Chelsea; he was the post boy at the Marlboro Arms.
1824 – in November young Henry was buried at St Luke’s Chelsea; he lived in Turk’s Row. It is possible this is a different Henry, but for the moment I’ll assume he was the boy born in Marlborough in 1819 as William’s sister Lucy (Blackford) Phelps was listed as living in Turk’s Row, Chelsea, in August 1824 (when she died).

I will venture to say that William and Jane were living in Chelsea in May 1822. Perhaps William had decided to move closer to the other siblings. If I have correctly identified the Marlboro Arms public house, it was located at what is now 43 Elystan Street and did not open until 1819. After 1824, there is an information gap – no more children are indexed as being baptised in the London area as children of William and Jane. There are no deaths or burials indexed prior to 1841 that could only be William or Jane, but neither one is indexed in the 1841 census. The William Blackford that was buried in Marlborough in 1837 was recorded as a much older man (age 86); there is also a burial in Marlborough in 1823 that could be William (but seems more likely to be yet another William Blackford the son of the man buried in 1837).

It seems reasonable to conclude that both William and Jane were dead by 1841 – certainly they were not indexed as part of a household with their surviving children Rosaline and Robert. There may have been some tragedy as early as 1823 that resulted in the children being raised by other family members; if they died before 1837 there would be no civil registration for the deaths. If Jane died, William would have been unable to work as a postilion and also care for young children. If William was injured on the job, Jane might not have had the resources to earn a living.

In 1841 Rosaline was living with her uncle, John Sylvester, at 34 New Manor Street in Chelsea (her aunt Dorothy was in Swindon at the time of the census). When Rosaline married on 5 January 1843, her father was listed as William Blackford, postilion, with no notation that he was deceased. Rosaline married Edmund Charles Enderby in Lambeth, and appears to have gone by her middle name Dorothy in her later years. Rosaline had been identified with the Sylvester family to such an extent that her daughter’s baptismal record listed Rosaline as “Rosaland Dorothy Sylvester Enderby.”

Young Robert Blackford, assuming he was listed, has not been found in the 1841 census; he would have been 24. He next turns up in Marylebone as a shoemaker in the 1851 census with a wife, Hannah, and three children. Given later evidence it’s pretty certain that he is the right Robert, but his occupation is interesting given his background – how and where was he trained? By 1841 Harriet (Blackford) Hall was living north of the City in the parish of St Luke Old Street; she did live in Marylebone prior to that and perhaps Robert lived with her family for a time. Hannah is assumed to have died before 1852 as Robert Blackford, shoemaker and son of William Blackford the Post Boy, married Sarah Chapman on 13 Sept 1852 in St James, Paddington. It’s an interesting lesson in records as Robert was described as a bachelor rather than a widower, and in 1855 he and Sarah brought three children in to be baptized and Sarah was listed as the mother of all three (which was not untrue, but Hannah must have been the biological parent of two of the three).


The London end of the Great Bath Road as it would have looked in William’s youth, about 1797. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Hopefully Harriet (Blackford) Hall (1792-1849) was able to keep up with William’s family; Harriet would have been alive when Rosaline (Blackford) Enderby’s first children were born but not when Robert married for the second time. If anyone turns up clues as to the fate of William the Post Boy or his wife Jane, please comment below.


Further Reading:

Jane Austen’s World: Post Roads and Post Boys for information about mail carriers
Climate records 1800-1849


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