The Joys of Commuting!

One of the Wragg stagecoaches, drawn by Thomas Moxon

A history of Walthamstow’s transport into the city. By Teresa Deacon

One of the many reasons people choose to live in Walthamstow is the relatively easy commute into central London by public transport. The Victoria line opened in 1968 and currently has a journey time of just 20 minutes to Oxford Circus. Hoe Street station (now Walthamstow Central) opened in 1872 and now offers an 18-minute commute to Liverpool Street via the overground train. In the 18th century, if you had business in the city, the only way to get there – if you could afford it – was by horse-drawn stage coach. In 1759, Francis Wragg Senior was the first of four generations of his family to run a stage coach service from the Nag’s Head public house on Orford Road to and from the city, with seven return journeys each day, taking roughly an hour in each direction. The family firm existed for 111 years up until 1870 when the arrival of the railways put them out of business.

When Wragg opened for business, the Nag’s Head was located on the opposite side of the road from the current site, on the corner of Orford Road and Church End (where the wildflower meadow now grows, the buildings there having been demolished in 1959. Allegedly, Tudor bricks were found in the basement).

How the Old Coach House looks today

In 1857, the third Francis Wragg rebuilt and relocated the Nag’s Head to where it currently stands, together with the adjacent coach house, which has since been converted into housing. By then, there were up to nine runs a day into London, with five return journeys on Sundays. We can only imagine how poor the pot-holed road surfaces were at that time, coupled with a lack of suspension on the coaches, and although the dangers of highway robbers were mostly over by the 19th century, the largely unlit roads must have felt threatening. The main highways were toll and turnpike roads, which helped pay for their upkeep. Flooding and crossing the River Lea were a problem and were avoided initially by going via Stratford and along Mile End Road towards the Green Dragon Inn at Bishopsgate. In 1821, a new toll road and bridge were built on the Lea Bridge Road, which improved services across the marshes.

The Nag’s Head on Orford Road in 1893

By 1836, six people could sit inside a coach, with nine people on top, exposed to all weathers – a travelling rug was essential! Seats had to be booked in advance and no pick-ups were allowed en route. Coaches also stopped at the Chequers pub on the High Street, which was then called Marsh Street.

Commuting was not for the average worker but for the wealthy merchants and middle- and upper-class gentry, of which there were plenty in Walthamstow in the 19th century. In 1815, the average fare was about 3d per mile – beyond the pocket of most. The cost of running the stage coaches was quite high, with new coaches costing £100, horses £20 each (usually four for each coach) and feed at 15 shillings (75p) per week, per horse. The overworked horses were only expected to last up to four years so had to be replaced frequently.

Images with permission of Vestry House Museum

By 1870, steam railways were taking over from horsedrawn transport and Wragg could no longer compete with the faster journey times and relatively comfortable commute. He continued to offer a regular stage coach service to and from L ea Bridge Road station and hired out horse-drawn ‘chaises’ and ‘f lys’ for private use. Francis Wragg the younger retired in 1880 to Fairmount on Church Hill, a handsome, detached Victorian villastill standing today. The Wrap family graves can be found in St Mary’s Churchyard. So, when we’re cursing delays on the Victoria line, spare a thought for those ‘privileged’ commuters with their freezing legs and no takeaway coffee!

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