Those Fabulous Phaetons - Part One

Perhaps nothing so epitomizes the reckless self indulgence of the Georgian and Regency periods as the phaeton. Fashionable phaetons used at horse shows included the Stanhope, which sported a high seat and closed back and which was named after the Honourable Fitzroy Stanhope, who designed it, and theTilbury, a light two-wheeled carriage with a spring suspension system, named after the well-known coachmaker, John Tilbury. Each cost, without harness, about seventy pounds.  Tilbury was immortalized by the following lines:

"So, in St. James's, ...
He pays his debts, discards his whore,
No longer drives a stage and four,
Nor cares what horses fill the stalls
At Tilbury's or Tattersall's,
Nor makes his morning lounge the stable,
Nor frets all night o'er Crockford's table. ..."

(From the Moral to 'The Fox & The Rose'
by Henry T. L. Ravensworth, 1833)


Crane-necked Phaeton
The crane-necked phaeton was a sporting vehicle of the 1780's, used for driving at high speeds and enjoyed popularity with the Prince Regent and his set, who drove them to singles, pairs or four in hand teams.It was four wheeled and had a seat for two mounted high above ground level. The most popular type had near vertical, curved iron supports, or cranes, under which were large forewheels. This unstable design was extremely dangerous, having front wheels that measured five feet in diameter and back wheels at six to eight feet in diameter. These phaetons were also called "High Flyers," a name also applied to the young bucks who drove them, racing between London and the coaching station at Salt Hill. Occasionally, reckless young ladies took the driving seat, the most notorious having been Lady Archer, who was "as renowned for her skill with the whip as for the cosmetic powers she exercised on her complexion." Jane Austen mentions in Pride and Prejudice that Lady Catherine de Bourgh sometimes drove a phaeton and has Mr. Willoughby driving a topping yellow phaeton. Austen herself drove one upon a visit to London and another to Bath. Jane recorded the last adventure thusly: "There is now something like an engagement between us and the Phaeton, which to confess my frailty I have a great desire to go out in." Next day she continued, "I am just returned from my airing in the very bewitching Phaeton and four, for which I was prepared by a note from Mr. Evelyn soon after breakfast: We went to the top of Kingsdown and had a very pleasant drive."

The Stanhope Gig

A picture of a period London carriage parade is provided to us in Volume 48 of the Quarterly Review: (A man) must indeed open his eyes wide the first time he is in St. James's Street on the day of a levee or drawing-room. Hyde Park, however, on any fine afternoon, in the height of the London season, will be more than enough to confound him. He will there see what no other country under the heavens can show him, and, what is more, we may venture to add, what no other country ever will show him. Let him only sit on the rail . near our great captain's statue, with his watch in his hand, and in the space of two hours he will see a thousand well-appointed equipages pass before him to the Mall, in all the pomp of aristocratic pride, and in which the very horses themselves appear to partake. Everything he sees is peculiar:—the silent roll and easy motion of the London-built carriage—the style of the coachmen—it is hard to determine which shine brightest, the lace on their clothes, their own round faces, or their flaxen wigs—the pipe-clayed reins—pipe-clayed lest they should soil the clean white gloves—the gigantic young fellows, in huge cocked hats, bedaubed with lace, in laced silk stockings, new kid gloves, and with gold-headed canes, who tower above ' Mr. Coachman's' head— the spotted coach-dog, which has just been washed for the occasion. The vis-a-vis, containing nobody but a single fair dame, with all its set-out, has cost at least a thousand pounds;—and the stream of equipages of all calibres, barouches, chariots, cabriolets, etc., etc., etc., almost all got up, as Mr. Robius's advertisements say,' regardless of expense.'

Though phaetons were associated with single drivers, some were controlled by mounted drivers, or postilions, who rode the nearside horse and drove it's offside partner. On the Continent postilions driving a pair or team of fast horses harnessed to a light carriage were popular and driving with postilions was in the style named a la d'Aumont, the fashion having been introduced by the Duc d'Aumont.

Driving from the box by a coachman was the slower but safer British method, with fast driving only coming into fashion in England during the last quarter of the 18th century when road improvements were made.

In his All the Year Round, Charles Dickens writes of these road improvements: "There can be no doubt that amongst the many remarkable social changes within the recollection of our middle-aged men, none has been more decisive than that in the character of our pleasure carriages. Macadam was the first great revolutionist in Long-acre. He made it possible to dispense with the before inevitable four horses on country roads; and by the smooth easy surface with which he replaced the jolting pavement, and the miles of mud, which, a hundred years ago, buried Arthur Young's gig on a high' way up to its axles, struck a fatal blow at the state coach with six horses, and its guard of active running footmen. The railroad followed, nipped the stage-coach just as it reached perfection, destroyed the professors of four-in-hand, and finally reduced to the value of old wood and iron those luxurious posting chariots, without which, before the days of the iron horse, no country gentleman's coach-house was complete."

Most phaetons had a rear "dummy board," a platform on which a groom or tiger stood. Owning a splendid phaeton, with their racy colours and the matched pairs of prime horseflesh and liveried servants that went along with them, offered young bucks the perfect opportunity for showing off. Strange then that the greatest self publicist of all time, Beau Brummell, never owned this nor any other carriage. He used a sedan chair and nothing could induce him to use any other vehicle when going out of an evening. Though he disliked outdoor activity of any kind, Brummell did engage a horse dealer named Fryatt purchase hunters for him.

Not only was it fashionable to own a carriage, it was expensive, as well. On top of purchase and maintenance costs, in 1814 the tax on two wheeled carriages was seventeen pounds, on four wheeled twenty one pounds. Additionally, owning a single horse brought a tax of five pounds per annum, two horses eight pounds and three horses nine pounds. Dickens explains that this tax was eventually, and cannily, gotten around: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer who reduced the tax on low-wheeled carriages was the real author of the swarms of pony phaetons that branched off and vulgarised, as the French say, the George the Fourth model - a guinea dog-cart that never carried dogs, and the thirty-inch wheel pony phaeton, were bred in the same year by the same budget. As a special boon to the agricultural public, in a chronic state of discontent, the exemption from taxation, which had previously been confined to the springless shandrydan, was extended to any two-wheeled carriage built for less than twenty pounds, provided the owner's name appeared in letters of a certain length and undefined breadth, on the cart or gig. This bounty created a huge crop of dog-carts at fabulously low prices, embellished with letters which presented the nearest approach to length without breadth. The exemption has long been repealed, but it lasted long enough to make the " cart" an institution, without which no gentleman's establishment was complete. It raised a number of ingenious adventurous wheelwrights into buildersof carts, who by degrees, when all one-horse springed vehicles were put on the same footing, advanced to better things, broke through the costly traditions of Long-acre, and displayed great ingenuity in varying the form and shape of vehicles, on two and four wheels, for town and country use. These found a place and new customers in the Crystal Palace Exhibition and at agricultural shows."

Of course, none of this concerned the members of the Four-in-Hand Club, about which Gronow said, "the spectacle of a grand turn out of the members of that distinguished body was one of the glories of the days of the Regent." Original members included Lords Sefton, Barrymore, Worcester and Fitzhardinge, Sir Henry Peyton, Sir John Lade, Major Forrester, Sir Bellingham Graham and other noted whips. They assembled in George Street, Hanover Square, and then set out for Salt Hill where a sumptuous dinner awaited them at the Windmill, kept by a man named Botham. After twenty years, the Club had broken up but it was soon revived at a meeting at Chesterfield House. Of all the members of either Club, Lords Barrymore and Lade were considered to have missed their calling - they had skill enough to have been professional drivers. Not only could they handle the reins, but they knew the slang of the road and stable. When visiting London in 1810, Simond recorded of the Club members, "the gentlemen-coachmen, with half a dozen great coats about them - immense capes - a large nosegay at the button hole - high mounted on an elevated seat - with squared elbows - a prodigious whip - beautiful horses, four in hand, drive in a file to Salthill, a place about twenty miles from London, and return, stopping on the way at the several public-houses and gin shops where stage-coachmen are in the habit of stopping for a dram, and for parcels and passengers." Simond went on to caution, "Let these gentlemen remember that the lowering of the superior classes, the fashionable imitation of the vulgar, by people of superior rank in France, under the name of Anglo-mania, was one of the things that contributed to bring about the Revolution."

Dickens tells us: "The mail phaeton of the last generation of the pre-railroad age has been reduced in size and weight, and (in the majority of instances), by the abolition of the perch, transformed into the Stanhope phaeton. It is likely to continue popular with the large number who enjoy driving, and can afford to drive, a pair of horses. The old mail phaeton, some specimens of which may still be seen driven by country bankers and masters of hounds, required a pair of full-sized expensive horses to draw it well, instead of the small blood horses which best suit a Stanhope phaeton; but it was, of its kind, a luxurious carriage, by its strength and weight defying the jolts of the worst roads, and overpowering the impudence of the drunken drivers of market-carts. Nothing less than collision with a four-wheeled waggon could shake it, while the driver, high above his horses, held them in complete command, and rolled serenely along, overlooking garden walls, and looking; down on all ordinary vehicles. In the days when roadside inns regularly expected and received a succession of guests, there was nothing pleasanter than a tour of visits to hospitable friends, in a well-appointed mail phaeton, with an agreeable companion at your side, and adorer handy groom behind. The big hood was a partial protection to the great-coated manyeaped inmates, and the blazing lamps and rattling pole chains made even a dark and foggy night so altogether disagreeable, from the comforting sensation that if anything you could not see did run against you, it was not your solid carriage that would get the worst of it."

Part Two Coming Soon!