While wearing my History Centre hat I came across a data CD with the title "The Last London to Brighton Coach 1914". This intrigued me so much that I decided to take a look. The disc was undated and un-attributed and even more frustratingly, I could not open any of the 13 files that it contained because the images were recorded in an obscure image format (.cpt). I had not heard of .cpt before but after a lot of searching I managed to track down a freeware program that would convert the images from .cpt to the more normal jpeg (.jpg) but only if they were recorded in version 6 of the .cpt format. Holding my breath and with fingers crossed I pressed the mouse button a few times and these great images are the result.
Leaving London - St James Street
Manor Farm, Worcester Park
Clock Tower, Epsom
Burford Bridge Hotel
Twixt Dorking and Horsham
Between Cowfold and Henfield
Hotel Metropole, Brighton
Like me you may have thought that commercial horse drawn coach services from London to Brighton would have ceased shortly after regular train services were introduced around the 1830's and they may well have done. However, I don't think that the photos on this page relate to commercial activities.
During the 19th century a great deal of enthusiasm for horse drawn coaching arose amongst some very wealthy enthusiasts who began forming clubs to show off their horses and coaches and holding competitions. These activities soon became known as the London Coaching Season. In 1907 an American multi-millionaire, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt 1, brought over from his Oakland Farm in the United States 26 coaching horses for the first International Horse Show. His horses were considered 'coarse' by his English counterparts and not of the standard they were used to, never the less he won many of his events.
He started to entertain his friends by driving them, in his horse drawn coaches, from London to Brighton using a relay of horses. He enjoyed this coach driving so much that from 1908 he started a regular, but seasonal, London to Brighton service using a coach named "Venture". The coach ran from London to Brighton one day and returned the next which may explain why the Ashtead photograph (above) seems to have passed the Brewery Inn on the way towards London rather than Brighton, similarly passing Kings Head in Epsom. Vanderbilt is reported to have often driven the coach himself "dressed as for Ascot races, complete with grey top hat".
From 1908, the runs to Brighton had been routed via Reigate and sometimes to Portsmouth. Epsom, Ashtead, Dorking to Brighton continued from 1910 till the outbreak of war in 1914, hence the photographs shown above. The Leatherhead & District Local History Society have different versions of the photographs including a close up of Vanderbilt in the driving seat about to depart from St James' Street in 1914 and one of the coach reaching the Burford Bridge Hotel where lunch was taken.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Image source Wikipedia
Vanderbilt had returned to the United States but on 7 May 1915 he was traveling, first class, to England on the RMS Lusitania when a German submarine, the U20, torpedoed it. Vanderbilt helped others into lifeboats, and then gallantly gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger who was holding a baby in her arms. Vanderbilt, his valet Ronald Denyer and 1196 others died as a result of this incident. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's body was never recovered.
Memorial to Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
A memorial on the A24 London to Worthing Road in Holmwood, just south of Dorking.
The inscription reads, "In Memory of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt a gallant gentleman
and a fine sportsman who perished in the Lusitania May 7th 1915. This stone is erected
on his favourite road by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers". The memorial carries an image of a horse's bit. Image courtesy of 'Katherinesdad' via Wikimedia
This article was written by Peter Reed in 2011
with additional information supplied by Brian Bouchard