19th century primitive painting of a London Parcels Delivery Company cart outside of the Spread Eagle coach office, Regent Circus, London c. 1860
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This painting depicting a ‘delivery cart’ belonging to the London Parcels Delivery Company (Hammersmith and Kensington) outside of the Spread Eagle Coach Office, Regent Circus, Piccadilly, is quite possibly the only surviving depiction of that central London coach office. Coaching Inns were originally the main locations for mail and passenger coaches but these eventually spread to dedicated coach offices. The Spread Eagle was originally a coaching inn in Gracechurch Street, London, one of the many galleried coaching inns of the time.
William Chaplin, the “Napoleon of coach proprietors,” was born at Rochester, Kent, in 1787, son of a coachman-proprietor, and he himself started off driving the Dover Union. By 1827 he owned between three to four hundred animals and the Spread Eagle, Gracechurch Street. By 1835, he owned 1,200 horses and the Swan with two Necks. In 1838 he horsed 68 coaches with 1,800 horses, employing 2,000 men. He also acquired the Cross Keys and the White Horse, Fetter Lane, and opened the Spread Eagle coach office in Regent Circus (now Piccadilly Circus) Chaplin was said to have had “immense energy, an equable temperament and great sagacity,” also, “a very good knowledge of the animals he governed as well as the bipeds with whom he was associated.”
Another coaching inn, the Bull and Mouth took a similar route and opened a coach office in Regent Circus. In 1832 Robson’s directory shows the two next to each other in the listings.
Regent Circus, Piccadilly 32 Ponsonby T & Son 34 Archer Isaac Spread Eagle Coach Office Bull & Mouth Coach Office 42 Coleby George 44,46 & 48 Bicknell & Webber London Cloth Establishment
William Shayer’s depiction of THE DUKE OF BEAUFORT'S COACH LEAVING THE BULL AND MOUTH COACH OFFICE FOR BRIGHTON (sold Sotheby’s 2007) shows clearly just what the Spread Eagle would have looked like next door with the Bull and Mouth coach office being at no 40, and the Spread Eagle at no 38.
Whilst we have Shayer’s painting, we can, after much research find no existing images of the Spread Eagle coach office - it may well be that this remains the only surviving depiction.
Above the Spread Eagle, with its ionic columns matching its near neighbour, we can see signs “Universal goods by steam locomotive and railway” and “booking office for railway goods”. We know that by later in the 19th century the bookings for voyages by ship could also be booked through the coach office.
The London Parcels Delivery Company, which had its head office in the Rolls building, Fetter Lane, London, was established in 1837. Edmund Yates described the business of the London Parcels Delivery Company in 1879: “Every parcel collected for delivery is brought into Rolls' Yard, and sent out thence, even though it was originally only going from one street in the suburb to another a hundred yards off and this is found to afford the only efficient system of check. In all respectable and thriving neighbourhoods, at gradiated distances according to the amount of business to be done, the company has its agents for the receipt of the parcels to be conveyed. These agents, who are paid by a percentage on the number and amount of their transactions, were at the outset nearly all keepers of Post-office Receiving-houses. It was naturally thought that such persons would be the most respectable in their various neighbourhoods, and their holding their little government appointments was a guarantee of their position. But, like other great creatures, the Post Office has its weakness, one of which is found to be an overweening jealousy. Again, following the example of the Post Office, the Parcels-Delivery company have an inner and an outer circle, one not exceeding three miles from Rolls' Yard, the other extending somewhat over twelve miles from the same point. The farthest places embraced are Twickenham Common in the south-west, and Plumstead in the southeast. In the far-lying districts there are two deliveries a day; nearer localities have four deliveries. There is a small difference in the rates charged between the two "circles;" but in both the collection and delivery are made by the ordinary carts, though in the City, where the general class of parcels is cumbrous and weighty, the collections are made by pair-horse vans.
The Company possesses about eighty carts and about a hundred and sixty horses. Although there are some thirty stables scattered about London belonging to it, the majority of the horses, about a hundred, are stabled in Rolls' Yard. They are good serviceable-looking animals, better in stamp and shape than either the omnibus or the cab-horses, being larger boned, stronger, and altogether less "weedy"-looking; they cost more too, averaging forty pounds apiece. Each horse works five days out of the seven, and covers in his journeys about thirty miles a day. To every cart are attached a driver, and a boy who acts as deliverer the former with wages of twenty-five shillings a week, the latter fourteen shillings, with such little perquisites as they map obtain from the public. The general conduct of these men and lads is, I was told, excellent, and never - save at Christmas, when the generosity of the public takes the form of gin - is there any irregularity. Then, looking at the extra work imposed on them, the rigidity of discipline is wholesomely relaxed, and the superintending eye suffers itself to wink a little. For at Christmas the labour in Rolls' Yard is tremendous. During the four days preceeding Christmas Day last year (1864), upwards of thirty-two thousand parcels, principally of geese, turkeys, game, oyster barrels, and cheeses, were conveyed by the company. At such a time the manager does not take off his clothes, and looks upon sleep as an exceptional luxury”
In this painting we can see a ‘delivery van’ (as Yates referred to it) with driver and delivery boy, referred to by Yates, of the Hammersmith and Kensington route.
We offer this painting in untouched condition. It has craquelure throughout and two areas of damage which have been historically patched the back. The painting remains on its original stretcher and the canvas was worn at bottom, lifting slightly from the stretcher. Possibly when patched to the back the painting has been varnished and benefit from a clean. We prefer to leave this in its original condition for any future owner to decide upon the level of restoration.
It is indeed a rare surviving example - a painting of a delivery cart of the London Parcels Delivery Company is currently housed in the Postal museum in London.