Tag Archives: blunderbuss

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Taking the bare elements of this incident, it sounds somewhat like a farce, or bad joke. The scene: a coaching inn, on a quiet Wiltshire road. The characters: a mail coach complete with guard and passengers, an escaped lioness and its owner, a former race horse, and a dog. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction – this blog post relates to a real historic event: the attack of a Lioness on the Mail Coach in 1816.

'Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterston Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816' - colour engraved print by A Sauerweid, 1817 (2009-0024)

'Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterston Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816' - colour engraved print by A Sauerweid, 1817 (2009-0024)

Our regular readers may recall this blog from several years ago; given the airing of The Peoples Post episode on Mail Coaches this is the perfect occasion to revisit the event and examine each part in more detail.

The scene: Winterslow Hut (now the Pheasant Inn) was a famous coaching inn, situated on the post road from Salisbury to Andover. “Hut” was apparently the local name for a road suitable for coach travel.

The mail coach: On the night of 20th October 1816, the London to Exeter mailcoach was on its ‘up’ route, destined for London. Nicknamed ‘Quicksilver’ due to its speed, it was carrying mail, a mail coach guard, paying passengers, and a coach driver.

The lioness: had escaped from a travelling menagerie, stationed in nearby Salisbury Plain. She trotted alongside the mail coach, which whilst alarming the horses, did not perturb the driver, who mistook her for a calf. When the mail coach pulled into its scheduled stop at Winterslow Hut, the lioness pounced and attacked one of the horses.

The horse: ‘Pomegranate’ had been a race-horse, but as his temperament was difficult he was sold to become a coach horse, which was felt would break his fiery spirit. Pomegranate now found himself with the jaws of the raging lioness around his neck.

The passengers: fearing for their lives, stormed the inn and barricaded themselves inside, shutting out not only the mail coach guard, but also, according to one account, another passenger who subsequently became so traumatised by that night’s events he was committed to an asylum for life.

The Mail Coach Guard: One Joseph Pike, reached for his regulation blunderbuss. The role of the mail coach guard was to ensure the safety and security of the mail, and to this end were heavily armed. The guard carried a ‘brace’ of pistols, and a blunderbuss – and Pike was ready to use it.

Blunderbuss, c. 1788-1816 (OB1995.338)

Blunderbuss, c. 1788-1816 (OB1995.338)

The menagerie owner, his assistants and dog: Before Pike could fire, the owner of Ballard’s Menagerie appeared and begged the guard not to fire, stating how much the lioness had cost, and how his investment would be lost. Either his financial argument worked, or as some have stated the owner threatened Pike with a pistol – either way Pike did not shoot. The owner set his Newfoundland dog onto the lioness – who promptly turned her attentions from the horse to the dog, and then hid under a granary.

The lioness’ capture was reported in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal the following week:

Her owner and his assistants…followed her upon their hands and knees, with lighted candles, and having placed a sack on the ground near her, they made her lie down upon it; they then tied her four legs and passed a cord round her mouth, which they secured; in this state they drew her out from under the granary, upon the sack, and then she was lifted and carried by six men into her den in the caravan… the lioness lay as quietly as a lamb during her removal to the caravan.

The event captured the public’s imagination, being recounted in newspapers nationwide. Two artists were inspired to create a visual interpretation of the event, and their resulting prints have been described in this blog. The Pollard print (below) is often considered the more realistic account, the artist it is believed having spoken to the mail coach guard and the inn owner. However, if you take a closer look at the men in the top windows of the inn, it is believed Pollard depicted Charles James Fox, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt – none of whom were at the event, and one of whom had died 10 years previously!

'The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach' – print by James Pollard, 1817 (2009-0010)

'The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach' – print by James Pollard, 1817 (2009-0010)

The animal’s story did not finish with the capture of the lioness. The menagerie owner showed further financial prowess, purchasing the now injured coaching horse, Pomegranate, and displaying him with his wounds the very next day. Pomegranate, the lioness, and the dog all became part of the menagerie’s displays, receiving top billing in this fair.

Poster advertising Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts (P8167)

Poster advertising Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts (P8167)

Whether this is the actual dog is in question, as according to most accounts the dog died due to injuries received from the lioness. Pomegranate was eventually returned to his owner who received compensation for the injuries suffered. We know the lioness was exhibited at the 1825 Bartholomew Fair.

– Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Mail Coach. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Moving the Mail: From Horses to Horsepower

You’ve probably noticed the feed from our Flickr account on the right side of this blog. We’re using Flickr as a way of enabling more people to see our exhibitions, such as Moving the Mail: Horses to Horsepower.

Moving the Mail explores the history of road transport and the Post Office, showing how technology and innovation, from Mail Coaches to motorised transport, enabled Royal Mail to increase the speed of mail delivery.

Royal Mail Coach circa 1800

Royal Mail Coach circa 1800

Prior to the introduction of Mail Coaches, Post Boys delivered mail by horse. Post Boys were vulnerable to adverse weather conditions and attacks from highwaymen, and the system was considered slow.

In the late 18th Century, John Palmer, a theatre manager from Bath, proposed an alternative system whereby horse-drawn Coaches would be used. To ensure the maximum speed was maintain the horses would be swiftly changed every 10 miles. When this system was trialled in 1784 it took just 16 hours for the Coach to travel from Bristol to London: a speed considered remarkable at the time. By the end of 1785 Mail Coaches were in use all over England.

Mail Coach Guards carried a blunderbuss and a brace of pistols to protect them from attack. The first recorded hold-up of a Mail Coach took place in 1786; it was unsuccessful as the Guard shot the highwayman dead. This action by the Guard appears to have deterred other highwaymen as no further hold-ups were recorded (unless you count the on a Mail Coach by a lioness, as mentioned previously on this blog).

With the coming of the railways in the 19th Century and other technological advances, Royal Mail began to use vans, motorcycles, push bikes and other vehicles to deliver mail. A range of these are on display at the venues below or can be viewed on Flickr. For more information on road transport and the Post Office see the Moving the Mail: Horses to Horsepower Online Exhibition.

Exhibition Tour Dates

Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, until 27th September 2009

Grampion Transport Museum, until end October 2009

Bradford Industrial Museum, 18th July – 12th September 2009

Mail Coach Attacked by Lioness

 by Freya Folaasen, Cataloguer (Collections)

The BPMA Museum collection consists of a wide range of objects and ephemera including a number of prints and engravings. This small collection of around 200 works is currently being documented and will be added to the online catalogue in the not too distant future.

The prints and engravings are in a number of styles and were produced using a variety of techniques, but all show some aspect of postal history, be it images of Royal Mail coaches unloading at the GPO at St. Martin’s le Grand, portraits of Postmastera General, interior scenes of letter sorting offices or motifs of postmen and postmistresses at work. Through this collection one can learn about the workings and development of the British postal service, and the interesting incidents that happened along the way.

The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach

The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach (2009-0010)

One of the more dramatic stories told through the prints and engravings appears in two separate prints Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday 20th October, 1816 and The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach. Their subject is, as the titles might reveal, an event that took place in 1816 where the ‘Quicksilver’ Royal Mail coach, on its way from Exeter to London, was attacked by a lioness outside the Pheasant Inn.

A lioness is not what one might expect to see in the English countryside, but not far from the Inn a travelling menagerie had stopped for the night and it was from here the lioness had managed to escape from its keepers. As the coach stopped to deliver the mail bags the lioness attacked the lead horse of the ‘Quicksilver’, setting its talons in the horse’s neck and chest. The two passengers of the coach fled into the Pheasant Inn and locked themselves inside, blocking the door for anyone else, while the mail guard attempted to shoot at the animal with his blunderbuss. A large mastiff dog from the menagerie set on the lioness “with such pluck and fierceness”[1] and grabbed one of its hind legs, which made the lioness release the horse and attack the dog, chasing and finally killing the dog some 40 yards from the coach. During this time the keepers where alerted to the situation and managed to trap the lioness under the straddle of a granary. The menagerie proprietor and his men then crawled in after the lioness, tied her legs and mouth, and then lifted her out and back to her den in the menagerie caravan, while the locals of Winterslow Hut watched on.

Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816

Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, At Winterslow Hut near Salisbury, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of October, 1816 (2009-0024)

This incident became known all over the country, and at a time without telephones, telegraphs or railways it is amazing to find that a mention of the Sunday night attack was made the very next day in the London Courier, and in further publications in the following days. It also became the subject of artistic work, among them paintings by A. Sauerweid and James Pollard, which the prints in the BPMA’s collection are based on.

Another noteworthy fact about the incident, and a testimony to the efficiency of the postal service at the time, is that the attack only delayed the mail coach 45 minutes before it obtained a new post horse and continued on its route to London.

[1] ‘Mail Coach Attacked by a Lioness. Remarkable and Exciting Adventure’ by R C Tombs I S O (Ex-Controller Of HM London Postal Service) in ‘The Observer, 1911, Sep 30’ (POST 111/43).