The Inn at the Crossroad – Two – The Postmaster of Crookhorn
“It would hardly be possible to exaggerate the historical importance of this experiment of the posts of the Plymouth Road. It ranks as the greatest social invention of a century which also produced the coffee house, the printed journal and the turnpike road.”
J. Crofts, Packhorse, Waggon & Post
The experiment referred to was the introduction of the first profitable postal service in England and the organizing force behind this innovation was Thomas Hutchins. Hutchins (sometimes spelled Hutchings) became postmaster of Crewkerne in 1617 and, by an indenture of 1619, he also held title to the George Inn; then still in the East Street building of the present White Hart. Hutchins had been postmaster at Litchfield, as had his father before him. He is the first figure in the 500 year history of the George to emerge as a distinct personality, and distinctive he certainly seems to have been.
It was customary during the primitive stages in the evolution of the postal system for the Crown’s Master of Posts to employ innkeepers along the five principal roads radiating from London as subsidiary ‘posts’ for the conveyance of royal and government documents and correspondence. The posts paid for their positions and were required to carry the official correspondence for a fixed rate of 1d per mile. This sum was scarcely sufficient to pay for the horses and stabling the posts were required to maintain in readiness at all times, and it was often difficult to collect even those wages. Lord Stanhope, Master of Posts, operated an ingenious system whereby he creamed off three shillings in every pound (two for himself and one for his subordinate) paid to the posts by way, one imagines, of a gracious (if involuntary) tribute to his own dignity and all-round worth and virtue. The posts – notably Hutchins – constantly petitioned the Privy Council about late or non-payment and the government in turn complained that the posts were habitually absent and that, contrary to the regulations, they sub-contracted the work to others. When Hutchins and the other posts did manage to extract their wages from the government, Lord Stanhope, in a further refinement, paid them in ‘light’ gold. Over time many of the posts took to augmenting their income through the carrying of private or ‘bye’ letters at a higher rate than the official one. This method of subsidizing the royal posts was irregular – not to say illegal – but it came to be a recognized perquisite of the posts, to which the authorities turned a blind eye.
Eventually a few individuals, notably one Samuel Jude of London, attempted to break the monopoly of the posts by advertising to carry ‘bye’ letters only, thus relieving themselves of the irksome necessity of coping with the unprofitable official post. Jude’s enterprise was not in itself illegal as he was, strictly speaking, merely operating as a private carrier, but his highly aggressive methods and actual attempts to sabotage the regular posts galvanized the energetic and able Hutchins. Having first organized the whole of the posts on the London-to-Plymouth road into a syndicate with a self-supporting central fund, he petitioned the Privy Council to allow the carrying of ‘bye’ letters to become an official monopoly of the Royal Posts. He was able to demonstrate to the government that by sanctioning the posts to operate along the lines he was proposing the conveyance of the Royal Packet could be transformed from an unfortunate but unavoidable burden on the state into a significant producer of revenue: in short, a template for the modern postal service.* The doughty Hutchins (aided by Jude’s transgressions) carried his argument in the end, but not without difficulty. He eventually succeeded in having his scheme put into place; and in having the various fees, mulcts and imposts which the posts had to pay reduced to manageable levels, although it is apparent that he tried the patience of officialdom in the process. He was imprisoned by order of the Post Master General in 1621, and again in 1631. His offence in both cases was his persistent badgering of the government – on at least one occasion petitioning the king directly – for the salary arrears owed to him and the other posts – a matter of over £22,000 at one point. In 1623 the Privy council ordered that the posts should no longer “…employ as their solicitor [sic] Thomas Hutchins who has so importuned the Council by his clamours that he is ordered to be committed if he appear before them again.”
These contretemps may explain why in 1624 Hutchins leased the George Inn to Nicholas Gundraye; his time – what with public matters and being periodically thrown into the Tower – being too full to allow for the duties of a simple innkeeper.
In essence Hutchins pleaded for a clumsy and outmoded system of bribery and corruption to be replaced by a more up-to-date and efficient one – the universal process of political economy – but his contrivance certainly did constitute progress. So much so that Crofts in his excellent study of land transport in the Tudor and Stuart periods more or less credits the Postmaster of Crookhorn with introducing the means of civilization to provincial England.
The degree of Hutchins’s success may be measured by the fact that when Lord Stanhope finally grasped that the postal system had become profitable (to others than himself) he immediately proceeded to raise the valuation of the posts of the Western Road from “…£20 anciently given to £100.” Thomas Hutchins’s sons, Edward and Joseph, who inherited the George on their father’s death in 1633, obviously felt that this was rather sharp. But it is also apparent from their petition that they were more than willing to pay the going rate, indicating the “…benefit of the merchants’ letters, which their father had” was now worth at least four times what it had been previously.
Contentious to the last, Thomas in 1632 was again petitioning the Privy Council to ensure that the other posts honour their previous agreement to pay him a certain percentage of their income in recognition of the time and money he had expended in pursuit of their mutual interests. Unsurprisingly, the other posts begged to be excused, but in the end the Privy Council ordered them to pay Thomas Hutchins his due.
At some time after Thomas Hutchins’s death his son, Edward, seems to have acquired full or controlling ownership of the George from his brother, Joseph. Edward, having become a widower, moved to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Middlesex, where he remarried. When he died he left “…his George Inn at Crewkerne” to his sons, Edward and Thomas, who were both minors in 1654 when the will was written. The will was proved in 1657 and as Joseph Hutchins is named in the parochial records as ratepayer in respect of the George in 1658, it is to be assumed that he maintained the inn on behalf of his nephews, to whom he may have stood in some position of guardian- or trusteeship.
It is interesting to note – and symptomatic of the confusion caused by the name duplications which are apt to be encountered by enquirers into this subject – that another Thomas Hutchins of Crewkerne died in either 1638 or ’39, leaving a will which stipulated that five pounds be paid to his son, William Howchins, an attorney in the Massachusetts colony, on condition that he return to England.
In 1660, following the Restoration of Charles II, a Robert Hutchins applied for the return of the ‘Post Place’ of Crewkerne, which had been taken away from him (or his family) by Parliament in 1652, and given to Francis Pyke. Robert claimed that the right to the postmastership had passed to him from his ‘relation’, James Hutchins. It was while considering his plea that the Privy Council recollected their difficulties a generation earlier with the pertinacious Thomas. From this it is reasonable to conclude that there was a family connection, but whether Robert was a son of Joseph, or some other relation – and who the James Hutchins was – it has been impossible to ascertain. There also seems to be no evidence that he had any direct connection with the George.
However, it is a matter of record that the George was known through much of the seventeenth century as Hutchins’ Inn. The inn and the postmastership were obviously bound up with one another but whether they were run jointly by the various Hutchins or if there was a division of labour – and if so what it was – one can only guess.
Robert Hutchins was not the sole post-Restoration petitioner for the postmastership of Crewkerne. A John Greenway also applied, as did a Thomas Rawlinson. The latter’s petition was endorsed by Sir Edward Savage and Lord Poulet (as then spelt). As well as what he maintained were his ancient family claims, Hutchins made much of his loyal service to the king in Cornwall during the Civil War. However, Lord Poulet was a Royalist commander who had joined Charles in exile, and may have had sufficient clout with the new court to see his nominee get the post. Whoever was successful in 1660, in 1677 – by which time the system had had undergone some modification – the postmaster of Crewkerne received £30 per annum. Richard Hobbs received the same sum in 1687 and ’88. In 1690 William Hobbs received £15 for half a year’s service, and James Bale the same. Bale remained in the post until 1699, taking a cut to £25 in 1694, which was restored in 1699. In 1700 Martha Beal (surely the same name) received £30. Between 1688 and ’90 the spelling of the town’s name changes in official documents from Crookhorn to Crewkern. Whether the Hobbs and Bale (Beal) families were involved with the George is unrecorded. In any case, the connection of the inn with the posts continued until the mail coach service to the West ceased with the coming of the railways; long enough for people still living when Willis Watson wrote about the George in the 1930s to remember seeing the Royal Mail Warrant displayed on its stable doors.
Despite the continued existence of the architecturally evocative White Hart, it is difficult in the absence of any pictorial record to envisage what exactly the physical aspect and atmosphere of the George would have been like in Thomas Hutchins’s day. The building would almost certainly have had a thatched roof but, considering the higgledy-piggledy nature of Crewkerne’s buildings prior to the regularizing construction boom of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries growing out of the town’s increasing prosperity, it takes an effort of the imagination to place the inn as part of a whole picture. It is safe to assume that it was an important focal point of the town, especially for travellers. At a time when even main roads varied from the abysmal to the non-existent the thought that at the bottom of the next hill there was a place of light, warmth and refreshment must have sustained many a wayfarer – private and official – between London and the far West of England. William Shakespeare, who was both contemporaneous with Thomas Hutchins and, as travelling player, was familiar with the region, might have had the George in mind when he wrote:
“The West yet glimmers with some streaks of day,
Now spurs the lated traveller apace to gain the timely inn.”
* Under present government policies it appears probable that the “modern” postal service will presently revert to the pre-Thomas Hutchins model with the role of Samuel Jude being taken by the likes of TNT, DHL, UPS and FedEx.
END CHAPTER TWO
TO FOLLOW: CHAPTER THREE – THE MANOR OF EASTHAMS