Keyed Bugles and Coach Guards

Opposition Coaches at Speed, 1832 (Yale Center for British Art)

The military was the largest single employer of professional musicians in late Georgian Britain and Ireland by a country mile. The armed forces considerably expanded opportunities for men and boys to acquire musical skills and, as Trevor Herbert and Helen Barlow have argued, stimulated innovations in instrument design.⁠1

Instruments popularized by military musicians were widely employed in the amateur wind and later brass bands which proliferated in the decades after Waterloo, often comprised of working-class men under the direction of old soldiers. But the impact of military music-making on wider musical culture can also be discerned in more unexpected contexts – including the world of stagecoach transport.

Aquatint depicting traditional tin post horn from ‘The Costume of Great Britain’ by W.H. Pyne, published by William Miller, 1805: Plate 54, Royal Mail Coach (Science Museum, London)

Red-coated coach guards had traditionally blown tin post horns to announce their arrival at inns or toll-gates, producing (according to one army officer) an unmelodious and ‘intolerable blast’.⁠2⁠ But these unsophisticated instruments were frequently cast aside in the post-war years in favour of the keyed bugle, which had been patented in 1810 by Joseph Haliday, the master of the band of the Cavan Militia, and rapidly adopted by myriad regimental ensembles thereafter.⁠3 The keyed bugle boasted not only the requisite audibility but (unlike the ordinary bugle) a full chromatic range, allowing guards to entertain travellers with lively melodies on tedious journeys and thereby secure generous gratuities.⁠⁠4 Although musical competence among coachmen varied widely, able performers achieved considerable renown along their routes, drawing eager listeners ‘to the windows and doors of their houses’ as they played their way through the countryside.⁠5⁠ Musically-inclined coach guards were also acutely audible in late Georgian cityscapes, participating in civic processions and entertaining ‘very numerous’ audiences outside inns while waiting to depart. The London artisan and social reformer Francis Place, for example, described several guards joining in waltzes and ‘fashionable airs’ from their respective vehicles around Charing Cross on a sunny summer morning in 1827.⁠6 Accomplished performances on the keyed bugle were an advertised selling point on some services, with knowledge of the instrument becoming a common job requirement for coach guards.⁠⁠7

Keyed bugle manufactured by Joseph Greenhill (St Cecilia’s Hall Music Museum, Edinburgh Acc. No. 3741)

Unsurprisingly, some of these musically-trained transport workers had honed their skills in the military. One coach guard, who ‘always attracted much attention’ by blowing his bugle through central Manchester, had previously served as a musician in the Grenadier Guards.⁠8⁠ Indeed, the keyed bugle craze among coachmen owed much to the enterprise of an old soldier, Joseph Greenhill, a London-based teacher and maker of the keyed bugle. Formerly the bugle-major of the Shropshire Militia and a virtuoso performer in his own right, Greenhill was reportedly the first to introduce Haliday’s new-fangled horns on coaching services. Having aggressively developed the market and manufactured thousands of bugles, he enjoyed a roaring trade catering to coach guards until his death in 1836.⁠⁠9

The coming of the railways undermined the coaching industry soon after, while new valved brass systems imported from the Continent, adopted and publicized by regimental bands and ex-servicemen such as John Distin, rendered Haliday’s instrument obsolete by the 1840s. Yet the cheery bugle solos of passing coachmen elicited considerable nostalgia from Victorian writers, and were even credited by one commentator in 1853 with better attuning ‘the ears of the masses’ to the correct musical scales.⁠⁠10 As the keyed bugle’s ubiquity in the coaching trade suggests, the technologies, repertoires and musical forms developed or inspired by martial musicians and armed conflict – from the brass band to the battle piece – were embraced and reimagined by civilians in contexts as disparate as radical political rallies and fashionable drawing rooms. The entrepreneurial spirit of Joseph Greenhill, moreover, was by no means atypical of discharged regimental bandsmen in the post-war decades. These men moved between civilian and military spheres with relative ease, carving out varied careers as street performers, amateur band leaders and retailers, developing controversial piano teaching methods and even making their mark as opera singers on the London stage. In music as in so many other areas, war and culture were intertwined: state and elite investment in military ensembles, combined with the ingenuity of individual ‘musical warriors’, spawned technological innovation and helped stimulate the nineteenth-century expansion of popular music-making.

Images: ‘North Country Mails at the Peacock, Islington’ by James Pollard, 1821 and ‘The Birmingham Tally-Ho! Coaches Passing the Crown at Holloway’, 1828 (Yale Center for British Art)


1 T. Herbert and H. Barlow, Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2013), p.85. Wartime coachmen had occasionally experimented with more sonorous alternatives, not always with felicitous results: a guard on the Derry mail coach in 1810 delighted passengers by playing the clarinet but was thrown from the roof and killed instantly. See J. Gamble, Society and Manners in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland, ed. B. Mac Suibhne (Dublin, 2011), p.179.

2 Journal of an Officer in the King’s German Legion… (London, 1827), p.41.

3 R.T. Dudgeon, The Keyed Bugle, 2nd edn (Lanham, MD, 2004), pp.14-16; J.B. Logier, Logier’s Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Royal Kent Bugle (Dublin, [1813]), p.5.

4 Dudgeon, The Keyed Bugle, p.34; Morning Post, 27 September 1825; United Service Journal (February 1837), p.198.

5 [H.E.] Malet, Annals of the Road or Notes on Mail and Stage Coaching in Great Britain (London, 1876), p.44; J. Cossins, Reminiscences of Exeter fifty years since (Exeter, 1877), p.54.

6 F.E. Witts, The Complete Diary of a Cotswold Parson: The Diaries of the Revd Francis Edward Witts, ed. A. Sutton (10 vols, Chalford, 2008), vol. iv, p.188; Malet, Annals of the Road, p.41; United Service Journal (May 1837), p.70; British Library, Add MS 27828, Francis Place: Collections on manners and morals, vol. iv, 25 July 1827, p.7.

7 Western Times, 13 August 1842; Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 31 January 1836; Freeman’s Journal, 5 May 1836.

8 J.T. Slugg, Reminiscences of Manchester Fifty Years Ago (Manchester, 1881), pp.212-213.

9 D. Lasocki, ‘New Light on the Early History of the Keyed Bugle, Part 2: More on England and Ireland; The United States’, Historic Brass Society Journal, 22 (2010) pp.22-23; Morning Advertiser, 16 August 1827; Bell’s Life, 31 January 1836; Morning Advertiser, 2 April 1836.

10 Musical Times, 1 March 1853, p.149; C.T.S. Birch Reynardson, ‘Down the Road’, or, Reminiscences of a Gentleman Coachman, 2nd edn (London, 1875), p.208.

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