Times Group historians PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD look back at the time when stagecoaches were a way of life

The great days of the horse-drawn vehicle have long since passed and so have many of the organisations that served their needs the inns, stables, ostlers, blacksmiths and the like.

Locally, most of these services (and there were very large numbers of them) were located alongside the Great North Road and other major routes to the Midlands, North and West. They mostly catered for the needs of travellers.

Areas such as Finchley, Whetstone and Edgware were ideal locations for such services, because a horse pulling a heavy load, such as a stagecoach, can go about ten miles before it gets tired and needs to be replaced. That was called a stage' hence the word stagecoach'. We were about that distance from central London and in pleasant rural surroundings.

At its peak, Barnet had 21 coaching inns where fresh horses and good accommodation for travellers were available. Rivalry for business was intense, but trade must have been brisk because the Whetstone toll gate, at its height, recorded no less than 130 stagecoaches a day passing through.

Stagecoaches were run by rival companies and the vehicles were given exotic names, such as Highflyer (London to York), Civility (London to Bedford) and Eclipse (London to Hertford).

Perhaps the most famous were the Tally Ho! coaches stabled in Finchley, which covered the London to Birmingham route and were claimed to be the fastest in England. That journey was scheduled to take less than 12 hours, which is remarkable considering the state of the roads and the size and weight of the load: four passengers inside during the day and six at night (plus their luggage), with the number of outside passengers varying, but often six or more.

The coachmen, who drove the teams of horses, needed special skills and were acknowledged for their strength and driving skills.

The growing population and increasing industrialisation of the country presented a problem the need for a faster and more reliable mail service.

A special design of coach to carry the Royal Mail was drawn up in 1784 by one John Besant. It was lighter, faster and better sprung than the ordinary stagecoach, and was protected from thieves and highwaymen by a blunderbuss-armed guard seated next to the driver. The hazards of crossing Finchley Common were about to end.

In its special black and maroon livery, the mail coach was to become one of the features of the main roads of the time and remained so until around 1842, when the railways took over its job.

In 1839, the post office on Finchley Common was run by Robert Stephens. Letters from London arrived every morning at 9.45am and then at 5pm. Letters were dispatched by penny post to Barnet every evening at 7pm. Hendon's post office in Brent Street received its letters from London at 8am, midday and 8pm.