Where would popular music be without cars? Whether it’s the explicitly erotic charge of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” (especially as interpreted by Natalie Cole) or Golden Earring’s “Radar Love”, or the sun, surf ‘n sex appeal of the little deuce coupe and the fun, fun, fun of the T-Bird (till her daddy takes it away), cars are right there at the heart of it. Offering speed, comfort, the opportunity to get away, and of course, not forgetting the back seat, cars created opportunities for lovers that they just didn’t have at home, with the added frisson of taking a risk and perhaps being found out. And similarly,in their day, the vehicles that preceded automobiles – horse drawn coaches, carriages, gigs and broughams – offered exactly the same opportunities and had exactly the same mystique and reputation. And so did chariots. Chariots?
The earliest example that I’ve been able to trace of the theme is undoubtedly the ancient Egyptian example from a papyrus that is variously known as the Turin Erotic Papyrus or the Turin Satirical Papyrus. This fragmentary papyrus was probably created in the workmen’s town at Deir el Medina. Nothing is left to the imagination in this imagery. The scenes are explicit and graphic, and in one instance, a man and woman are having sex whilst the woman is in a chariot drawn by two other women and “driven” after a fashion, by a monkey standing on the yoke pole.
Another less graphic ancient Egyptian example comes from the city of Akhetaten, built as a centre of worship to the Aten by King Akhenaten. One of the interesting aspects of Akhetaten is that it was built as a city with a road at its centre, and horse drawn chariots played a major part in daily life and ritual. In one very well known scene, Akhenaten and his great royal wife Nefertiti are shown embracing and kissing in a moving chariot under the protective rays of the Aten.
Royal women riding in a whirlicote – remind you of anything? One of them is being handed a little pet dog by a man on horseback. Image from The Luttrell Psalter in the British Library.
Moving forward a few millennia, we find that apes or monkeys are still appearing as drivers of vehicles, in, for instance, the Luttrell Psalter; but of even greater interest from that document is one scene, showing a medieval conveyance for royal women. These vehicles are sometimes described as carriages, but in fact they are whirlicotes. These were long vehicles with fixed wheels that were only able to change direction by dragging the vehicle out of its position and into a new course. They were usually drawn by horses working as a team, three of them or more, in a single line. Whenever I look at the Luttrell Psalter whirlicote, I’m irresistibly reminded of girls having a night out in a stretch limousine.
The medieval whirlicote, whilst looking like the latest innovation in travelling in style and comfort, actually didn’t provide much of either of those qualities. This wasn’t entirely due to the springless and relatively unsophisticated vehicle itself, but also to the condition of the roads generally. Most men (and the majority of women too) preferred to travel on horseback until the middle of the 16th century, when innovations in horse drawn vehicles really began. The earliest true coaches were developed in Hungary, but it wasn’t long before they began to be used elsewhere in Europe. They were imported into England, and the first home-built coach was produced for the Duke of Rutland in 1555.
By the early 17th century, coaches and carriages were beginning to be widely used in and around London and they were no longer the prerogative of aristocracy or royalty. Their reputation as mobile love or lust nests was firmly established by the time Ben Jonson wrote his famous play, “Bartholmew Fair.”
Horse copers and fanciers, dealers, charlatans and all manner of rogues convene at the fair to drink, flirt, eat pig meat and buy presents. One group of rogues is determined to seduce the hitherto virtuous Win, a married woman of London. One of them, Knockem, describes her just as he would a horse.
“Is’t not pity my delicate dark chestnut here – with the fine lean head, large forehead, round eyes, even mouth, sharp ears, long neck, thin crest, close withers, plain back, deep sides, short fillets, and full flanks; with a round belly, a plump buttock, large thighs, knit knees, straight legs, short pasterns, smooth hoofs and short heels, should lead a dull, honest woman’s life, that might live the life of a lady?”
The rogues tell her she will be a free woman and a lady and have “green gowns and velvet petticoats”, elaborate hairdos and head-dresses, and one tells her that she will “ride to Ware and Romford i’ dy coash, shee de players, be in love vit ’em; sup vit gallantsh, be drunk and cost de noting…and lie by twenty on ’em if dou pleash, shweetheart.”
“Lord,” thinks Win, musing on the idea of roistering around in a coach after the confined life she has led with her husband, “What a fool have I been!”
Coaches play a major part in Kathleen Winsor’s famous novel set in Restoration London, “Forever Amber.” By this point the coach was a necessary item for the elite, and London traffic was already beginning to snarl up thanks to the sheer numbers of them. In one scene, Amber, who is working with a gang of robbers, goes to an inn to find a suitable dupe – a coney – that she can lure to be robbed. She sits discreetly at a table, pretending to be a fine lady waiting for her lover (who does not, of course, arrive), while she seeks out a suitably drunk and wealthy young man. Eventually one is drawn to here – and she suggests they leave together. He asks her how she got there.
“‘Why, I came in a hackney, sir,’ she replied, implying that no lady going to an assignation would be so foolish as to ride in her own coach which might be seen and reported.
“‘I protest, madame. So fine a person as yourself travelling about after nightfall in a hell-cart? Tush!’ He waggled an admonitory finger at her. ‘I have my coach just around the corner. Pray let me carry you to your home.’
Once in the coach, Amber pretends they already know each other. It doesn’t take much to convince him that he’s seen her in the King’s box at the theatre and that he’s already in love with her. He immediately attempts to seduce her.
“As his impetuosity mounted, Amber grew more coy, moving as far away as she could get, and giving a low giggle in the darkness so that he made a grab for her. They started to tussle, she yielding a little and then pushing him off as he tried to draw her against him, giving a cry of dismay as his hand went into her bodice and caught one breast.”
Amber gives him a slap which puts him off for a time, but it’s not long before he makes another attempt. Then they arrive at the place she pretends is her home, where the robbers are waiting for them.
“‘Sit up sir, for God’s sake.” She was straightening her clothes, pulling up her bodice, smoothing her hair…”
It’s not long before her victim is knocked on the head and all his valuables taken.
From the same historical period, but a factual account in this case, comes an account of purchasing a coach in the diary of Samuel Pepys. This is an important purchase and investment for the Pepyses, and receives quite a lot of attention in his diary. He’s almost decided on one at the coachmaker’s, when his mind is changed by the opinion of Mr Povey,which he values. “This done, he and I to talk of my coach, and I got him to go see it, where he finds most infinite fault with it, both as to being out of fashion and heavy, with so good reason that I am mightily glad of his having corrected me in it; and so I do resolve to have one of his build, and with his advice, both in coach and horses, he being the fittest man in the world for it, and do he carried me home, and said the same to my wife.”
He decides on one similar to Povey’s: “Thence with Mr. Povey spent all the afternoon going up and down among the coachmakers in Cow Lane, and did see several, and at last did pitch upon a little chariott, whose body was framed, but not covered, at the widow’s that made Mr. Lowther’s fine coach; and we are mightily pleased with it, it being light, and will be very genteel and sober; to be covered with leather, and yet will hold four. In typical Pepys’ fashion, he describes the first outing of the coach in sexual terms (“my wife, after dinner, went the first time abroad to take the maidenhead of her coach”) but is pretty soon disappointed by the breakages and expense. Prior to taking on this investment himself, he’s always ridden in other people’s or hired coaches. It’s costly to present an impression of status and wealth to the world, and maintaining a coach and horses is a good way to spend money rapidly. A stable is required, of course; somewhere to keep it; the right kind of horses and clothes for the coachman. It’s a great day when he buys his coach horses: “This day was brought home my pair of black coach-horses, the first I ever was master of. They cost me L50, and are a fine pair.” A little later, though, the cost of breaking a window and an accident when one of the horses gets a leg caught over the pole of the carriage, causes him concern.
If love, or lust, and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, then there’s one particular place and time that was most true – and I’ll be exploring that in my next blog.