A Tale of Two Coaches 1791 & 1853 – Dublin vs. London | Season 2 – Episode 81
Wheels Nov 26, 2022
In the 1790s an intense rivalry between the coachbuilders of Dublin and London produced two remarkable Irish-built horse-drawn coaches. Both coaches are remarkable not just for their design and elaborate ornamentation but more-so the fact they are both still in use in the 21st Century by the Lord Mayor in Dublin and by the British Monarchy in London.
In 1757 when the City of London built a state coach for its Lord Mayor the Assembly in Dublin city were jealous, as at that time, they did not have their own funds to spend on a new coach. Instead in 1757 the assembly had to rely on the civic-minded of the Marquess of Kildare who came to their assistance and donated a ‘Berlin’ coach for use by the Lord Mayor of Dublin.
The Kildare coach was in use for over 30 years and by 1789 it was deemed to be worn out and beyond economic repair.
This is when the Dublin vs. London coachbuilding one-upmanship intensified and determined not to be outdone, the Dublin Assembly resolved, regardless of expense to “rival and excel the State Coach of the Lord Chancellor (and the Lord Mayor of London).
Under the mayoralty of John Rose the Alderman Sheriffs and Commons of the city who were affluent at that time resolved on 17th July 1789 to appoint a committee – to prepare a coach for the use of the chief magistrate “so he could appear on public occasions with a fitting state” at an expense not exceeding £600 pounds.
The resolution was accepted, and advertisements were placed in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal – inviting coach builders to submit costings and scale models. At this time there were around 2,000 men employed in up to forty factories producing coaches and harnesses in Dublin city.
It was quickly realized that £600 was not enough to build a coach of consequence for the city of Dublin and £1200 was duly proposed and accepted so that the new carriage should be “becoming the consequence of grandeur and dignity of the great city (of Dublin)”.
William Whitton of Dominick Street, one of the principal coach builders of the city was the successful applicant and along with a team of the very best craftsmen and artists in the city, he set to work.
In an over the top description, by 21st Century standards, William Whitton detailed his creation as being built as a ‘brancard’ (system for suspending the bodywork) and double bowed coach, 24 ft long, 8 ft in breadth and 11 ft in height. Its suspension was by whip springs and straps.
The bodywork was carved of wood and gilded with gold leaf and paint. The interior lined with crimson velvet trimmed with silk fringe, bullion tassels and silk lace, bearing the City Arms, with festooned curtains of blue lustring.
The under carriage is constructed with two curved cranes joining the fore and hind axle-bars. They are elegantly carved, the front end of each terminating in a wolf’s head; the hind ones in cornucopia pouring out fruit. The continuation of the cranes from the wolfs’ mouths are carved with foliage, and passing over the axles curve upward and terminate in eagles’ heads. These heads support the foot-board carved with festoons of fruit and flowers.
The front, side and back panels are painted with heraldic emblems and allegorical subjects of the city of Dublin including the Keys of the City and the God Apollo instructing the muses to sing the praises of Hibernia.
Over each door are the arms of Ireland, a harp on a blue field, impaling those of the City; the shield supported by two boys carrying the sword and mace. In the centre of the front and back edge of the roof are, respectively, under a Cap of Maintenance, and the Scales of Justice on a cushion.
It is thought that the Italian artist, designer and architect Vincent Waldre was responsible for the intricate paintings on the exterior of the coach. Parisian, Charles Francis le Grand then living in Denmark Street was thought to be responsible for the wood carving and gilding.
A grand unveiling in Whitton’s yard was planned for 4th November 1790 to be followed by a gala procession around College and St Stephen’s Green that same day.
However this grand occasion did not take place as planned as the Dublin Assembly still held those bitter memories from 1757 when they felt upstaged by the coach of the Lord Mayor of London and where embarrassed at having to accept at the time the largesse of the Marquess of Kildare in the gift of his Berlin carriage.
Added to this slight to Dublin civic pride in 1790 the Lord Chancellor’s London-built coach had been brought to Dublin and exhibited to the public in the Chancellor’s stables and “was the admiration of everyone for its design and workmanship.”
Dublin’s Guilds were not happy as they felt they were being upstaged again. The coachmakers of Dublin city belonged to the Saddlers’ Guild or Corporation, which included the professions of saddler, upholders (upholsters), wheelwrights, carpenters and harness makers. Allied trades for the coach construction included painters and gilders. As a whole the various Dublin City Guilds whose members skills had gone into the construction of the coach took immense pride in their creation as they were certain it excelled any coach that could be built in London.
William Whitton was sent back to his workshop and re-tasked with a design revision and a request for increased ornamentation and lots and lots of gold.
The people of Dublin finally got to see the new Lord Mayor’s coach on November 4th 1791 when it was in the annual procession that marked the birthday of King William III. While the ornate coach of 1st Earl of Clare, Lord Chancellor of Ireland built in London the previous year, was well received by the crowds, William Whitton’s Dublin-built carriage with ornate woodwork and carvings featuring two golden ladies with swords at the rear corners stole the show and the people of Dublin were enchanted.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Henry Gore Sankey, Alderman Sheriff’s and Commons of the Dublin City Assembly and the various Guilds felt that honour and civic pride had been restored. They felt so good about the Lord Mayor’s coach that they did not baulk when William Whitton’s final bill (including the ornate upgrades), was submitted in January 1792, totalled £2,690, an astronomical sum for the time.
However William Whitton was never to see his hard earned money as he died in November 1792 with the payment later being awarded to his widow, Eleanor.
For many years the Lord Mayor’s coach was paraded through Dublin for royal birthdays and other important occasions, but as politics of the Corporation changed if fell out of favour. After being renovated in 1897 the coach was housed in stables at the rear of the Mansion House on Dawson Street, the Lord Mayor’s official residence.
Following the 1921 foundation of the Irish Free State the coach had several homes, spending time in Hutton’s of Summerhill and the National Museum on Kildare Street. During these years its biggest outing was for several state occasions during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It’s next home for a number of years was in a corner of Thomas Street Fire Station and by 1949 it was in long-term storage along with a small historic vehicle collection in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.
In 1975 with the coach officially recognised to be in poor condition Dublin Corporation made the decision to restore this important piece of Irish transport heritage. The coach was carefully moved to the Corporations Mechanical Division’s Workshops on Stable Lane where a multidisciplinary team including art conservators from the National Gallery and National Museum and a coach trimmer from Inchicore Railway Works completed an extensive renovation.
In 1976 the Lord Mayor’s coach was returned to use as a working vehicle for use on the city’s ceremonial occasions and so began a continuing tradition when the coach leads the annual St. Patrick’s Day Dublin Parade and every August transports the Lord Mayor to the RDS (Royal Dublin Society) to open the Dublin Horse Show.
Our story now takes us to the coachbuilder John Hutton who established his business on Great Britain Street in 1788 when he was 22 years of age. In 1779 he was commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to build two mail coaches to adhere to the design and patents of the type used in England at that time. This order effectively gave Hutton the entirety of the Irish mail coach contract and he was able to expand and move his business to bigger premisses in Summerhill where the company was in business for over 140 years.
In quick time Hutton’s carriages gained an excellent reputation for cutting-edge design and workmanship. He was assisted in his success by employing the German designer, Rudolph Ackermann who while working in London won acclaim for the design of the ceremonial coach for the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare.
Ackermann’s name is familiar to us by virtue of the steering system to which he gave his name – the ‘Ackerman Arm’. The Ackerman Arm is covered in detail in Episode 10 of our ‘Talking the Talk’ podcast – The History of Steering Systems https://open.spotify.com/episode/0vQurhIzOALU6fz9hHV5vI?si=d77fb688e37e4d54
As the leading Irish coachbuilder of the time and a holder of a Royal Warrant as coachbuilders to Queen Victoria, Hutton always had his eye on the larger commissions the London elite could bring to his business and so in 1851 he built an elegant four-horse-drawn carriage as a speculative venture.
John Hutton’s description of his ‘Irish State Coach’ is that of a blue and black painted exterior adorned with gilt decoration with the interior upholstered in blue silk damask. Hutton’s adaptable carriage design was able to be pulled by two or four horses and driven by a coachman from the box seat. With the box-seat removed the carriage could also be controlled by a postilion (guides while mounted on one of the leading horses.)
In 1853 the Great Industrial Exhibition was held in Dublin, said to be the largest international event ever held in Ireland up to that time. The exhibition was held in the grounds of Leinster House fronting onto Merrion Square West which at that time was the ducal palace of the Dukes of Leinster and which now is the seat of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament. The exhibition building designed by John Benson from Collooney, County Sligo and constructed from iron, steel and glass was a marvel of design at 425 ft in length and 100 ft in height.
Hutton’s speculative-built carriage was placed on display at in the exhibition hall and on 29 August Queen Victoria admiring the work of the Dublin coachbuilder, made a purchase and had the carriage transported to the Royal Mews in London. Queen Victoria greatly admired the Dublin-built carriage and from 1861 the Hutton carriage became her state carriage of choice.
Following on from World War 2, what is now known as the ‘Irish State Coach’ is used to transport the British monarch from Buckingham Palace through the streets of London to the Palace of Westminster for the formal opening of the new legislative session of the British parliament. When not in use the Irish State coach is on display in the Royal Mews in London.
From the 1890s to the early 1900s the Dublin elite moved their attentions from coaches and carriages and onto motor vehicles and the coachbuilders of the city including Huttons and Booths (previously featured in Booth Brothers – 190 years of bike selling, coach building & car assembling in Dublin | Season 2 – Episode 75) found new commissions in re-bodying standard factory-built motor cars into unique machines.
An Age Of Elegance Irish Art of the 18th Century
Anthologia Hibernica – January 1793
British Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Dublin City Assembly – Assembly Roll – July 1763
Dublin City Council – Lord Mayor Coach
Gilbert’s Calendar of Records of City of Dublin
Infomatique – William Murphy
John Hutton and Sons, Summerhill, Dublin, Coachbuilders 1779-1925 – by Jim Cooke (1995)
National Galleries of Scotland
National Museum of Ireland
Road Trip Ireland
Ronan Stewart Services
Royal – Society of Antiquaries of Ireland
The Motorcar in Ireland (1896 – 1939) by Leanne Blaney
The State Coach of the Lord Mayor of the City of Dublin and the State Coach of the Earl of Clare, Lord Chancellor of Ireland by W. G. Strickland (1921)
The Worshipful Company of Saddlers by J.W. Sherwell – Presented to Maynooth College, 1889
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