Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The story behind the 'Postie Stone'

I regularly travel up to Edinburgh by car on the A701 from Moffat. In the summer months it is often a really pleasant run, but in bad weather, and particularly in winter, it can be a daunting drive.

For years, as I've passed this little monument by the roadside near to the Devil's Beeftub, I've often said to myself, "One day I must stop and take some photos." I did that recently, and so got drawn into the story of James McGeorge and John Goodfellow.

I already knew that the memorial was to two persons who had died in a snowstorm, whilst trying to carry mailbags forward on foot after their coach had become stuck in the snow.

The memorial is constructed of local whinstone and is about ten feet high. It was unveiled on September 20, 1931, more than a hundred years after the tragedy. There is a granite plaque facing the road, topped with a representation of a mail guard's bugle. The inscription reads, "Near the head of this burn on 1st Feb, 1831, James McGeorge, guard, and John Goodfellow, driver of the Dumfries to Edinburgh Mail, lost their lives in the snow after carrying the bags thus far. Erected 1931."

I began wondering how the tragedy had been reported at the time, and I delved into contemporary newspaper reports.

On Tuesday, February 1, 1831, there was a particularly bad winter storm. The Caledonian Mercury, on February 3, reported that, "Tuesday the first of February, 1831, will, we fear, be a memorable day throughout Scotland, if not further south. On that day we were visited by one of the most violent snow storms within our recollection." The article goes on to describe in detail just how bad the storm had been. The same article reported that the Dumfries mail was overdue, with others, and, "We much fear we shall have to record a disastrous catalogue of casualties. We understand that the snow in the vicinity is in some parts to the depth of 8 or 10 feet."

That prediction was to prove correct. On Monday, February 7, the paper reported that "There is now, unfortunately, little doubt respecting the fate of the guard, McGeorge, and the driver of the Dumfries Mail, which left that place on Tuesday." The mail bags had been found tied to a post not far from Tweedshaws. Of the men themselves only the hat of one of them had been found although many were searching for them.

In 1831, the Mail Coaches provided an elite service between main towns, such as between Dumfries and Edinburgh, travelling non-stop, other than to change horses every twenty miles or so. The mail coach itself, horses and the driver were all provided by contractors. They were fast and more expensive to travel on than regular stagecoaches. The mail service's primary purpose was to carry the mail, but the coaches could carry four or five passengers. To travel on the mail coach was an expensive outlay for a privileged few. Four passengers could be accommodated inside. There was one space beside the driver. No-one was allowed to ride beside the guard whose position was at the rear of the coach, beside the mailbags. The guard was the only Post Office employee on board. He was usually armed, and wore an official uniform. He carried a bugle/horn to warn other road users to keep out of the way and to signal toll-keepers to let the coach through.

You can visualise what a mail coach and occupants looked like from images here, here and here, and the print of James Pollard's painting here.

Articles about what happened to the Dumfries Mail in 1831 contain conflicting details. I've tried to reconstruct the events from the facts in various newspapers of the time.

On February 1, 1831, the mail coach set out from Dumfries at 10.30 in the morning, probably from the Royal Mail Coach Office at the George Inn in the town centre (see a ticket here). The coach driver was John Goodfellow, and the guard, James McGeorge. The journey to Edinburgh would usually have taken about eight hours. Because of the weather, the first 20 mile leg to Moffat took much longer than usual, three and a quarter hours. The coach was on its way again shortly after 2 pm. A mail coach of the time was usually pulled by four horses. But in Moffat, because of the snow, six horses were harnessed up.

It is around 5 miles from Moffat to the top of the Beeftub, and a further two miles to Tweedshaws, where another change of horses was planned. There's a rise of some 300 metres (1000 feet).

The coach only made it a mile and a half beyond Moffat before becoming stuck. 

Among the passengers were two women. One was a Miss Cruikshank, a governess to a Miss Stewart of Dumfries. I have not found the name of the other woman, or that of other passengers, or indeed how many there were.

The horses were uncoupled and McGeorge and Goodfellow took two of them and, with the mail bags, continued the climb up to Erikstane, at the head of the Devil's Beeftub. On a third of the horses was a guide. Some reports say this was a roadman who had been working to clear the road of snow, and presumably knew the way well. Another report says it was one of the passengers.

At some point on the climb up, it is not said where, the going became too difficult for the horses. The guide (or passenger) returned towards Moffat with the horses. There is the story that it was McGeorge, the guard whose responsibilities were the mailbags, who was the one who made the decision to carry on to Tweedshaws by foot through the blizzard. Goodfellow, apparently, was not keen to continue, and McGeorge indicated that, if he wanted, he too could go back to Moffat. But when McGeorge was determined to go forward by himself, Goodfellow said he neither could, nor would, leave him. And they both set out together. Never to be seen alive again. What actually transpired remains conjecture.

Meanwhile, back at the stranded coach, help was sent for, the women remaining in the coach. Just who went for help is unclear, but apart from the other passengers (if any), there were workmen who had been trying to clear the road. 

Mr Cranstoun, a local innkeeper (of the Annandale Arms, I believe), set out to help in his own post chaise. But this got stuck too, short of the mail coach. However, according to the Caledonian Mercury of February 12, 1831, 'as the distance was not great, Mr Cranstoun's assistants rescued the ladies from their perilous situation, carried them in their arms over the snow, and deposited them in the chaise'. This brought the women back to Moffat by 5pm.

Next morning, Wednesday, February 2, James Marchbank, whose job it was to inspect the roads, found the mail bags tied to a 'snow post' nearly six miles from Moffat, and just over a mile short of Tweedshaws. These bags were heavy. The article in the Caledonian Mercury says they weighed seven stones (44 kg). Certainly difficult for one man, or two, to carry on foot through a blizzard. The bags would eventually be forwarded to Edinburgh via Penicuik on horseback.

It was dark by the time Marchbank got back to Moffat, but the road surveyor, a Mr Henderson, collected together a rescue party which made its way through to Tweedshaws, to find that neither guard or driver had been seen or heard from. The next day (the Thursday) more than a hundred persons set out from Moffat to search for the missing pair, but all that was found was the driver's hat, near to where the mail bags had been left. The search continued on the Friday, with no success, and again on the Saturday, February 5. That day the bodies were eventually found by the innkeeper and tollkeeper at Tweedshaws, approaching from the north. Goodfellow was found first, and McGeorge just a hundred yards away. With help from the Moffat searchers the bodies were moved to Tweedshaws, and from there back to Moffat where they were buried on Wednesday, February 16, 1831.

James McGeorge was 47 years old, and left a wife (his second) and five children, one of whom followed in his footsteps as a mail guard on the Dumfries Edinburgh service, but died in Dumfries on June 11, 1839, aged just 34. They share this lair in the old Moffat cemetery.

The inscription says, "Sacred to the memory of James McGeorge, Guard of the Dumfries and Edinburgh Royal Mail, who unfortunately perished at the age of 47 years near Tweedshaws after the most strenuous exertions in the performance of his duty during that memorable snow storm 1st February 1831.   Also George McGeorge his son and successor as Mail Guard who died at Dumfries 11th June 1839 aged 34 years.
John Goodfellow was a widower, and left two daughters, the oldest not yet fourteen. His age is not recorded. His monument in the Moffat cemetery was 'Erected by Subscription in 1835'.

The inscription reads, "IN MEMORY OF JOHN GOODFELLOW Driver of the Edinburgh Mail Coach, who perished on Erick Stane in a Snow Storm, on 1st February 1831, in kindly assisting his fellow sufferer the Guard, to carry forward the Mail Bags." 

Over the years the story of the 'post office martyrs' has been told and retold, much embellished and romanticised, and facts distorted.

Questions remain why McGeorge was so determined to get the mail through. It is written that he had a black mark against him in the past, and perhaps it was to remedy that failure that had been the driving force for him to want to continue. Was he under pressure from his employers, the Post Office? According to the Caledonian Mercury on February 12, 1831, on being advised of the conditions ahead when at Moffat, McGeorge repeatedly said, "I was suspended, or threatened with suspension, for not doing more than I could before, and must proceed, whatever the consequences might be."

The paper did not sit on the fence when it came to giving its opinion on why the tragedy had occurred, saying, "This is dreadful, and reflects little credit on the Algerine laws of the Post Office. We are quite aware that department of the state must be managed with the greatest regularity, and there are persons who care not how many horses are pushed and goaded beyond their strength so that they receive their letters with despatch. But killing human beings is quite another matter entirely; and we say it is cruel, and not only cruel but disgraceful, to compel men whose task is at all times a hard one, to peril their own safety and the dearest interests of their wives and families, in conquering physical impossibilities."

'Killing human beings'! Editorial comment does not come much stronger than this.

Whatever the reason for McGeorge's determination to push on, the fact that the mailbags were left at a point where they were sure to be found, as indeed they were, does show that, even in the direst of circumstances, he still had a commitment to his job.

I wonder what McGeorge expected to find when he reached the inn at Tweedshaws. Would he then have ridden on towards Edinburgh on horseback - the Crook Inn being the next way point?

I also find it somewhat strange to read that Goodfellow left the stranded coach, with passengers, and followed McGeorge. As the coachman, where did his responsibilities lie? He was not a Post Office employee. Was he following orders from the guard? Or were they friends? He is to be commended for not turning back, at the cost of his own life, as things turned out. 

I was intrigued when I read that the exact spots where the men's bodies had been found had been marked in some way. I decided to set out to see if I could find these markers. The first thing I had to take into account was that in 1831 the two men did not take the road that is now the A701, rather the older track that runs to the east and goes around the east side of Fletchet Hill. It would have been a slightly shorter, more direct route.

I've tried to show the route on this early one inch to the mile map from 1883.

I began my walk on the A701 at the Erikstane viewpoint, at the head of the Devil's Beeftub, on a beautiful winter's afternoon - a far cry from what it would have been like in February, 1831. On the right is the main road coming up the side of the valley from Moffat.

This forest track seems to follow the line of the old road. The trees, of course, are a very recent addition, probably planted in the 1960s, and are currently being felled.

I found myself trying to imagine what the roads would have been like, even for the mail coach, in the early nineteenth century. This is how I imagine what it would have been like, and in blizzard conditions, it would not have been easy to find your way.

McGeorge and Goodfellow made it to the highest point on the road, and, had it been daylight and the weather been good, they would have seen Tweedshaws Inn in the distance.

Not knowing what I was looking for, I could easily have missed the marker which shows where McGeorge's body was found. But I did find it!

His initials are inscribed on a simple sandstone block.

There is a similar marker for John Goodfellow a little way from here. I didn't find it on this walk, but now I know where I should be looking, I'll try to find it on another occasion.

I took the opportunity to climb to the top of Corse Dod. Not the highest hill I've ever climbed, at 503 metres, but these days climbing anything feels like an achievement. There was even one of the smallest cairns I've ever seen marking the top!

I was rewarded with some lovely views over open moorland. A beautiful day, but hereabouts it can be pretty bleak at times. It is an underrated part of Scotland. Sadly, yet another wind farm, and connecting pylons, are planned for this area. It is such a shame to see our countryside defaced in this way. Enough is enough - I would like to see such vandalism stop.

Photos © Skip Cottage. The map clipping is of a map in the National Library of Scotland's maps website here. I found the story of the tragedy in newspapers of the time in the British Newspaper Archive.


  1. Wow - where to start Bob!
    Firstly thank you for clarifying an old story for me - I've passed that marker many times and never knew the complete background to it - it's an epic tale of bravery. Who would even think of doing something like that these days? The sheer effort is beyond comprehension. And well done on finding one of the markers - hope you find the other one - a sterling effort!

    On another note - more windfarms? They've destroyed the beauty of those hills. It was such a wild place and had a massive romance to it . . and . . not sure if you're aware of it, but that's (could well be) Merlin Country! If you haven't read it, Nikolai Tolstoy's 'Quest For Merlin' puts forth some very believeable research. Strangely it fits the feel of the land too. Well worth reading.
    Thanks again

  2. Thank you Bob Cowan.
    One day I hope to see this Postie Stone for myself, as James McGeorge is my GGGGGrandfather. I am always searching the Internet for information and always love to read new articles. This was lovely to read, and I really look forward to seeing this in the very near future.
    Thank you.
    Karen Jesson

    1. I think a distant relative of mine, Daniel Kirk, was the person who found your relative.

  3. So according to family history Daniel Kirk was the proprietor of the Tweedshaws Inn. He and one of his helpers came fro the Inn and discovered the bodies. I would like to hear from anyone interested.