John Read: Ostler, Post Boy, Omnibus Driver, Bill Sticker

John Read was born about 1822 in Wem, Shropshire. He was one of my great-great-grandfathers. I know little about him, but I do know some of the places he lived in and his occupations. So let’s see what that might tell us about him and his times. I should mention that variant spellings of his surname are Read, Reed, and Rade – the most common, and what his descendants used, is Read.

Wem, Shropshire – birthplace

He was a ‘Shropshire lad’[1]. This is the location of Wem – I had never heard of it until I found it in the census records as his birth place.[2]

Wem is an ancient place – the name is derived from the Saxon word ‘Wamm’ meaning marsh; but it is believed to have been settled even earlier by Celts in the Iron Age. It became a market town in 1202. Its main claim to fame now is that is was where the sweet pea was first commercially cultivated in the 1880s. (Wikipedia entry). But when searching for Wem, I found this note: Many census transcribers have confused the town of Wem with “WEM”, an abbreviation for the county of Westmeath in Ireland! Beware of places of birth such as Edstaston, Westmeath, Ireland, as they should read Edstaston, Wem, Shropshire, England. There are many thousands of these errors.[3] Poor Wem!

Bristol – marriage and an ostler

John married in Bristol in October 1847. His wife was Ann Nicholls and she was born in Cam, in Gloucestershire, about 1822.[4] Cam is a village and civil parish in Gloucestershire, situated in the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Way runs less than a mile from the village. Its built-up area is contiguous with that of the town of Dursley.[5]

map of Cam

On their marriage certificate his occupation was given as ‘ostler’ and the address at the time of marriage for both of them was 71 Redcliff Street, Bristol. They married in the parish church of St Mary Redcliffe (a Gothic church). This was the church in which Thomas Chatterton claimed to find medieval manuscripts (they were a forgery and he committed suicide), and poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey both married here.

I have no idea if number 71 was where it is today, but this is the area today – you can see the church at the end of the street (Google street view).

Redcliff st

The word ‘ostler’ is a variant of hosteler (or an innkeeper, or a person who receives and lodges guests, especially at a religious house), but for John Read it most likely had the meaning of “A stableman or groom at an inn” (Oxford English Dictionary). The earliest reference in the OED is from 1449 and it is noted that the term is now ‘historic’. John Read’s father (also called John) was listed as an innkeeper on the marriage certificate, and Ann’s father William was a carpenter.

In 1849 a letter was addressed to John Rade [Read] at Portishead, Bristol (see my post on the Read and Sheckell families in England) in which his brother pleads for a sovereign as he is ill with smallpox and can’t pay his hospital bill.

Llanelli, Wales – post boy/man, omnibus driver, bill sticker

By the 1851 census John was living in Llanelli (it was spelt Llanelly until 1966) in Wales – at least I assume I have the correct John Read, as his son George and subsequent children were all born in Llanelli – George in 1851.[6] However, John is living in the house of Francis McKiernen, a coach proprietor and innkeeper in Park Street. There were 16 household members – the McKiernen family and various servants. John, aged 29, is one of the servants – a post boy; listed above him was the ostler and below him were listed two horse keepers. He is said to be unmarried! In 1843 McKiernen had been involved in a riot (he destroyed a tollgate as the tolls were hurting his business; but he was later acquitted). The Llanelli Community Heritage website says: “McKiernin was the mail coach proprietor from Llanelli to Carmarthen and Swansea; he was also the innkeeper of the ‘Ty Melyn’ in Park Street.”

There are a number of definitions for ‘Post Boy’: “Someone who carried mail from town to town. A guard who travelled on the mail coach. An outrider who travelled with the stagecoach as a postilion”. There are also a number of definitions for postilion. According to one website a postilion was someone who attached extra horses to wagons and coaches to help pull them up hills, or one who worked on long distance coaches and whose duty it was to change the horses at the stops.[7] However, Wikipedia has the postilion (sometimes abbreviated to post boy) as a driver of horses, mounted on one of them.[8] The English etching below from 1793 shows a postilion guiding the two front horses. The rear horses are controlled by a coachman (from Wikipedia). The OED gives this latter definition, as well as adding ‘a courier or speedy messenger’. Usage in English began in the late 1500s.

postilion image

Given John was a servant at a coaching inn, I think he was a postilion rather than a letter deliverer – although they probably meant similar things in the case of a mail coach business! I tried to find where Ann and their daughter Ellen were living in 1851, but without  success.

In 1853 when son Robert was born (he was to be my great-grandfather – see Robert Read and the Moa explosion) his parents’ address was given as Water Street, Llanelly and John’s occupation was postman. This is probably the same as ‘post boy’ and had something to do with horses and mail coaches.

By the 1861 census their address was Island Street, Llanelly (this was near Water Street) in the centre of town. This is a map of Llanelly in 1860 – Water Street is to the right of the market:

Llanelly 1860 map

Credit: From Llanelli Community Heritage, Llanelli in the 1860s, 26 July 2013:

Today Water Street and Island Place look like this – I’m sure it is quite different to when the Reads lived there.

Water St 2

Perhaps the only building they would still recognise would be the Zion Baptist Chapel (established 1857). As this website describes it: “An imposing pair of buildings (the chapel and its vestry) in an area of Llanelli that has changed dramatically over the last few years.”

In 1861 John Read was aged 39 and his occupation was omnibus driver. Ann was 38 and they had four children living with them (Ellen, 14; George, 9; Robert, 8; Ann, 10 months) and Ann’s mother Esther Nicholls aged 70, formerly a dressmaker born in Cam, Gloucestershire.[9] Plus Hannah Bowen, a 10 year old girl listed as a servant. So, I assume they were ‘doing ok’ if they could afford a servant – even though she probably wasn’t paid much.

The earliest use of ‘omnibus’ given in the OED is from 1828 and an advertisement from 1829 announces an omnibus service has commenced running on the Parisian mode. Of course, these were horse-drawn omnibi (or omnibuses). So probably John Read’s experience with horses as an ostler and postilion got him the job of omnibus driver. The OED records the first use of ‘omnibus driver’ as 1837. I don’t know what John Read’s omnibus looked like, but this is a picture of one that operated in London between 1860 and 1870. (Courtesy of London Transport Museum):

horse bus 1860s

Bill Sticker or Bill Poster

In the 1871 census they were still in Llanelli (the ‘house behind the Brecon Arms’, near Mount Pleasant) and John, aged 49, is listed as a Bill Poster (with Bill Sticker later written on it). Two children were living with them – Ann, daughter, 10, scholar; and John, 4, scholar.

There are many definitions of Bill, but the relevant one to a Bill Sticker (or Bill Poster) is “A written or printed advertisement to be passed from hand to hand or posted up or displayed in some prominent place.” (OED) The earliest record of use in this sense according to the OED was in 1480.

A bill sticker was the person who stuck the bills onto things. A reference in the Westminster Magazine from 1774 of “Bill stickers, pickpockets and chimney sweeps” [OED] would suggest that it was not regarded as an honourable occupation – or at least was at the lower end of working class! But by 1871 John only had a wife and two children to support; so although their circumstances may have reduced, there are not so many dependents.

In the 1881 census, John aged 59 and Ann were living at 42 Mount Pleasant in Llanelli; his occupation was still bill poster. Their son John, aged 14, was a grocer’s messenger. Here is a blog post about bill stickers, which suggests that they could earn reasonable money, at least in London.


When son Robert Read (aged 31) married Ruth Sheckell (aged 21) in New Zealand on 21 July 1884, his father’s occupation was listed on the marriage certificate as labourer; and his mother’s name as Ann Nicholson (her maiden name was actually Nicholls). Interestingly, Ruth Sheckell was born in Wotton, which is only 11 kilometres from Cam/Dursley, where Ann Nicholls was born. As Robert married Ruth only one week after she arrived in New Zealand, surely they must have known each other in the UK, but I don’t know how.


From this brief survey of his occupations it is clear that John and Ann Read were working class, but not destitute. He worked in horse-related occupations until sometime between 1861 and 1871. I can understand why the two of them moved from their small villages to Bristol (presumably for work) but not why they moved to Llanelli. Perhaps John knew Francis McKiernen and moved first while Ann stayed (working?) in Portishead or Bristol for a short while. Llanelli was a coal-mining town, it also had copper mining and a tin plate industry, and a pottery was established in 1840 (Wikipedia entry) – but John didn’t work at any of those places. Their wealthiest period may have been around 1861 when he was an omnibus driver and supported his wife, four children, mother-in-law and a servant. Currently, I don’t know when John or Ann died. And, although my great-grandfather was born in Wales, the family origins weren’t Welsh! Based on my current knowledge, all my ancestors were English – no Scots, Irish, and now I have to say, no Welsh.


[1] A Shropshire Lad is a collection of sixty-three poems by the English poet Alfred Edward Housman (26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936). John was likely christened on 6 January 1822 and his parents were John and Mary Read. His actual birthplace may have been Edstaston, just north of Wem. Source: “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 4 April 2016), John Read, 06 Jan 1822; reference ; FHL microfilm 502,925.

[2] My searching of the English censuses was done via the Ancestry database. Despite the small amount of research involved here, I was surprised at the number of transcription errors – it is worth looking at the original document rather than relying on the transcriber to get it right.

[3] From:,_Shropshire_Genealogy

[4] The 1861 census lists Cam for both Ann and her mother (who was living with her); the 1871 and 1881 censuses list Dursley as her birthplace, which is nearby. Ann was baptised in Cam on 3 November 1822 along with two siblings – Betty and William; their parents were William (a carpenter) and Esther Nicholls.

[5] From Wikipedia entry on Cam:,_Gloucestershire

[6] George was christened on 15 Sept 1851.

[7] List of occupations in the 1891 census:

[8] Wikipedia entry for postilion:

[9] An Esther Nicholls died in April 1865 in Llanelly. An Ester Nicholls was baptised on 9 October 1791 in Dursley, Glos, to parents William and Sarah Nicholls. These may be the ‘correct’ Esther, but I can’t be sure as yet.


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