The Famous People
The Spanish Bride
Harry Smith Bio
Navigate the site
Join the Regency Ring
Driving Tips | Gentlemen Drivers | Postillions |
Turnpike Trusts | Inns | The Mail | Styles of Coach
E-mail me | Join the Regency Ring | Back to the Regency collection
Early travellers in Britain had no choice but to ride on horseback or walk. Kings, queens and gentlefolk all mounted to the saddle. The practice had existed for generations and centuries due to technology. With the passing of the Romans the roads they had built to drive their chariots on had been lost, or not maintained, and there was little comfort in the wagons and carts available. Chaucer's ride to Canterbury is made famous by his own account of that celebrated journey. Ladies generally rode on pillions fixed on the horse behind some relative or serving man. Indeed this was common up to the time of King Charles II in the mid-seventeeth century, his account of his escape from England includes his disguising himself as a servant and riding with Jane Lane.
The first improvement consisted in a kind of rude wagon, which was, in reality, nothing but a cart without springs, the body of it resting solidly upon the axle. In such a vehicle Queen Elizabeth drove to the opening of her fifth parliament. Mr. Smiles, in his interesting Lives of the Engineers, relates that "that valyant knyght, Sir Harry Sydney, on a certain day in 1583, entered Shrewsbury in his wagon, with his trumpeter blowyng, verey joyfull to behold and see." Bad as these conveyances must have been, they had scarcely fair-play on the execrable roads of the period. Even up at the end of the seventeenth century, the roads in most parts of the country were not unlike broad ditches, water-worn and carelessly strewn with loose stones. It is on record, that on one occasion eight hundred horses were taken prisoner by Cromwell's forces while sticking in the mud. During the seventeenth century, it was common, when a long journey was contemplated, for servants to be sent on beforehand, to investigate the country, and report upon the most promising route. In 1640, the road from Dover to London was the best in England due to the amount of continental traffic continually kept up, and yet the journey of Queen Henrietta and household occupied four long weary days over that short distance.
It was not till towards the close of the sixteenth century that the wagon became used as a public conveyance, and only very rarely then. Fifty years later a string of stage-wagons had begun to travel regularly between London and Liverpool, each one starting from the Axe Inn, Aldermanbury, every Monday and Thursday, and occupying ten days on the road during summer - about twelve days in winter. About the same time, three men started every Friday morning for Liverpool, for Lad's Lane, London, with a gang of horses for the conveyance of light goods and passengers, usually reaching Liverpool on the Monday evening following.
Stage-coaches were great the next great improvement and destined to change travelling. A kind of stage-coach was first used in London early in the seventeenth century. Towards the middle of the same century they were generally adopted in the metropolis, and on the better highways around London, travelling at the rate of two or three miles an hour.
Before 1698, stage-coaches were placed on three of the principal roads in the kingdom. The original announcement for that between London and York still exists, and runs as follows: "Whoever is desirous of going between London and York or York and London, Let them Repair to the Black Swan in Holboorn, or the Black Swan in Coney Street, York, where they will be conveyed in a Stage Coach (If God permits), which starts every Thursday at Five in the morning." This was only, however, for the summer season; during winter they did not run at all, but were laid up for the season like ships during arctic frosts. Even in summer, the passengers very frequently got out and walked long distances, the state of the roads in some places compelling them to do so.
With the York coach especially, the difficulties were really formidable. Passing through the low Midland counties was sometimes entirely impracticable, and during the time of floods, it was nothing unusual for passengers to remain at some town on route for days together, until the roads were dry again. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, stage-coaches increased in number and in popularity, and so decidedly was travelling on the increase, that they now became the subjects of grave discussion; news-letters encouraged or reviled them, and pamphlets were written concerning them. For instance, in one entitled The Grand Concern of England Explained in Several Proposals to Parliament, these same stage-coaches are denounced as the greatest evil that had happened of late years to the kingdom, mischievous to trade and destructive to the public health. Curious to know in what way these sad consequences are brought about, we read on, and find it stated that "those who travel in these coaches contracted an idle habit of body; became weary and listless when they rode a few miles, and were then unable or unwilling to travel on horseback, and not able to endure frost, snow, or rain, or to lodge in the field!"
Opinions on even such a subject as this differed most materially. In the very same year that produced the book to which we have just referred, another writer, descanting on the improvements which had been brought about in the postal arrangements of the country, goes on to say, that "besides the excellent arrangement of conveying men and letters on horseback, there is of late such an admirable commodiousness, both for men and women, to travel from London to the principal towns in the country, that the like hath not been known in the world, and that is by stage-coaches, wherein any one may be transported to any place, sheltered from foul weather and foul ways; free from endamaging of one's health and one's body by the hard jogging or over-violent motion; and this not only at a low price (about a shilling for every five miles), but with such velocity and speed in one hour, as that the posts in some foreign countries make in a day."
From this information which we have been able to gather on the subject, it would appear that the first stage-coaches were not regarded as very great improvements upon the old stage-wagons. M. Soubriere, a Frenchman of letters, who landed at Dover in the reign of Charles II alludes to the existence of stage-coaches, but he would seem to have been well acquainted with their drawbacks, as he says: "that I might not take post, or again be obliged to use the stage-coach, I went from Dover to London in a wagon. I was drawn by six horses placed in a line, one after another, and driven by a wagoner, who walked by the side of it. He was clothed in black, and appointed in all things like another St. George. He had a brave monteror on his head, and was a merry fellow, fancied he made a figure, and seemed mightily pleased with himself."
The speed at which the coaches travelled was a great marvel at that time. In 1700 York was a week distant from the metropolis. Between London and Edinburgh, even so late as 1763, a fortnight was consumed, the coach only starting once a month. The intermediate Sunday was quietly spent at Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire, as much for the sake of relief to exhausted nature as from motives of piety. The first vehicle which plied between Edinburgh and Glasgow was started in 1749. It was called "The Edinburgh and Glasgow Caravan," and performed the journey of forty-five miles in two days. Two years after, another vehicle was started, and called the "Fly," because it contrived to perform this same journey in a day and a half. Latterly, it took the daylight of one day. The average coach took two days to make the journey from Cambridge to London in 1750 - in 1820 it only took 7 hours.
About 1780 a gentleman, anxious to make favour with a young lady, learning that she was to travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh, on a particular day, took the whole remaining inside-seats, had her all to himself of course, and succeeded in winning her as his wife.
Mr. Smiles tells us that, during the last century, the Fly coach from London to Exeter stopped at the latter place the fifth night from town; the coach proceeded next morning to Axminster, and there a woman-barber "shaved the coach."
The fact was that, on any of the roads, the difference of half a day or even a day, was a small matter. Time was of less consequence than safety. The coaches were advertised to start "God willing," or about such and such an hour as shall seem good to the majority of the passengers. Thoresby tells us, that he was even accustomed to leave the coach (on the journey from London to York) and go in search of fossil shells in the fields, on either side of the road, while making the journey between these two places. Whether or not the coach was to stop at some favourite inn, was determined, in most cases, by a vote of the passengers, who would generally appoint a chairman at the beginning of the journey. Under such circumstances, we cannot wonder that disputes, especially about stopping at wayside-inns, should be of frequent occurrence. Perhaps the driver had a pecuniary interest in some particular posting-house, and would exert an influence, sometimes tyrannical, to get the consent of the passengers to a place of his choosing.
In 1760, an action was tried before the Court of King's Bench to recover damages, on the plea that, during a stage-coach journey, the driver wished to compel the passengers to dine at some low inn on the road. They preferred to walk on to a respectable inn at some little distance, and desired the driver to call for them, as he must pass the place. Instead of doing so, he drove past the inn at full speed, leaving them to get up to London as best they could. The jury found for the passengers 20 pounds damages. On another occasion, a dispute arose, which resulted in a quarrel between the guard and a passenger, the coach stopping to see the two fight it out on the road.
While yet the ordinary stage-coach was found equal to all the requirements of most of the old coach-roads, the speed at which it travelled did not at all satisfy the enterprising merchants of Lancashire and Yorkshire. In 1754, a company of merchants in Manchester started a new vehicle called the "Flying Coach," which seems to have earned its designation by the fact that it proposed to travel at the rate of four or five miles an hour! The proprietors, at the commencement, issued the following remarkable prospectus: "However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually (barring accidents) arrive in London in four days and a half after leaving Manchester." Three years afterwards, the Liverpool merchants established another of these "flying machines on steel springs," as the newspapers of the period called them, which was intended to eclipse the Manchester one in the matter of speed. It started from Warrington (Liverpool passengers reaching the former place the night previous to starting), and only three days had to be taken up in the journey to London. "Each passenger to pay two guineas--one guinea as earnest, and the other on taking coach; 14 pounds of luggage was allowed at 3d per pound for all luggage in excess." About as much more money as was required for the fare was expended in living and lodging on the road, not to speak of foes to guard and driver. Sheffield and Leeds followed with their respective "flying coaches," and before the last century closed, the whole of them had acquired the respectable velocity of eight miles an hour.
These flying coaches were the precursors of a great reform effected by a man of energetic nature in 1784. John Palmer, a person of substance at Bath, having been pleased to establish and conduct a theatre there, became strongly impressed with a sense of the antiquated system for both sending human beings and letters along the road between his town and the metropolis. He often desired to have occasional assistance from a London star, but was balked by the dilatoriness of the coach-travelling. Even to communicate with the London houses was insufferably tedious, for then the post starting in London on Monday did not reach Bath till Wednesday. Palmer travelled all over the country, and found everywhere the same insufficiency; he memorialised the government; he took means to inform the public; he clearly showed how easy it would be to effect vast improvements tending to economise the time and money of the public. As usual, he set down as a half-crazed enthusiast and bore; the post-office authorities were against him to a man; even those who saw and admitted his data, could not be brought to say more than that, while sure on the whole to fail, his system might give a slight impulse in the right direction. It was only through the enlightened judgment of Pitt, that he was able to commence, in the year mentioned, that system of rapid mail-coaches which lasted up to the days of railways.
The first mail-coach in accordance with Mr. Palmer's plan, was one from London to Bristol, which started at eight in the morning of the 8th of August 1784, and reached its destination at eleven at night. The benefits to the public quickly became too manifest to be denied even by the most inveterate of his opponents, and--mark the national gratitude! The government had entered into a regular contract with him, engaging to give him two-and-a-half per cent upon the saving effected in the transmission of the letters. It was clearly shewn soon after that this saving amounted to 20,000 pounds a year. Parliament, however, would not vote the fulfillment of the bargain, and Mr. Palmer was cheated with a grant of only 50,000 pounds.
The New Coaching IndustryFollowing Mr Palmer's innovations there were improvements to the design of coaches and in the roads which helped rapidly improve the speed of coach trips and while the coaching industry boomed from 1820-30 and created many bankrupts and few millionaires.
The coaches of this new age had stages that averaged 8-10 miles in distance or about an hour in travel time - they tended to have longer stages for longer routes so while the London to Edinburgh route the stages averaged 14 miles, London to Brighton the average was about 10 miles.
There were numerous costs, for instance, coaching operators rarely owned their own coaches, instead they leased them from Coachbuilders at a charge per "double mile" (that is the distance to and from a place). In 1830 it cost around 130-150 pounds to build a stage coach. Each route demanded at least 4 coaches, an up coach, a down coach and a spare at each end in case of breakdown so the Tally Ho, or The Age were not one vehicle but many. Also the names would be used on many different routes and by different proprietors (such as the Tally Ho).Then there was cost of stabling, taxes on the coach, coachmen and guards to be paid, and road tolls. It was estimated that coach must make some 4 -5 pounds per double mile on average to survive.
Travelling in 1815, Joseph Ballard gives a clear picture of
costs and the effect of competition on the growth of
coaching during the Regency times.
Finally, this quote is from the 1760/70's and is about the hasty way King George III travelled. It might seem incredible
to us where the average speed on slow roads is at least 30 miles per hour and skateboarders,
rollerbladers and cyclists can easily
travel close to 14 miles per hour - often on footpaths. (Read more from the
Regency Collection'sCoaching Resources)
Return to Regency Collection