History of Mail Coaches
For 150 years before the first mail coach, letters were carried between ‘posts’ by mounted post-boys and delivered to the postmaster, who took out his letters and handed the rest to another post-boy to carry them on. The process was slow and post-boys were easy targets for robbers.
John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, had organised a rapid carriage service to transport actors and props between theatres and believed a similar scheme could improve the postal service. In 1782, Palmer sold his theatre interests, and went to London to lobby The Post Office.
Senior staff didn’t believe the mail speeds could be improved but William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, allowed Palmer to do an experimental journey from Bristol on 2nd August, 1784 and a trip that had taken up to 38 hours took 16hrs. Pitt authorised other routes and by spring 1785, coaches from London served Norwich, Liverpool and Leeds. Services were extended to Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle, and by 1786, reached Edinburgh, the same year Palmer was made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office.
From …. Encyclopedia of Romanticism (Routledge Revivals): Culture in Britain, 1780s … edited by Laura Dabundo ….
‘By 1830, England, Scotland, and Wales were crisscrossed by more than 25 mail coach lines as well as dozens of fast stagecoach lines, and Exeter could be reached from London in only 16 hours. Even more beguiling to Romantic Britain than the speed and efficiency of mail coaches was their charm. Drawn by four spirited horses, the highly varnished, scarlet and black ‘mails’ were an impressive sight. Drivers, renowned for their earthy wit, daring, and inveterate drunkenness, captured the public imagination as emblems of Regency society’s sense of its Byronic recklessness.
The coachmen dearest to the age, however, were the guards. Post Office employees assigned to each coach and entrusted with the safe and punctual delivery of the mail. In addition to a mail bag and official timepiece, guards were supplied with a cutlass, a brace of pistols, and a blunderbuss to protect passengers and cargo from the robbers and highwaymen that plagued the open road.
The guards also carried what many regarded as the symbol of coaching life, a horn. Many guards achieved local and sometimes national celebrity for their proficiency on this instrument, particularly when the key bugle. imported from Germany shortly after 1800, replaced the original curved horn used to announce arrivals and departures.’
Early mail coaches were poorly built and journeys were rough, but by 1800 coaches were suspended on a C-spring, a large C-shaped piece of metal.
By the 1830’s, an elliptic spring, shaped like a rugby ball, was on each wheel so the coach lay on these springs which went up and down and greatly improved the trip.
The mail coach, horses and the driver were all provided by contractors. Competition for the contracts was fierce because it meant status and a regular income in addition to passenger fares.
The mail coaches were run primarily for the transport of the mails and for passengers. They became so reliable that country towns set their clocks by their arrival, with the coaches from London reaching Reading (38 miles away) at ten past one in the morning and Newbury(55 miles) at five minutes past three in the morning. (Nearly two hours to cover 17 miles).
Demise of Mail Coaches
Railway development meant the end of the mail coaches, with railways first carrying mail on 11 November 1830, between Liverpool and Manchester. By the early 1840s, many London-based coaches were being withdrawn from service and the last regular London based coach service was the London to Norwich, via Newmarket, which ended on 6 January 1846. Mail coaches survived however on services between some provincial towns until the 1850s. Many mail coach guards found continuing Post Office employment as mail guards on the trains.
- The Bristish Postal Museum – http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/page/mail-coaches
- Encyclopedia of Romanticism (Routledge Revivals): Culture in Britain, 1780s edited by Laura Dabundo
- The Transport Revolution, 1770-1985, by Dr Philip Bagwell
- History Learning Site