Fast mail coaches were introduced in 1784, with recognized mail routes springing up across the land soon after. There were two types of fast coach upon the road and with the exception of the wealthy, who travelled in their own carriage or by post-chaise, and of the very poor, who used wagons or slow night coaches, all passenger traffic was done by Mail or Stage coach. Stage and Mail coaches were alike in build, carrying four inside passengers and ten or twelve outsides. Mail bags were piled high on the roof, and luggage was carried in large receptacles called boots at either end of the vehicle. The box seat by the coachman, for which an extra fee was charged, was considered the most desirable and was frequently occupied by someone interested in horse flesh. Mail coaches, which were subsidized or owned by the Post Office, were painted uniformly, the lower part of the body being chocolate or mauve; the upper part as well as the fore and hind boots black; the wheels and under carriage a vivid scarlet. The Royal arms were emblazoned on the doors, the Royal cipher painted in gold upon the fore boot, with the number of the vehicle on the hind boot. The panels at each side of the window were embellished with various devices such as the badge of the Garter, the rose, shamrock or thistle.
In truly severe weather, the sufferings of the outside passengers was terrible. Once, when the Bath Mail changed horses at Chippenham one March morning, two of the outside passengers were found frozen to death, a third dying later. Postboys were frequently lifted out of their saddles near the point of death. The winter of 1836 was one of the worst on record, with Christmas storms closing all coach roads for several days. On December 26th, the Manchester, Holyhead, Chester and Halifax Mails were all stuck in snow drifts at Hockley Hill, near Dunstable, within a few yards of one another, and throughout the country stories of overturned coaches and dogged heroism on the part of coachmen and guards were recounted. In one instance a guard, leaving his snow bound coach, carried out instructions by taking the mails forward on horseback. Nine miles farther on he sent the horse back, but pushed on himself. Next morning he was found dead, a mile or two up the road, with the mail bag still tied round his neck.
Change of horses at each fresh stage was made quickly. Hostlers and stable boys were allowed a minute in which take out the old horses and harness up a fresh team, though some could manage the job in 50 seconds. Seats on a coach had to be secured in advance at the inn from which it started or where it stopped on the road. The traveller’s name was entered into a book and half the fare taken as a deposit. The fares by stage coach worked out to 2 1/2 to 3d a mile outside, 4-5d a mile for inside passengers. Mails coaches were dearer, averaging from 4 1/2d to 5d for outsides, 8-10d for insides.
The coachman wore beneath his coat a crimson travelling shawl, topped by a long waistcoat of a striped pattern and over that, a wide skirted green coat, ornamented with large brass buttons. Usually he wore on his head a wide brimmed, low crowned brown hat. He wore knee cord breeches, painted top boots and a copper watch chain. The real responsibility for the coach rested with the guard who, in the case of Mail coaches, had the added care of guarding the letter bags. In their red coats, with the gleaming brass horn at the ready, they collected fares from those who joined the coach on the road, saw that the schedule was kept to and were entrusted with the execution of commissions. In case of accident, the guard looked after the mails and the passengers, carrying the former by horse and arranging for a fresh coach for the latter if necessary. They were accustomed to journeys of up to 120 – 150 miles at a stretch and received about 10s a week in wages. Inside passengers were supposed to tip the guards 2s 6d, the outsides 2s, and the guard collected further tips for handling luggage or running errands.
An important London coaching inn was the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, near Nelson’s Column before 1830, when it was moved to face Craven Street. Coaches left here bound for Gloucester, Cheltenham, South Wales, Chester, Liverpool, Hastings, Dover, Stroud, Brighton, Halifax and other points. The Saracen’s Head stood at the top of Snow Hill, next to St. Sepulchre’s Church, with coaches leaving for many parts of England and Scotland. During the eighty years before its demolition in 1868, the inn had been kept by members of the Mountain family, the most prominent being Sarah Ann Mountain who carried on after her husband’s death in 1816. She despatched thirty coaches from her inn each day and set a record
with her “Tally Ho!” to Birmingham. She also built coaches for sale at 110 – 120 guineas each. The Tally Ho! served Canterbury, Liverpool and Birmingham, and was one of nine coaches on the London to Birmingham route. It’s team of four horses was changed at each of the ten stops made between London and Birmingham. The Tally Ho! normally made the 109 mile trip in eleven and a half hours, travelling at an average speed of 9.5 mph. During the famous London to Birmingham race which took place on May Day, 1830, the Tally Ho! made coaching history, setting a record by covering the route in seven and a half hours, travelling at an average speed of 14.5 mph. It should be noted that the coach carried no passengers during the race.
Wow – that didn’t take long! Author Elizabeth Boyle correctly guessed that our Curiosity Corner portrait was that of Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV. Congratulations, Elizabeth. A new puzzle is coming soon!