Contrary to popular belief the mail coach era did not span the Victorian age. In fact, its presence lasted little more than sixty years and was over by 1846 – nine years after Queen Victoria came to the throne.
The first carriers of official mail were post boys, but in 1774 John Palmer (1742–1818) of Bath in Somerset came to realise that the post, instead of being the fastest form of communication, was actually the slowest conveyance in the country. Despite the fact that Turnpike Trusts had made vast improvements to roads, the Post Office was still using post boys for the delivery of mail (See Guide 13 – Post Office).
Palmer’s proposal was to replace them with lightweight stagecoaches pulled by frequently changed teams of horses. But it was with some reluctance that the Post Office finally agreed in 1784 to a trial run between Bristol and London. The coach, drawn by four horses and carrying mail and four passengers, slashed the journey time from a day and a half to just sixteen hours. With the blessing of the Post Office, Palmer launched services to sixteen other towns the following year including Norwich, Liverpool and Leeds. Edinburgh was added in 1786, and by 1797 there were forty-two routes in operation. It was the start of a mail coach service that was to cover the length and breadth of the country for 62 years.
The Post Office held the monopoly for the carriage of mail and at first hired privately owned passenger coaches for the task. By the start of the 19th century, however, its own fleet of distinctive black painted coaches with scarlet wheels and undercarriage was operating an efficient service to most major towns and cities. Mail coach journey times were quickened by ‘macadamised’ roads, and further helped by the fact that they had precedence over all other road traffic and were exempt from stopping and paying tolls on the Turnpikes.
Palmer’s original idea to use soldiers as guards wasn’t feasable, so contractors who supplied the horses used their own employees. When this proved less than satisfactory due to the unreliable nature of the untrained men provided, the Post Office made their own appointment of guards (Only the guard was employed by the Post office, not the coachman). Taking up Palmer’s idea of having a military presence to guard the mail (not the passengers), ex-soldiers were employed because of their ability to use firearms. They then equipped them with a blunderbuss, two horse pistols, ammunition and a cutlass. It was the ever-present armed guard and the speed at which mail coaches travelled that made them virtually immune to robbery by highwaymen.
Guards were also supplied with a post horn – three feet long and made of tin – but these men prided themselves on their hornblowing skills and most bought their own horn made of copper or brass, giving a far better tone. Its primary use was for alerting tollgate keepers to open the turnpike gate before the coach got there. If they didn’t, a 40 shillings fine was payable. It was also used to announce imminent arrival at post houses so that postmasters would have the mail ready for collection, and to alert innkeepers to prepare refreshment for hungry travellers.
To stamp out bribery and corruption, guards were paid around 10s 6d (52p) per week (a fortune then) and given a good pension when they retired. Tips more than doubled their wages, but the guard’s lot was not always a happy one. If a coach broke down or was delayed by bad weather it was the guard who had to ensure the mail reached its destination, even if he had to carry it on foot. And unlike the coachman, the guard travelled the entire distance of the journey. His position outside of the coach may have been an enviable one in summer but in the depths of winter many of them, literally, froze to death.
Travelling by mail coach usually always entailed a night journey, but reliable and dependable schedules made it the favourite choice for those most able to afford it. In the early 1800s a seat inside a Royal Mail coach travelling from London to Bristol cost about £2.10s. (£2.50), and one outside cost £1 – in general, about one penny a mile more than would be charged by a privately owned stagecoach. There was also the added benefit of travelling in cleaner coaches, free from the smells of vomit, urine, musty carpets and assorted vermin that regularly hitched a ride. More importantly, human travelling companions were of a slightly better class and the coaches were safer. Over-crowding of privately owned coaches often led to them overturning on winding roads, and because of this the Post Office strictly regulated the number of passengers and items of luggage carried.
When the mail coach service began, all passengers travelling long-distance and starting their journey in London, had to assemble at a number of coaching establishments throughout the city. But to catch the coach they then had to make their own way to the Post Office Headquarters in Lombard Street. From here all mail coaches departed at 8 pm sharp, and to keep to this schedule the Post Office had to close by 7 pm in order for mail to be sorted and put on the respective coaches. This practice continued after 1829 when the Post Office moved their headquarters to St Martin’s le Grand. By this time, though, twenty-eight mail coaches were leaving London simultaneously for all parts of the country, so to ease congestion the six Western mail coaches departed from the Gloucester Coffee House in Piccadilly at 8.30 pm.
One of the largest and most renowned London coaching inns was the Bull and Mouth near St Martin’s le Grand. This was the point where those travelling north into Essex and Hertfordshire would depart, the *Great North Road starting on the north-east side of St Paul’s where St Martin’s le Grand leaves Cheapside. Coaches then travelled east towards Bishopsgate, Shoreditch and the Kingsland Road where the first Tollgate was sited.
*The start of the old Great North Road is traditionally measured from Shoreditch church.
A great deal of prestige was attached to the Royal Mail in the early days, more especially by those who worked for it. Guards wore their scarlet and gold uniforms with pride, and although coachmen were contract workers they were widely respected for their ability to drive a mail coach at speed. There was also the romance of it all: crowds gathering each and every evening to cheer and wave as mail coaches departed into the night.
Timetables were strictly adhered to and it was the guard’s responsibility to make sure the coachman ran to time. If he didn’t the Post office imposed financial penalties on them both. To aid punctuality the guard was supplied with a timepiece (sealed in a case to avoid it being tampered with), which he carried in a leather pouch slung across his shoulder. A secondary clock installed in the coach allowed for variations in time across the country. Until the advent of electric telegraph and the adoption of a single standard time, local time could vary by up to 30 minutes from London time. Bristol, for example, was 20 minutes behind London time and so the coach clock was adjusted to lose 20 minutes on the outward journey and gain the same amount on its return.
Mail coaches could average speeds of 9 mph, stopping every 5–15 miles to collect and deliver mail at specific post houses or inns. At inns where a change of horses was required, passengers could stretch their legs and get a quick bite to eat. And quick it usually was. For although the guard would blow his post horn to announce to the innkeeper their imminent arrival, thus ensuring there was food on the table when the travellers arrived, the 10 or 20 minute stop-over was rarely long enough to actually eat a meal.
At the height of the coaching era more than 150,000 horses were in daily use throughout Britain for the transport of people and mail. Mail coaches, especially, relied on a rapid change of horses and these animals certainly endured a hard life – their usefulness on the road being not more than three or four years. Many were sold on for use by city cab drivers and private coaches, the biggest dealer being a Londoner called Hobson. Apparently, because he gave purchasers so little choice in what type of horse they could buy, it led to the saying ‘Hobson’s Choice.’
Despite the efficiency of the mail service it wasn’t as profitable as it should have been. High charges for the delivery of mail only encouraged people to seek alternative means such as private coaches or other carriers, and as a result the Post Office lost a significant amount of revenue. When the railway arrived in the 1830s virtually all mail went by train.
The first mail coach to run between London and Norwich (139 miles) began in March 1785, stopping along the way at Bishop’s Stortford. On 6 January 1846, the very last mail coach to run out of London travelled that same route, bringing the mail coach era to an end. Redundant coaches were either sold off for scrap or left to rot in some unused barn, coachhouse or stable.
Thankfully a few survived, perhaps the most famous being one of the actual Royal Mail coaches that ran between London and Norwich. Its history can be traced back to 1870 but it is considerably older. Weighing 1.25 tons and with the number N205 painted on its side, identifying its route as London to Norwich, it was re-registered in 1967 enabling it, once again, to carry Royal Mail. The coach now travels the country visiting towns and cities and attending special events. www.swingletree.co.uk/coach.htm