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Posts Tagged ‘Regency Travel’

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and how true it is in this instance. George Scharf the elder, a popular genre painter of the early 19th century, was also a prolific drawer of ordinary scenes in his adopted city of London. One can study his drawing of the Mail Coach Bound for the West County, 1829, endlessly, imagining many tales while thinking back on the history of coach travel. This mail coach is being readied at the Gloucester Coffee House on Piccadilly, where so many mail coaches left at night. The horses are waiting to pull this heavily laden wagon. They will pull it for 15 miles before they will need to be changed. Even with improved roads, the coach will not be going much faster than 7-8 miles per hour. Scharf drew this scene in 1829, a year before the first passenger train would be introduced. By the mid-18th century this scene in Piccadilly would have changed dramatically.

West country mail coach leaving Piccadilly, George Scharf, 1829. Click on image to view a larger version.

I count 9 people on top the wagon, one passenger sitting next to the coachman, seven on top of the wagon (one is definitely a porter), and two passengers inside.  I imagine there are two more people seated inside that we cannot see, for the interior holds four passengers, and that the gentleman putting on the great coat is waiting for the porters to finish loading the packages before he takes his seat on top of the coach. The woman and child standing next to him must be waiting to see him off, for, if the rest of the mail bags, packages, and luggage are to be loaded, there won’t be room for them as well. If they are waiting to board, then I pity the four horses who will be pulling 13 people along with the mail.

Travel was quite costly back then.

Costs of travel:  [estimates for 1800]

  • Stage Coach:  2-3 pence / mile = 1.25 pounds from London to Bath / half-price if up top / outside [but remember the average income was about £30 / year
  • Hired post-chaise =  estimate about £1 / mile [i.e @1 shilling / horse / mile, to include the postillion] – Jane Austen in Vermont

For a family living on  £25 – £30 per year, such costs were prohibitive. The cheapest seats were on top and on the outside. One can see a woman holding her child wedged between straw baskets. Should the coach take a turn too fast or be involved in an accident, she and her babe could be flung off the vehicle or trapped underneath should it overturn. At best, they felt the wind and rain and arrived at their destination disheveled and covered in road dust if the weather was dry, or soaking wet with rain. One shudders at the thought of what it felt like to be an outdoor passenger in the winter.

Mail coaches were designed to carry the mail, not to carry passengers comfortably. A close look at Scharf’s image reveals this to be so. There is no wiggle room to speak of. Since travel was expensive and laborious, those who undertook the journey usually arrived in London with lists of things to purchase for friends and family. Jane Austen certainly did, and one can assume that her brother Henry, who lived in London, arrived laden with special requests when he visited his family. The packages being loaded are quite bulky. It is easy to imagine that they contain the ribbons, muslins, china ware, shoes, hats, teas, chocolate, and other assorted items that were special ordered back home. One even sees a recently slaughtered hare among the packages.

One wonders how many more pieces of luggage the mail coach could possibly take on. The packages must be heavy for the porter walking towards the coach is bent over. The male passenger’s great coat and hat are typical of men’s outer wear at the time. As I study the detail below, I am becoming more convinced that the woman and girl are waiting to board. She is wearing a veil, to protect her face from dust, no doubt, and both are covered in layers of outer wear, including a shawl over a cloak. Even so, the ride for exposed passengers would be cold. From the clothes, one can only assume that it is winter.

Mail coaches, while more expensive to ride, were faster than private stage coaches, more stable, and less laden with passengers.

The coach was faster and, in general, less crowded and cleaner. Crowding was a common problem with private stage coaches, which led to them overturning; the limits on numbers of passengers and luggage prevented this occurring on the mail coaches. Travel on the mail coach was nearly always at night; as the roads were less busy the coach could make better speed. – Wikipedia

[William] Hazlitt has thus described, in his own graphic manner, the scene presented on the starting of the old mail-coaches:—”The finest sight in the metropolis,” he writes, “is the setting off of the mailcoaches from Piccadilly. The horses paw the ground and are impatient to be gone, as if conscious of the precious burden they convey. There is a peculiar secrecy and dispatch, significant and full of meaning, in all the proceedings concerning them. Even the outside passengers have an erect and supercilious air, as if proof against the accidents of the journey; in fact, it seems indifferent whether they are to encounter the summer’s heat or the winter’s cold, since they are borne through the air on a winged chariot. The mail-carts drive up and the transfer of packages is made, and at a given signal off they start, bearing the irrevocable scrolls that give wings to thought, and that bind or sever hearts for ever. How we hate the Putney and Brentford stages that draw up when they are gone! Some persons think the sublimest object in nature is a ship launched on the bosom of the ocean; but give me for my private satisfaction the mail-coaches that pour down Piccadilly of an evening, tear up the pavement, and devour the way before them to the Land’s End.” – British History Online

Pollard, Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly, 1828

As I said at the beginning, this image is fraught with meaning. I wonder if, when he was sketching this scene,  Scharf knew he was recording the great coaching era at its peak.

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This carriage database discusses the history of the carriage and its uses over time. Included are links to specific makes of carriages, which lead to more detailed information or definition about that type, ie. landau, barouche, mail coach, phaeton, etc. In some instances, images accompany the pages. (Click on reference, then carriage). Update: Something seems to be wrong with the first link to the carriage database. I shall update this post as soon as I find the link again. This link to A Catalogue of Horse drawn vehicles 1896 catalogue of E. S. Annison, Coach Builder, of Hull, features drawings of his carriages and their latest design (late 19th century). Internet Archive provides a downloadable PDF book with images, Carriages and Coaches: their history and their evolution, fully illustrated with reproductions from old prints, contemporary drawings and photographs (1912). This entry in Carriages in Indopediais contemporary and provides links to definitions and information.

Mail Coach, 1827

The Georgian Index features an excellent page on Carriages and their Parts. Highways and Horses, Athol Maudslay, 1888 is an illustrated Google book that discusses carriages and transportation during the Victorian period in great detail. On the fronticepiece, Mr. Maudslay writes :

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Another book review so soon on this blog? Well, yes. This book from Shire Publications, Victorian and Edwardian Horse Cabs by Trevor May, is short, just 32 pages long, but it  is filled with many facts and rare images of interest to lovers of history. In Jane Austen’s day most people walked to work, town, church, and market square, or to their neighbors. Six miles was not considered an undue distance to travel by foot one way. The gentry were another breed. They either owned their own carriages or hired a public horse cab. These equipages were available as early as the 1620’s.

Hackneys, or public carriages for hire made their first significant appearance in the early 17th century. By 1694, these vehicles had increased to such a number that a body of Hackney Coach Commissioners was established in London. The commissioners dealt out licences, which was a bit of a joke, for a mere four inspectors were responsible for over 1,000 vehicles.

Hackney Coach 1680

Most of these licensed hackney coaches were purchased second hand. All that an enterprising person needed to establish his own hackney coach business was enough money for a used carriage and three horses, two that worked in rotation, and one that could be used as a replacement in case of injury or illness. The death of a horse could lead to a cab owner’s financial ruin. Another important ingredient was housing for the horses.

Hackney Coach 1800. Image @Wikimedia Commons

By, 1823, the lighter horse cabs began to replace cumbersome hackney coaches in great quantity, and by the mid 1830’s, the hansom cab set the new standard for modern horse cabs. Aloysius Hansom, an architect, designed the first carriage. When Hansom went bankrupt through poor investments, John Chapman took over, designing an even lighter, more efficient cab, one whose framework did not strike the horses on their backs or sides whenever a carriage ran over an obstacle in the road.

Hansom Cab

Commercial cab firms tended to be small, even as late as 1892. Only one or two proprietors provided a large number or variety of equipages, like Alfred Pargetter, whose concern advertised removal carriages, cabs, and funeral coaches for hire. While cabs were licensed, their drivers were not and the road could present a dangerous obstacle course. The video clip below shows how adroitly horses and carriages managed to avoid each other with seemingly few rules (mostly towards the end of the clip). Notice how some lucky individual horses pulled relatively light loads compared to other horses forced to pull heavy carts.

These two video clips, one from 1903 and the other from 1896 (unbelievable!) show the end of an era, for by 1914, motorized vehicles were rapidly replacing the horse-drawn cart.

I recommend this book to anyone with an insatiable appetite for a pictorial history on a particular topic. Trevor May is an expert on the Victorian era, and he has managed to squeeze more information about horse-drawn cabs in this short book (more a thick pamphlet) than I have read before. The images are simply splendid.

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White Horse Standing in a Stable, Gericault

White Horse Standing in a Stable, Gericault

In today’s insulated world, we can only imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the animals that inhabited Regency London alongside humans. Cows were confined inside small city dairies or allowed to graze in public parks ready to be milked at a moment’s notice. Tens of thousands of cattle and sheep were driven from the countryside through the streets to Smithfield market to feed the masses. Considering that a “horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day”, crossing sweepers were kept perpetually busy clearing the streets of dung, for by the end of the 19th century, over 300, 000 horses lived and worked in London. Despite the sweepers’ best efforts, the streets were covered in horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere.* Not a pretty image of a time that we tend to view with nostalgia.

Town planners had to take the lodging of horses and animals into account when designing new squares and terraces, which was no small effort, for stabling these animals and feeding them straw made an enormous demand on urban spaces.

The direct and indirect energy cost of urban horse-drawn transport–in terms of feeding, stabling, grooming, shoeing, harnessing, and driving the hourses and removing their wastes to periurban market gardens–were among the largest items on the energy balances of late-nineteenth-century cities. – Energy in World History, Vaclav Smil,  p. 132

In terms of urban transportation, horses reached the peak of their importance in hauling goods and transporting people between 1820 and 1890. By the turn of the 20th century, horses were rapidly displaced by electric streetcars, automobiles, and buses. The cost of stabling and feeding horses was enormous and most Londoners walked. Those who could afford the luxury of stabling their animals and maintaining their carriages paid a steep price.

Parked carriages, Middlemarch

Parked carriages, Middlemarch

The difficulty and cost of horses and their stabling encouraged walking, which helped to keep the city small and dense. The limited travel span of the horse and cart further restricted urban expansion by constraining the outward movment of industry. An idea of the costs to households of private horse-based transport can be seen in the mews of the more expensive nineteenth-century West End neighbourhoods. Solely designed to house horses, carriages and livery servants, these back passageways behind the grand houses took up considerable space; whilts working horses ate prodigious amounts of feed, and livery men were often some of the best paid domestic staff. – An economic history of London, 1800-1914, by Michael Ball, David Sunderland, p. 229

Coaching houses and mews not only had to be located close enough to dwellings for convenience, but they needed to be tucked out of sight , especially in the tony West End (see image below).  These photographs of Garrett Street Stables in Islington, London demonstrate how horses were traditionally kept. The site also tallies the numbers of horses that have been stabled at that location since 1750. While these animal were housed in a well maintained stable, one can only imagine the conditions for animals who were unlucky enough to be owned by those who could barely eek out a living. Costs for maintaining horses and a carriage in London were astronomical and reserved only for the rich if they could find a convenient space to house them. If one purchased a horse, one had to find stables, as Georgette Heyer reminds us in The Grand Sophy, when Sophy shows up in a new phaeton drawn by a pair of horses:

‘Don’t hesitate to tell me which of my mother’s or my horses you would like me to remove from the stables to make room for these!’ begged Mr. Rivenhall, with savage civility. ‘Unless, of course, you are setting up your own stables!’

Gower Mews, since 1792

Gower Mews, since 1792

Relying on a carriage for transport, however, required significant wealth. They were expensive to buy and maintain, needing as they did stabling for the horses and liveries for the coachman and grooms. Even renting a carriage and pair (two horses) with a coachman cost £200–£300 a year (£10,000–£20,000 today). The two-wheeled carriages with one horse (the Ferraris of their day) were called ‘bankrupt carts’ by the Chief Justice ‘because they were, and are, frequently driven by those who could neither afford the Money to support them, nor the Time spent in using them, the want of which, in their Business, brought them to Bankruptcy’. Stabling your own horse, particularly in a city, was harder than finding a parking space today. Just feeding a horse cost £30 a year – more than feeding the groom, in fact – while the coachman’s liveries cost more than his annual salary.

On a practical level, coaches also took some time to prepare and had to be ordered several hours before they were needed. They were therefore more useful for displaying one’s wealth than for surveying one’s estate. They were necessary on long journeys, of course, or when carrying large loads, but otherwise riding a horse or a mule was much the quickest and cheapest option … – Regency House Party, Channel 4 History

The costs of keeping a horse in London are still enormous. Economist Brad DeLong estimates that with exercise, stabling, grooming, shoeing, and other facilities it costs £30,000 to maintain each horse per year, which is considerably more than driving and maintaining a car.


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Stage coach travel. Notice the number of passengers laden on the coach and the number of horses.

Stage coach travel. Notice the number of passengers laden on the coach and the number of horses.

At the height of 19th century coaching days Northallerton in North Yorkshire had four inns that catered to travellers – the Black Bull, the King’s Head, the Old Golden Lion and, the largest, the Golden Lion. Horses that pulled the public coaches suffered mightily for the sake of speed. In a previous post I had already discussed that if forced to run at breakneck speed, coach horses did not last longer than three years. Recently I ran across this description:

The Highflyer changed horses at the King’s Head but the horses belonged to Mr Frank Hirst. This coach was driven by a coachman called Scott, a very big fellow of the Old Weller type who had to be hauled into his seat and nearly broke the coach down. The Express also stopped at the King’s Head but the horses that worked this coach stood at the Waggon and Horses and belonged to Mr Hall of Northallerton. The Wellington London and Newcastle coach changed horses at the Golden Lion and was horsed by Mr Frank Hirst. At one time it was driven by Ralph Soulsby, who was a terror to drive, and it is on record that once during a period when the Wellington was running in opposition he succeeded in killing three out of his four horses on the short stage seven miles from Great Smeaton to Northallerton. Opposition coaches were terribly hard on horseflesh; they used to gallop every inch of the road up hill and down dale, and Soulsby’s third horse dropped dead just opposite the church, and he finished his journey to the Golden Lion with but a single horse. When the railway began to supersede the road and coach after coach began to fall away, the Wellington still held on until it at last stood alone. One of the oldest and first coaches on the road, it had withstood the tide of opposition through all time until it remained the absolute last regular coach running on this section of the Great North Road. The old coaching days in Yorkshire By Tom Bradley

Coach and four

Coach and four

Horses were chattel and the general attitude towards beasts of burden during the Regency Era was one of exploitation. Fresh teams of horses were kept ready to replace an exhausted team that had just run the previous stage of a journey. These teams were contracted to stage lines or the Royal Mail. Other horses were available to be leased by individuals. Crack teams of hostlers prided themselves in changing mail coach teams in as little as three minutes. The combined refinements in coach design, and in road construction and maintenance allowed the heavy coach horses to be replaced by teams of faster half-bred or pure Thoroughbred horses. The luxurious coaches of the wealthy pulled by warmblooded horses or Thoroughbreds seemed to fly down the better roads at the unheard of speed of ten miles per hour. *

Coach leaving Brighton, 1840

Coach leaving Brighton, 1840

It wasn’t until 1821, that Colonel Richard Martin, MP for Galway in Ireland, introduced the Treatment of Horses bill. This piece of legislature was greeted by laughter in the House of Commons. The first known prosecution for cruelty to animals was brought in 1822 against two men found beating horses in London’s Smithfield Market, where livestock had been sold since the 10th century. They were fined 20 shillings each. Colonel Martin’s “Ill Treatment of Horses and Cattle Bill,” or “Martin’s Act”, as it became known, was finally passed in 1822 and became the world’s first major piece of animal protection legislation. Not much changed for working horses, however.  After a coaching horse’s usefulness ended, they were sold to labor for others**:

Mrs Mountain of the Saracen’s Head kept some 2,000 horses in her stables for the routes she served. Lord William Lennox sometime later estimated that it took some 2 pounds per week to keep coach horses. It is also estimated that the life of a coach horse was some three years. After that they were sold for they still had significant working life left. It was the nature of coaching with the strain of pulling a coach weighing more than 2 tons for an average of 10 miles at a speed of some 12 miles per hour 2 days out of 3.  Farm work seemed easy by comparison. – Coaching Inns

The Breakdown of the Christmas Stage shows how heavily laden the coaches were

The Breakdown of the Christmas Stage shows how heavily laden the coaches were

A society that lacked adequate social service systems to take care of the poor did not place a high priority on the ethical treatment of animals. Cockfighting, bear baiting, and dog fights were common”betting” sports prevalent during the Regency Period. A retired coach horse would have an easier life plowing a farmer’s field than pulling a coach. Accidents were frequent, but horses were seldom given a break, forced to struggle through blizzards and quagmire after passengers alighted and luggage was taken off to lighten the load. Not every horse led a harsh life. The following excerpt describes a private, more benevolent owner, the Rev. George Bennet, Jane Austen’s father, whose horses pulled heavy carriages over poor roads:

Coach stuck in snow

Coach stuck in snow

A carriage and a pair of horses were kept. This might imply a higher style of living in our days than it did in theirs. There were then no assessed taxes. The carriage, once bought, entailed little further expense; and the horses probably, like Mr. Bennet’s, were often employed on farm work. Moreover, it should be remembered that a pair of horses in those days were almost necessary, if ladies were to move about at all; for neither the condition of the roads nor the style of carriage-building admitted of any comfortable vehicle being drawn by a single horse. When one looks at the few specimens still remaining of coach-building in the last century, it strikes one that the chief object of the builders must have been to combine the greatest possible weight with the least possible amount of accommodation. – Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh, Description of life at Steventon

Rowlandson, Coach Travel

Rowlandson, Coach Travel

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A GENTLEMAN AND A LADY travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long a scent, half rock, half sand.The accident happened just beyond the only gentleman’s house near the lane a house which their driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling looks been constrained to pass by.He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the carriage was not his master’s own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said house were left behind expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.The severity of the fall was broken by their slow pace and the narrowness of the lane; and the gentleman having scrambled out and helped out his companion, they neither of them at first felt more than shaken and bruised. But the gentleman had, in the course of the extrication, sprained his foot; and soon becoming sensible of it, was obliged in a few moments to cut short both his remonstrances to the driver and his congratulations to his wife and himself and sit down on the bank, unable to stand. – Jane Austen, Sanditon, Chapter One

At the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th century, the roads in England began to improve vastly over the rutted, dirt tracks that slowed lumberous carriages and that turned into quagmires on rainy days. In those days travel on rural, unimproved roads was laborious. When encountering a steep upgrade, passengers often had to get out of the carriages to lighten the load for the horses or to help push. As with today, accidents on the road were not uncommon. Even with road improvements, passengers sitting outside of a coach were in danger of being flung from their perch and killed.

Information From Highways and Horses, Athol Maudslay

Road improvements began on a large scale in the early 19th century. Engineers placed emphasis on good drainage and thick stone foundations, widening roads, and reducing gradients. However, macadamised roads, which are used to this day, did not come into widespread use until 1816, only a year before Jane Austen died. The custom before then, was “simply to spread a layer of broken rock and gravel on the cleared foundation of earth, which was often lower than the fields on either side. The narrow treads of the farmers’ wagons cut ruts in the soft road, and the hooves of animals further disturbed it. At bad places, everyone took a route that seemed the best at the time, creating a wide disturbed mess.” (Coaching Days and Road Engineers)

As those who live in rural areas today still know, well-drained and crushed stone macadamized roads are not fool proof. They must be graded regularly, or ruts and depressions develop, creating a tough situation for travel:

“Where there is much traffic as in towns macadamised roads get worn into innumerable holes causing the greatest discomfort to persons driving over them I refer to the granite made roads as with those made of a softer stone this discomfort is not felt It was on this account that a road was being taken up at Tunbridge Wells while I was staying there which is mentioned in the chapter on Road Construction and Maintenance The road on the Thames Embankment between Northumberland Avenue and St Stephen’s Club was a striking instance of this peculiarity The whole roadway was one mass of depressions causing the wheels of one’s carriage to fly about in all directions this could of course be remedied by picking up the roadway and laying it afresh but it is no doubt in consequence of the hardness and unyielding nature of the granite that this happens. Highways and Horses By Athol Maudslay


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