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.
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
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.
- Mail coaches leaving London
- George Scharf: Chronicler of 19th Century London
- Postal Uniforms: The Early Years
- View the Gloucester Coffee House here
- London Transport Museum