The public postal service in England first got the go ahead in 1635 when post-boys carried the mail between “posts” to a local postmaster who took out the letters for his region and sent the boy onto to the next post. However, these youngsters were all too often targets for thieves, and the lure of cool ale and a roadside rest on a hot day made mail delivery unpredictable at best.
Enter John Palmer, a theatre owner in Bath, who had devised a quick way of moving his actors from one theatre to another and thought his system might work for the mail. William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was farsighted enough to believe in Palmer’s idea and an experimental coach took off in a cloud of excitement from Bristol on August 2, 1784 at 4:00 p.m. and reached London 16 hours later, beating the previous time by 22 hours! By the spring of 1785 mail coaches from London served the towns of Liverpool, Leeds and Norwich and eventually Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter and Holyhead just to name a few.
The coaches and drivers were under contract and the guard was the only Post Office employee on board. He carried two pistols and a blunderbuss and looked resplendent in an official red coat complete with gold braid and blue lapels topped by a black hat with gold band. He carried a long horn to warn other road users and, the toll keeper who let the mail coach pass through at no charge. At the villages where the coach did not stop, the sound of the horn alerted the postmaster and the mailbags were thrown to the ground as the coach galloped by while the regional bags of mail were flung up to the guard to be taken onwards. While the guard took his horn blowing seriously in larger towns and cities, along country roads, they developed melodies and tunes to pass the time and enliven spirits. Still today at horse shows the park drag and mail coach horn blowing competition is a favourite!
The advent of the mail coach was the epitome of village excitement in those days and people gathered to watch the coach arrive or leave; they were finally connected to the world beyond!
The coach driver had to handle coach and horses at blistering paces in all conditions. Often, young men bribed the coach driver to let him take the reins and with the demise of the mail coaches, four- and six-hand driving clubs were formed. The coachman’s role, once seen as that of mere driving servant, was now the thing to do amongst the male gentry with a need for speed in competitions and a wish to be seen driving a stunning coach with matching team.
Initially, mail coaches allowed four passengers to ride inside and soon after an additional person was permitted to ride next to the driver. Later two more sat behind the driver when an extra seat was added but the guard’s place was sacrosanct and nobody was to sit beside or near him and his precious cargo of mail.
Riding in a mail coach was not for the faint hearted. The roads where rutted, rough and muddy quagmire slowed progress in poor weather requiring the gentlemen to get out and push or, get out and walk up steep hills to save the horses. The coaches galloped on at a furious speed scattering all in their path and inn stops were just for changing horses every 10 miles. Some lengthy routes saw the need for 100 or more horses and The Bull and Mouth Inn, one of London’s biggest coaching inns, had room in the cellars for 200 horses at one time.
The average speed for a coach was 5mph (8kph) in winter and 7-8mph (11-12kph) in summer but this increased to 10mph (16kph) with the creation of macadam, a type of road construction pioneered by Scotsman John Macadam whereby single sized layers of stone were bound with tar.
While the onset of the railway helped spawn the Industrial Revolution, sadly, it saw the demise of the mail coaches and on November 11, 1830, the first train with mail set out from Liverpool to Manchester. Other rail lines followed and by the early 1840’s many of the London based coaches were pulled from service, the last one leaving London to make its way to Norwich on January 6, 1846.
However, the coaching era was not gone forever and with the introduction of the Parcels Post, some coaches were re-introduced in 1887. In the next century, the start of the Post Office’s own motor fleet saw another change and in 1927 there were 723 gas vehicles on the road but horse service was still active with 127 carts in smaller areas delivering mail.
The Second World War and the rationing of gas saw the horse drawn mail carts stay in action much longer than anticipated and the final mail cart, pulled by Peter the horse, left the King Edward Building in London in 1949. It was truly the end of an era!