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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Fastest Travel in England, Two Hundred Years Ago

If you wanted to get somewhere fast in Regency England, you took the mail coach.

Charged with the timely delivery of the mail, the mail coaches provided their few passengers with a faster, less crowded and cleaner ride than private stagecoaches, although more expensive.

Britain's first mail delivery system, created in 1635, used mounted riders traveling between different "posts", where the postmaster collected his local mail and sent his own on. The system was slow, inefficient and highwaymen found the solitary riders easy targets.

By the late 1700's, Britain needed a better method. In 1784, John Palmer, a Bath theater owner, suggested employing coaches like the ones used to transport acting troupes. At first, the government ridiculed his idea. But with the blessing of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, Palmer funded an experimental run between Bristol and London. The trip took sixteen hours. The previous time was up to thirty-eight hours. Convinced, the government authorized more routes and rewarded Palmer with the office of Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office.

The original coaches carried four inside passengers, a driver, and the Post Office guard, who rode outside in the back with the mail box. Later, the coach added three more outside passengers, one beside the driver and two behind him. Private contractors supplied the original coaches, but by the early 1800's the Post Office had acquired its own fleet of vehicles painted with a distinctive black and scarlet livery. Travel times were about 7-8 miles in summer, and 5-6 miles in winter, although, as roads improved, rates improved to about ten miles per hour.

The primary requirement of the mail coach was speed. They almost always traveled at night when the roads were less crowded. They also had the right of way. When the guard blew his post horn to signal the mail coach's approach, other vehicles on the road had to move aside, turnpike toll takers had to let them pass through without stopping or pay a fine, and the mail had to be ready at the post stops. Sometimes the coach didn't stop at all and the guard would toss the mail off and grab the deliveries from the waiting postmaster.

Speed did not equate to comfort. Roads were rough and the coaches ran in all weathers, making travel unpleasant, especially for those riding outside. Passengers often had to disembark to lighten the load when the vehicle went up a steep hill. On the plus side, mail coach travel was safer than on private stagecoaches. The guard defended the mail with a blunderbuss and two pistols. As a result, mail coaches suffered fewer highwaymen attacks than private stagecoaches, although some did occur.

With its scarlet and black livery and the sound of the post horn ringing over the countryside, the mail coach reigned supreme until the advent of the railroads in the 1830's. The government shut down the last London mail coach route in 1846, although services continued in the countryside for a few more years.

In An Inheritance for the Birds, (Buy Link here) my Regency comedy novella, the hero travels from London to Somersetshire by mail coach. He sits outside all night and the coach passes through a summer downpour. By the time he reaches his destination and encounters the heroine, he is not a happy camper. And then he meets the birds…

Thank you all,