Delivery of the Mail was so important that when Stage coaches became stuck in snow drifts it was important to continue the journey on horseback in order to deliver the mail and seek assistance.
A stagecoach is a type of covered wagon used to carry passengers and goods inside. It is strongly sprung and generally drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers. The business of running stagecoaches or the act of journeying in them was known as staging.
Originating in England, familiar images of the stagecoach are that of a Royal Mail coach passing through a turnpike gate, a Dickensian passenger coach covered in snow pulling up at a coaching inn, and a highwayman demanding a coach to "stand and deliver". The yard of ale drinking glass is associated by legend with stagecoach drivers, though was mainly used for drinking feats and special toasts.
The stagecoach was a four-wheeled vehicle pulled by horses or mules. The primary requirement was that it was used as a public conveyance, running on an established route and schedule. Vehicles that were used, included buckboards and dead axle wagons, surplus Army ambulances and celerity (or mud) coaches. Selection of the vehicle was made by the owner of the stage line, and he would choose the most efficient vehicle based upon the load to be carried, the road conditions, and the weather; and used a two, four or six-horse team based upon those factors and the type of car.
The stagecoach was supported on the thoroughbraces, which were leather straps supporting the body of the carriage and serving as shock absorbing springs (the stagecoach itself was sometimes called a "thoroughbrace"). The front or after compartment of a Continental stagecoach was called a coupé or coupe. An inside passenger or seat was an inside, while an outside passenger or seat was an outside. On the outside were two back seats facing one another, which the British called baskets. In addition to the stage driver who guided the vehicle, a shotgun messenger, armed with a coach gun, often rode as a guard.
The stagecoach traveled at an average speed of about five miles per hour, with the total daily mileage covered being around 60 or 70 miles.
The term "stage" originally referred to the distance between stations on a route, the coach traveling the entire route in "stages," but through metonymy it came to apply to the coach. A fresh set of horses would be staged at the next station, so the coach could continue after a quick stop to rehitch the new horse team. Under this staging system, the resting, watering and feeding of the spent horses would not delay the coach.
The stagecoach was also called a stage or stage carriage. Sub-types included:
mail coach or post coach: used for carrying mail.
mud coach: lighter and smaller, with flat sides and simpler joinery.
road coach: revived in the United Kingdom during the last half of the 19th century.
Crude coaches were built from the 16th century. Without suspension, these coaches achieved very low speeds on the poor quality rutted roads of the time. By the mid 17th century, a basic stagecoach infrastructure had been put in place. The first stagecoach route started in 1610 and ran from Edinburgh to Leith. This was followed by a steady proliferation of other routes around the country. A string of coaching inns operated as stopping points for travellers on the route between London and Liverpool by the mid 17th century. The coach would depart every Monday and Thursday and took roughly ten days to make the journey during the summer months. They also became widely adopted for travel in and around London by mid-century and generally travelled at a few miles per hour. Shakespeare's first plays were performed at coaching inns such as The George Inn, Southwark.
By the end of the 17th century, stage-coach routes ran up and down the three main roads in England. The London-York route was advertised in 1698: Whoever is desirous of going between London and York or York and London, Let them Repair to the Black Swan in Holboorn, or the Black Swan in Coney Street, York, where they will be conveyed in a Stage Coach (If God permits), which starts every Thursday at Five in the morning."
The Hyde Park Gate in London, erected by the Kensington Turnpike Trust. These trusts helped to stimulate a sustained period of road improvement in the 18th century.
The novelty of this method of transport excited much controversy at the time. One pamphleteer denounced the stagecoach as a "great evil [...] mischievous to trade and destructive to the public health." Another writer, however, argued that:
"Besides the excellent arrangement of conveying men and letters on horseback, there is of late such an admirable commodiousness, both for men and women, to travel from London to the principal towns in the country, that the like hath not been known in the world, and that is by stage-coaches, wherein any one may be transported to any place, sheltered from foul weather and foul ways; free from endamaging of one's health and one's body by the hard jogging or over-violent motion; and this not only at a low price (about a shilling for every five miles), but with such velocity and speed in one hour, as that the posts in some foreign countries make in a day." The speed of travel remained constant until the mid-18th century. Reforms of the turnpike trusts, new methods of road building and the improved construction of coaches led to a sustained rise in the comfort and speed of the average journey - from an average journey length of 2 days for the Cambridge-London route in 1750 to a length of under 7 hours in 1820. Robert Hooke helped in the construction of some of the first spring-suspended coaches in the 1660s and spoked wheels with iron rim brakes were introduced, improving the characteristics of the coach.
In 1754, a Manchester-based company began a new service called the "Flying Coach". It was advertised with the following announcement - "However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually (barring accidents) arrive in London in four days and a half after leaving Manchester." A similar service was begun from Liverpool three years later, using coaches with steel spring suspension. This coach took an unprecedented three days to reach London with an average speed of eight miles per hour.
Even more dramatic improvements were made by John Palmer at the British Post Office. The postal delivery service in Britain had existed in the same form for about 150 years—from its introduction in 1635, mounted carriers had ridden between "posts" where the postmaster would remove the letters for the local area before handing the remaining letters and any additions to the next rider. The riders were frequent targets for robbers, and the system was inefficient.
Palmer made much use of the "flying" stagecoach services between cities in the course of his business, and noted that it seemed far more efficient than the system of mail delivery then in operation. His travel from Bath to London took a single day to the mail's three days. It occurred to him that this coach service could be developed into a national mail delivery service, so in 1782 he suggested to the Post Office in London that they take up the idea. He met resistance from officials who believed that the existing system could not be improved, but eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to carry out an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old system the journey had taken up to 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2 August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later.
Impressed by the trial run, Pitt authorised the creation of new routes. Within the month the service had been extended from London to Norwich, Nottingham, Liverpool and Manchester, and by the end of 1785 services to the following major towns and cities of England and Wales had also been linked: Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added the next year, and Palmer was rewarded by being made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office. By 1797 there were forty-two routes.
The golden age of the stagecoach was during the Regency period, from 1800 to 1830. The era saw great improvements in the design of the coaches, notably by John Besant in 1792 and 1795. His coach had a greatly improved turning capacity and braking system, and a novel feature that prevented the wheels from falling off while the coach was in motion. Besant, with his partner John Vidler, enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of coaches, and a virtual monopoly on their upkeep and servicing for the following few decades. Obadiah Elliott registered the first patent for a spring-suspension vehicle. Each wheel had two durable steel leaf springs on each side and the body of the carriage was fixed directly to the springs attached to the axles. Within a decade, most British horse carriages were equipped with springs; wooden springs in the case of light one-horse vehicles to avoid taxation, and steel springs in larger vehicles. These were often made of low-carbon steel and usually took the form of multiple layer leaf springs.
Construction of a macadamized road in the United States (1823). These roads allowed stagecoaches to travel at much greater speeds.
Steady improvements in road construction were also made at this time, most importantly the widespread implementation of Macadam roads up and down the country. The speed of coaches in this period rose from around 6 miles per hour (including stops for provisioning) to 8 miles per hour and greatly increased the level of mobility in the country, both for people and for mail. Each route had an average of four coaches operating on it at one time - two for both directions and a further two spares in case of a breakdown en route. Joseph Ballard described the stagecoach industry in 1815:
"The stage fare from Manchester to Liverpool, distance forty miles, is only six shillings. This is caused by the strong opposition, as there are eight or ten coaches continually running between those places. Besides the fare in the coach you have to pay the coachman one shilling per stage of about thirty miles, and the same to the guard whose business it is to take care of the luggage, &c. &c. Should the passenger refuse to pay the accustomed tribute he would inevitably be insulted. You must pay also, at the inns, the chambermaid sixpence a night, the "boots" (the person who cleans them) two pence a day, and the head waiter one shilling a day. The porter who takes your portmanteau up stairs moves his hat with "pray remember the porter, Sir." The beds at the inns are surprisingly neat and clean. In many of the inns in a large town, the chambermaids furnish the chambers and depend upon their fees for remuneration. The stagecoaches are very convenient and easy. No baggage is permitted to be taken inside, it being stowed away in the boot places before and behind the carriage for that purpose. Here it rides perfectly safe, not being liable to be rubbed, as they ride upon the same springs that the passengers do. A person can always calculate upon being at the place he takes the coach for (barring accidents) at a certain time, as the coachman is allowed a given time to go his stage. The guard always has a chronometer with him (locked up so that he cannot move the hands) as a guide with regard to time."
The development of railways in the 1830s spelt the end for the stagecoaches and mail coaches. The first rail delivery between Liverpool and Manchester took place on 11 November 1830. By the early 1840s most London-based coaches had been withdrawn from service. Some vehicles, however, were bought up for private use, for either commercial or recreational purposes. The term Road Coach came to be used for these, and similar vehicles built in later years, several of which were used by their enterprising (or nostalgic) owners to provide scheduled passenger services, reminiscent of the old stagecoaches, on certain routes at certain times of the year.
The 1860s saw the start of a coaching revival, spurred on by the popularity of Four-in-hand driving as a sporting pursuit (the Four-In-Hand Driving Club was founded in 1856 and the Coaching Club in 1871). Private coaches (often known as Park Drags) began to be built to order. These had first appeared in the Regency period, but they now became highly fashionable. Very similar in design to the old stagecoach, only lighter, sportier and owner-driven, they were used for a variety of recreational pursuits.
James Pollard, (1792–1867), coaching and sporting artist, was born at 15 Braynes Row, Islington Spa, London, the youngest of the seven children of Robert Pollard (1755/6–1839), engraver and print publisher, and his wife, Ann Iley. His parents were both from Newcastle upon Tyne. Pollard grew up on the main northern coaching route which ran through Islington and Holloway, and became enamoured with the day's most glamorous form of transport. His intimate understanding of the subject later translated onto his canvases with a near faultless exactitude, and are an invaluable record of a tradition abruptly curtailed by the advent of the railways. His father had been a pupil of Richard Wilson RA, and learned the skills of engraving with Isaac Taylor of Holborn, London. In time he established himself as an engraver and print publisher, living and working from an address at 11 Holloway Place, Holloway. Both James and his elder brother William (who was not an artist) were employed in the family business, R. Pollard & Sons. Robert Pollard determined that his son James should become a painter and tutored him from an early age. The young artist also received guidance and encouragement from his father's friend Thomas Bewick, the wood-engraver from Newcastle, and worked industriously for the family business, producing his own designs as well as engraving works by other artists for publication.
By 1820 the business was beginning to struggle, but there occurred an event that would change the course of James Pollard's career. He had received a commission from Edward Orme, the king's printseller, to paint a signboard for an innkeeper. Before dispatch Orme exhibited it in his Bond Street shop window where it was admired by the Austrian ambassador, Prince Esterházy. He requested that the artist should paint another for him on canvas. Pollard obliged, titling the work The Exeter Royal Mail Coach, and three variations were ordered subsequently.
Encouraged by these commissions, Pollard submitted to the Royal Academy North Country Mails at The Peacock, Islington, which was exhibited in 1821. His career as a painter was now established and during the 1820s his services were much in demand from leading print publishers and for private commissions. However, he continued to work for the family firm and engraved many plates after his own drawings, as well as those of other artists. Pollard also turned his attentions to the sporting world, and as a painter and engraver his works encompass racing, steeplechasing, hunting, shooting, and fishing; and to a lesser extent coursing, prize-fighting, cricket, cock-fighting, and hawking.
In December 1825, at St Mary's, Islington, James Pollard married Elizabeth Ridley of St Pancras. This heralded his departure from the family business, although it was a slow process. No prints were published by R. Pollard & Sons after 1829 and the premises at 11 Holloway Place were finally sold in 1831. Pollard returned to Islington and began to concentrate solely on painting in oils. The 1830s proved to be the most successful period of his career, and much of his work was engraved. In the late 1830s he is known to have collaborated with his friend John Frederick Herring senior (1795–1865), the foremost equestrian artist of the day, on a series of spectacular racing pictures. These included The Doncaster Great St Leger, 1839, where Herring painted the racehorses and jockeys and Pollard completed the intricate background of grandstand architecture and vast crowd. He was generally too busy to pay much attention to exhibiting; his works were shown on just three occasions at the Royal Academy between 1821 and 1839, and three times at the British Institution between 1824 and 1844.
In 1840, however, Pollard was struck a double tragedy when both his wife and his youngest daughter died. These events left the artist traumatized and unable to work. For several years he led an aimless existence and his children were left to be brought up by their aunts. After an interval he did return to painting, but the interest from print publishers had vanished. The ambition and quality of his work from this period became increasingly inferior and the artist fell on lean times. Very few paintings are recorded with dates in the 1850s and Pollard had little means of supporting his family. For the last years of his life he received financial support from the Artists' Benevolent Institution and lived with his son James Robert Pollard at 22 Robert Terrace (later Sydney Street) in Chelsea, where he died on 15 October 1867. He was buried in the family grave at Hornsey churchyard, in north London.
Pollard is best remembered as a fine draughtsman, designer, and observer, rather than a great painter. A letter from his father to Thomas Bewick commented, ‘horses in particular form the happiest proceeds of his pencil’. The largest public collection of his work is in the South African National Gallery which houses nine works including a self-portrait and eight coaching works. The collection at Brodick Castle, Scotland, includes The St Albans Grand Steeplechase, a set of six, dated 1833; The Duke of York's Moses Winning the Derby, 1822 is in the Royal Collection.
Graham Budd DNB