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Accidents

Road accidents happened in coaching days just as they still do today. The first coaches were imported, but very soon a local coach building industry developed and British coaches became respected for their fine lines and quality finish. But coach design was more art than science and some commonly agreed rules of good design were less that scientific. In particular it was believed that horses found it easier to pull a load carried high above ground (large wheels do make a load easier to pull, but for a different reason). This false assumption resulted in coaches being made top-heavy. Extra passengers and luggage were allowed at roof level at a time when coach bodies were being made lighter and as a result, the centre of gravity - and danger of overturning - increased.

Not surprisingly, the most common accident to befall a coach was overturning. It may have been caused by the horses shying, bolting, or making a sudden turn, or a wheel breaking, going into a ditch, over a boulder or lump of compacted snow, but the result was usually the same: the coach fell onto its side. Outside passengers were not infrequently thrown to the ground. Many were injured or killed. Whatever the state of the horses before the accident, they often stampeded after one, dragging the wreckage of the coach some distance, adding considerably to the injuries.

Here are some descriptions of a few coaching accidents which were recorded back in coaching times:-

“A dreadful accident happened in 1805 to the Leeds ‘Union’ coach, owing to the reins breaking and the horses dashing the vehicle against a tree. It occurred at a point about half a mile from Ferrybridge. William Hope, the coachman, and an outside passenger were killed, and many others seriously injured. The jury imposed a deodand of £5 on the coach and £10 on the horses.”

In later years, an almost equally serious disaster happened to another Leeds coach, the ‘Express’. It happened when the ‘Express’ was racing with a rival service, the ‘Courier’ which had stopped at the bottom of a hill for the purpose of taking off the drag*. As the ‘Express’ passed the stationary coach it was upset, with the result that a woman was killed on the spot, another was laid up for a year with a broken leg, and other passengers were more or less injured.  Probably because of the evident recklessness displayed by the coachman, a deodand of £1,400 was laid on the coach (£161,000 in 2019 value).

Mail coaches were involved in disasters less frequently than the stagecoaches. For one thing, they didn’t have the same incentive to race because they were not in competition with other providers so crashes arising from racing were rare. But other types of accident did affect mail and stagecoaches alike. The weather was one hazard that affected all coaches and fog was particularly dangerous. Penny, an old driver of the Edinburgh mail, was killed in a very unlucky accident caused by fog. For some reason, Penny had become nervous as the fog came down and asked the guard, a younger and stronger man, to take the reins.  He did so but on the journey drove up a bank. The mail coach was upset, and Penny was killed.

Snow and frost were particular enemies of the mail coaches on the northern stretches of the Great North Road, so all mail-coaches carried a snow-shovel.

Widespread floods in the Huntingdonshire and Nottinghamshire levels were another caused of accidents, when the River Ouse and the River Trent rose into their flood plains.

But it was not always the north-country coaches that felt the fury of the snowstorms.  The famous storm of December 1836 blocked all roads across the country. The Louth mail, which left the Great North Road at Norman Cross, had to be abandoned and the mails transferred to a lightweight post-chaise, while numerous other mail coaches were buried in the snow as far south as St. Albans.

* * *

Accidents happened throughout the coaching period in roughly equal numbers. The earlier and later periods of coaching had about the same number of accidents.

When the railways first began operating, there were also fairly frequent train crashes. Charles Dickens himself was involved in one and helped the injured and dying. It affected him badly.

At that time an expression arose among the coaching fraternity who saw their way of life threatened by the coming railways. It played on the fact that although coaches had accidents, train crashes were worse. It ran: “If you’re involved in a coach accident, there you are; but if you’re involved in a railway accident, then where are you?”

Railways accidents, when they do happen, are beyond comparison more fearful on the railway than ever they were on the coaches, but when you consider how many trains are run, they are actually quite rare.

Coaching accidents, on the other hand, were quite frequent, but because they seldom ended fatally, they don’t figure as largely in the coaching annals as might be expected. 


*The drag seems to have been a form of braking which was fitted to a coach on a steep hill to prevent it form running (or slipping) into the horses.



Next: The Post Office

Section 2:

The Age of Coaching

Introduction

‍​The world of long-distance coach travel

An Early Advertisement

A coach advertisement from 1706

Beginning to End
How long did the Great Age of Coaching Last?

Two Coaching Periods
The age of coach travel falls into two distinct phases

The First Coaching Period
Coaches in the early period were uncomfortable, slow and dangerous

Highwaymen
The scourge of the early coaching industry, these robbers eventually disappeared

Transition
The change from the early period to the late happened because life in Britain was altering

The Second Coaching Period
This is the Great Age of Coach Travel - surprisingly familiar; just slower and wetter

Facts and Figures
A look at prices, costs and numbers involved in coaching

Different Ways to Travel
There were stagecoaches and mail coaches, and more besides

Destinations

The list of places you could go to is remarkably familiar to the modern traveller

London Coaching Inns

We’re familiar with railway termini but what were the departure points like in the Age of Coaching?

Famous London Coaching Inns

‍​Here are most of the coaching departure points in London, together withe here you could travel to from each one

Inns and Politics

An example of how politics influenced attitudes in some inns along the road

The Battle of Barnet

Not a war, just passengers trying to grab a bite to eat on the road

The Coachmen

‍​Coach drivers were an elite group, but as the coaching age declined, they lost their importance

An Industry at Full Gallop

‍​The first half of the 19th century saw coaching at its peak

Inns, Drivers & Passengers

‍​Who were the travellers and who owned the horses and coaches? Find out here

One Coach Proprietor

William Chaplin was one of the most successful coach proprietors - and he survived the move to railways

Swan With Two Necks

One of Chaplin’s Inn has an unusual name which comes from history

The Cost of Coach Travel

We complain about rail fares but coach fares were far higher

Cost to Proprietors

What did it cost to run a coaching business?

The Value of Money

To understand coaching prices you must compare them with present day values

Accidents

Coach travel was not without risk. Here are some reported  coach accidents

The Post Office

This is the story of the Mail Coaches, how the mail evolved and what mailcoaches were like

Itineraries

A set of possible journeys that you might wish to make

Death by Steam

The railways effectively killed the coaching industry very quickly. Here’s what happened 

Inns Become Booking Offices

City inns had to change when the coaching trade dried up. Here’s how they coped


______________________

Part 1: Living Memories

Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches

Part 2: The Age of Coaching

The coachmen, the inns, the coach proprietors - they’re all here. Come in and meet them

Part 3: The Roads

Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history.  Coach travel was very difficult until they improved

Part 4: The Coaches

Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed

Background

Sources and information about how I came to create this website

Home Page

Home Page of the Coaching Website