To these clumsy or worn-out fellows succeeded the dashing charioteers of the palmy age of coaching, which we may say came into full being with the year 1800, and lasted for full thirty years. Many broken heads and limbs, and bruises and contusions innumerable, can be laid to the account of these gay sportsmen. Washington Irving has left us a portrait of the typical stage-coachman of this time, in this delightful literary jewel:—
“He cannot be mistaken for one of any other craft. p. 45He has commonly a broad full face, curiously mottled with red, as if the blood had been forced by hard feeding into every vessel of the skin; he is swelled into jolly dimensions by frequent potations of malt liquors, and his bulk is still further increased by a multiplicity of coats in which he is buried like a cauliflower, the upper one reaching to his heels. He wears a broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat, a huge roll of coloured handkerchief about his neck, knowingly knotted and tucked in at the bosom, and has in summer-time a large bouquet of flowers in his buttonhole—the present, most probably, of some enamoured country lass. His waistcoat is commonly of some bright colour, striped; and his small-clothes extend far below the knees, to meet a pair of jockey-boots which reach about half-way up his legs.
“All this costume is maintained with much precision; he has a pride in having his clothes of excellent materials, and, notwithstanding the seeming grossness of his appearance, there is still discernible that neatness and propriety of person which is almost inherent in an Englishman. He enjoys great confidence and consideration along the road; has frequent conferences with the village housewives, who look upon him as a man of great trust and dependence, and he seems to have a good understanding with every bright-eyed country lass. The moment he arrives where the horses are to be changed, he throws down the reins with something of an air, and abandons the cattle to the care of the ostler; his duty being merely to drive from one stage to another. When off the box, his hands are thrust into the pockets of his great-coat, and he rolls about the inn-yard with an air of the most absolute lordliness. Here he is generally surrounded by an admiring throng of ostlers, stable-boys, shoe-blacks, and those nameless hangers-on that infest inns and taverns, and run errands, and do all kinds of odd jobs for the privilege of battening on the drippings of the kitchen and the leakings of the tap-room. These all look up to him as an oracle, treasure up his cant p. 46phrases, echo his opinions about horses and other topics of jockey-lore, and, above all, endeavour to imitate his air and carriage. Every ragamuffin that has a coat to his back thrusts his hands in the pockets, rolls in his gait, talks slang, and is an embryo coachey.”
But how different the last years of this gorgeous figure! When railways were projected, the coachman laughed at the idea. He thought himself secure on his box-seat, and witnessed the preparations for laying the iron rails with an amused confidence that his horses could run the “tin-kettles” off the road with little trouble. He kept this frame of mind even until the opening of the line that competed with him; and even when it was proved to demonstration that railways could convey passengers at least three times as swiftly as coaches, and at about a quarter of the cost, he generally professed to believe that “it couldn’t last long.” His was the faith that should have moved mountains—to say nothing of blighting locomotives; but it was no use. His old passengers deserted him. They were not proof against the opportunities of saving time and money. Who is? Nor did they come back to him, as he fondly thought they would, half-choked with cinders and smoke. He was speedily run off the road. There were those who liked him well, and, unwilling to see him brought low, made interest with railway companies to secure him a post; but he indignantly refused it when obtained; and, finding a cross-country route to which the railway had not yet penetrated, drove the coachman’s horror—a pair-horse coach—along the by-ways. Gone by now was his lordly importance. He had not even a guard, and frequently was reduced to putting in the horses himself. He grew slovenly, and was maudlin in his drink. “Tips” were seldom bestowed upon him, and when he received an infrequent sixpenny-piece, he was known to burst into tears. The familiar figure of Belisarius begging an obolus is scarce more painful. The last of him was generally in the driving of the omnibus between the railway station and the hotel; a p. 49misanthropic figure, consistently disregarded by his passengers, lingering, resolutely old-fashioned in dress, and none too civil, superfluous on the stage.
Section 1 Menu
The Age of Coaching
Introducing a world of horse-drawn public transport
Beginning to End
How long did the Great Age of Coaching Last?
Coaches to All Parts
The world of coach travel - surprisingly familiar; just slower and wetter.
A list of destinations which is remarkably familiar to the modern day traveller.
What was it like to travel by coach on a winter’s day. Come on the first stage of a journey from London to Stamford.
Driving a Mail Coach
Mail coaches were the high speed elite. What was it like to drive them?
Two Short Videos
Although we have no films from the time, modern producers have imagined coach travel for us.
Comparing rail and coach travel in 1888!
Things didn’t always go smoothly and this amusing incident took place on the Great North Road.
A recollection of life in London before taxi cabs, policemen and even electricity.
The northern coaches all stopped here to pick up passengers. The scene was amazing.
One of the many hazards that could be encountered was flood water. This is near St Neots.
A description of the London termini from which coaches ran
A list of London coaching inns and where you could travel to from each.
Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.
Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.
Home Page of the Coaching Website.