Death by Steam

I chose to study travel in the spring of 1830 thinking that this was before steam had started to change the travel industry. I was wrong. Steam had not yet changed passenger transport by land, but paddle steamers had recently been introduced onto the county's rivers and on the shorter sea crossings. Steamers had greatly improved ferry services on the Dee and Mersey estuaries. For the first time, ferries could publish a timetable and keep to it. This benefited the stage-coach industry which had introduced improved services based on the new ferries.

It was a different story when the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened on the 15th September 1830. This was the first railway to successfully compete with stage-coaches. By comparison with stage-coach travel, the new railway was far more comfortable, it reduced journey times by half, reduced fares by half and, to rub salt into the wound, railway employees were not allowed to accept tips.

Earlier railways had not attracted many passengers. Their method of operation did not enable passengers to be carried swiftly. The L&M used the latest steam technology, but equally importantly it got the business model right. It created the formula for a public mass transport service. It revealed the future of land transport. This was just the start. Railway travel rapidly developed to become even faster, cheaper, and more luxurious.

Stage-coaches could not compete. By 19th November the Post Office (a conservative organisation) had transferred the Liverpool to Manchester Mail to the railway. In the spring of 1830, thirty coaches had run each day between Manchester and Liverpool, and more had run to Liverpool from towns surrounding Manchester (Stockport and Macclesfield among them). All were doomed. Two years later, only one was still running.

The new railway was extended southwards, reaching Birmingham in 1837, and London in 1838. The early trains travelled between Liverpool and London in 11 hours, compared to 24 hours by the fastest stage-coach. 

"Railway Mania" hit the country. New railways were proposed everywhere. It took some years to extend railway coverage over the whole country. Some new stage-coach routes were started to act as feeders to the railway, but in general, wherever the railway went, stage-coach routes closed. The image of coaching had changed. From being the fastest mode of transport, the smart way to travel, coaches came to be seen as slow and old-fashioned. Engine Drivers, not Coachmen, were the new elite workers.

As stage-coach routes closed, tens of thousands were put out of work. Drivers, guards, ostlers, farriers, toll-keepers, innkeepers, booking-clerks, cooks, waiters, chamber-maids, coach-builders, harness-makers, providers of fodder, disposers of dung, most would lose their jobs. A similar thing happened to hundreds of thousands of horses.

The main roads changed from bustling highways full of fast long-distance travellers, to sleepy backwaters serving only local traffic. The turnpike trusts fell apart as their main source of revenue dried up and, shortsightedly, they hit motorised vehicles with penal tolls and restrictions, stifling inovation in the UK, and allowing Germany and France to take the lead in developing road transport. The immediate future of transport in the UK belonged to the railway.

Stage-coaches struggled on in gaps left by the railway. There were occasional revivals for sentimental reasons, or when the railways abused their monopoly powers, but for most people stage-coaches soon became a thing of the past.

Remnants of the stage-coach era do still exist. A remarkable number of old coaching inns can still be found, in town centres and villages and on old highways, often in the most unlikely places, thumbing a nose at modern regimentalising town planners. Their locations determined 200 years ago by the need to provide fresh horses there. They have survived because they continue to welcome visitors with good food and good cheer.

Carl's Cam, Coaches

Next: General Notes

Section 4:

The Coaches


‍​The world of long-distance coach travel.








Go to Living Memories

Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches

Go to the Age of Coaching

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

Go to the Roads

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

Go to The Coaches

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

Go to Home Page

Home Page of the Coaching Website


Sources and information about how I came to create this website