The first coaches had been imported, but a local coach-building industry developed and British coaches were now respected for their fine lines and quality finish. However, coach design was still an art rather than a science. Some commonly agreed rules of good design were less that scientific. In particular it was felt 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.
The most common accident to befall a coach was overturning. The trigger may have been 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.
Mail-coaches had priority on the road. All other road users were obliged by law to keep out of their way. The Mail did not have to stop at toll-gates. As it approached, the guard would play a vigorous tune on his horn to alert the toll-keeper, so he could have the toll-gate standing open. A similar tune was played on the approach to an Inn where a fresh team of horses should be waiting. At the main termini, Manchester, Liverpool, etc., passengers were first loaded at the coaching inns, then the mail-coach made its way to the Post Office to load the mail. In London, where a great many mail-coaches departed at the same time each evening, it became a socially accepted pastime to go the main Post Office at St Martin le Grand to “watch the mail depart”.
Travel by stage-coach was very expensive, only the wealthy could afford it, and only the very wealthy could go by mail or post coach. Rather than quoting fares, which are difficult to understand due to inflation, it is revealing to look at the operating costs.
Taking as an example the Chester to London route, 188 miles in just under 24 hours. For a daily service in each direction the operators needed:
• 4 stage-coaches, (at any one time, one coach was travelling south, another travelling north, and a spare coach was kept at each end of the route to allow for maintenance, breakdowns, etc.)
• 188 horses, (a team of four every eight miles, horses rested every other day, a simple equation that works out at one horse per mile of route.)
• 8 coachmen (drivers, 50 miles each per day)
• 4 guards (each did 24 hours on-duty then 24 hours off)
• Payment of stage-coach tax (a sum per mile)
• Payment of road tolls (substantial sums)
A full load was 5 passengers on a mail coach, 4 or 6 on a post-coach, and 16 on an ordinary stage-coach. Stage-coach proprietors had to obtain sufficient from an average load of passengers to cover the above costs, plus something for themselves and a profit for investors. (Mail-Coaches had a guard provided free by the Royal Mail, and did not have to pay road tolls, but they had to travel a route specified by the Mail, not necessarily the best route for passengers, and they still had to travel even when there were no passengers.)
Travel by coach was never comfortable. Those who could afford it took a seat inside. There, passengers (some of whom may have been less than pleasant after nights on the road) were crammed into a tiny space, and banged and jolted together for hours or days. The less well-off travelled outside at half the inside fare. In summer, with fair weather, this may have been an almost pleasant way to travel. But those who know the English weather will realise the potential pitfalls, even in summer, and particularly in winter.
A few packet-boats provided passenger services on the county's canals and rivers. Inland, they were horse-drawn. A journey by canal-packet was slower than by coach, but it was comparatively comfortable. The boat had a smooth motion, none of the jolting and bumping of the coach. Passengers had space, they were not squeezed together in a small compartment. Various classes of accommodation catered for different pockets, but a journey between Manchester and Runcorn or Liverpool, in the coffee lounge of a Bridgewater Packet, gently winding its way through the tranquil Cheshire countryside, was probably the most luxurious form of travel then available.
Looking at the passenger transport services running in, to, or through, the county of Cheshire in the spring of 1830, and following them to destinations outside the county, there were 87 stage-coach routes (207 services each day), and 13 packet-boat routes (32 services). Most routes operated two services each day, one out and one back. A few routes did not operate every day. Some operated several times a day.
• Sixteen of the routes went to London from starting points in Manchester, Liverpool, or Chester, a distance of about 200 miles, and a journey time of about twenty-four hours.
• Twenty-one routes each went about 100 miles, with a journey time of about 12 hours. These were mostly to hubs in the day-coach network, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hereford, Sheffield, Holyhead, etc.
• Fifty were shorter routes within the county and linking to towns in neighbouring counties.
• Packet-boats carried passengers on 13 routes, six of them horse-drawn along the county's canals, and seven steam-powered along the estuaries. In addition, ten ferries crossed rivers.
The north of Cheshire, and to a certain extent the east, were well provided with local stage-coach services. The inhabitants of most towns in those areas could travel into Manchester, conduct several hours business, and return home the same day. Those of the north of the county, could travel into Liverpool for a few hours business and be back in their own beds that night. Those of Macclesfield, Knutsford, and Northwich, could travel into Chester for a few hours business and return by nightfall. The south of the county was not so well served by local routes. If someone from Nantwich or Middlewich wanted do business in any of the local "big" towns, it would have involved an overnight stay.
Stockport was visited by 91 stage-coaches each day, more than any other Cheshire town. It was on the main road south from Manchester so saw a lot of long-distance coaches. It also had its own small network of market-coaches linking nearby towns, and medium distance links to Liverpool, etc.
Chester was second, with 62 stage-coaches each day. It was a focal-point in the Mail-Coach network, saw some coaches travelling south from Liverpool via the new Mersey steam ferries, was the centre for a number of routes serving North Wales, and had medium distance links to Manchester, Shrewsbury, etc. Most other towns in the county were visited by several stage-coaches each day, although many of these were on their way to Birmingham or London, so were not conveniently timed for local destinations. No village was more that five miles from a stage-coach route.
More distant destinations in the south of England and Wales were reached by changing in Birmingham or London, and those in Scotland and the north by going via Manchester or Liverpool. Ireland was reached via Holyhead or Liverpool. Most European destinations were reached via London and the cross-Channel ferries. Other continents were reached via Liverpool.
The world of long-distance coach travel.
Anecdotes written by people who actually travelled on the coaches
The coachmen, the inns, the coach proprietors - they’re all here. Come in and meet them
Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history. Coach travel was very difficult until they improved
Wheeled transport evolved over many years. Find out how coaches developed
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