In 1784, the stage-coach industry was boosted by the introduction of mail-coaches. Until that time the Royal Mail had been carried on horseback, but coaches had become faster and many had started - illegally - to carry some mail. In order to maintain control of the mail, the Post Office set up its own system of mail-coaches They were run by coach operators under franchise. Mail-coaches were given privileges on the road, and allowed to carry a few passengers to share costs. They soon became the elite way to travel.
For a long time, coaches had been the domain of the aged and infirm. Men of action and business had preferred the flexibility of horseback. But now they began to eye the speed of the coaches and consider them for their travel needs instead of riding long distances on horseback.
There followed a period of competition very similar to the great railway races to the north in the 1920s. Stage coaches began to compete with the mail coaches and also with each other to go ever faster. By 1797, stage-coaches were travelling between Manchester and London in thirty-six hours. and mail-coaches were doing the same journey in only twenty-eight hours.
As more coaches ran at greater speeds in competition with each other, the technology and business of coach travel advanced:
- The coaches themselves became better sprung and better balanced.
- The stages (the distance between horse changes) settled at an optimal ten to twelve miles, or sometimes less depending on the hills and terrain of the particular stage.
- Coaching inns arose right across the country to service the coaches. They stabled enough horses to service the coaches that they “horsed”. Coach proprietors contracted with inns all along their route to provide the horses for each stage of the journey, which might be several hundreds of miles.
- The horses would haul a coach to the next staging inn, either north or south, and then after resting, haul another coach back again, resting overnight in their home stables.
- The coaching inns also provided sustenance and accommodation for travellers.
All of these improvements helped to speed the coaches ever faster. As a result, more people used them and passenger numbers increased, which led to even more coaches, new routes, and faster speeds.
There was of course a limit to the speeds that could be attained. A horse can only gallop at a certain speed. But by using all of these methods and good horses, the mail coaches achieved timetabled speeds of ten or even eleven miles an hour - including stoppages for changing horses and scheduled meal breaks of twenty minutes. Mail coaches carried fewer passengers than stage coaches and did not have to stop at turnpike gates, but even the stage coaches were often timed at eight or nine miles an hour including stops.
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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Sources and information about how I came to create this website