Stage Waggons

By the mid-1500s, Britain had become a more stable society and roads had improved a little. The countryside was not enclosed into the patchwork of fields that we know today, with clearly defined roads so most main roads were just wide strips of land through which travellers had to pick their way as best they could.  The good road surfaces left behind by the Romans eleven hundred years earlier had most disappeared. 

The usual method of moving goods was by pack horse, and these did continue for many decades, but they could only carry light goods. So it was about this time that the the first Stage Waggons appeared.  Also known as Travelling Waggons, they were designed to carry goods but from the beginning, peasants would hitch a ride in them, sitting amongst the goods being carried.

These waggons were hauled by teams of six or eight horses which allowed them to get through the mud and whatever else they met on the roads. They were led by men who walked, or occasionally rode, alongside the team rather than either riding on one of the horses or sitting on the waggon itself.

They averaged a slow walking pace - perhaps two or three miles an hour - and so journeys were very long. Despite their name they rarely changed horses changed horses with the exception, for some reason, of the Liverpool-London road . . . and they only travelled during the daytime of course.

A writer of 1617 describes the “covered waggons in which passengers are carried to and fro; but this kind of journeying is very tedious, so that only women and people of inferior condition travel in this sort.”

On the principal roads, strings of stage-waggons would often travel together. Alongside them there would be strings of pack horses, which could travel somewhat quicker than the waggons. Where they could, the pack horses used narrow paths known as ‘pack-horse roads’ and in the late 1800s, about a mile east from Haltwhistle in Northumberland, you could still see one of these pack-horse roads alongside the old mail coach road - and within a hundred yards of the railway!  The book “Annals of the Road”, written in 1876, says: “Thus brought within a stone’s throw of each other are pack-horse road, coach-road, and rail, marking the changes which a couple of centuries have wrought in the means of locomotion.”

The same book also talks about the speed at which stage waggons travelled: “The pace indeed was proverbially so slow in the North of England, that it was jocularly said that the publicans of Furness in Lancashire, when they saw the conductors of the travelling merchandise trains appear in sight on the summit of Wrynose Hill, on their way between Whitehaven and Kendal, would begin to brew their beer, always having a stock of good drink manufactured by the time the travellers reached the village!”

Stage waggons survived until well into the railway age when, like the coaches, they were replaced by the far more efficient railways.

Find out much more about stage waggons in the book “Stage-coach and Mail in Days of Yore” by Charles G. Harper, published in 1903. The chapter on stage waggons begins here:- https://archive.org/details/stagecoachmailin01harp/page/102/mode/2up


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