People have always needed to travel long distances in Britain, both for work and for social reasons. Before the seventeenth century, if you went by land, you either went on foot or horseback. There were crude horse and ox drawn wagons before then but only the really wealthy used them and then, only in the summer when the muddy roads had had a chance to dry.
Ann Woodley has produced a fascinating online resource on the history of horse-drawn transport in England. Her Regency Collection website is now archived but still accessible following the link below. She writes: “It was not till towards the close of the sixteenth century that the wagon became used as a public conveyance, and only very rarely then. Fifty years later a string of stagewagons had begun to travel regularly between London and Liverpool, each one starting from the Axe Inn, Aldermanbury, every Monday and Thursday, and occupying ten days on the road during summer – about twelve days in winter.” From Ann Woodley ‘Coaching Resources’ on The Regency Collection website [date accessed 19/3/2020]
Stage-wagons drawn by teams of horses one in front of the other were slow and uncomfortable but offered a sheltered way to travel in bad weather. The horses had to be regularly changed before they became exhausted hence the journey was in ‘stages’ stopping every so often to harness up fresh animals.
The lighter stage ‘coach’ drawn by two pairs of horses side by side was a slightly faster way to travel if the road surface was reasonable. By the early seventeenth century, a few private operators were running stagecoach services on well-maintained roads in the London area and from there it gradually spread outwards. By 1678 regular stagecoach services were operating during the summer months from London to big cities like Liverpool and York.
“Besides the excellent arrangement of conveying men and letters on horseback, there is of late such an admirable commodiousness, both for men and women, to travel from London to the principal towns in the country, that the like hath not been known in the world, and that is by stagecoaches, wherein any one may be transported to any place, sheltered from foul weather and foul ways; free from endamaging of one’s health and one’s body by the hard jogging or over-violent motion; and this not only at a
low price (about a shilling for every five miles), but with such velocity and speed in one hour, as that the posts in some foreign countries make in a day.” Edward Chamberlayne (1649) ‘Angliæ Notitia: Or the Present State of England’
As stagecoach services increased, not everyone approved:
“…those who travel in these coaches contracted an idle habit of body; became weary and listless when they rode a few miles, and were then unable or unwilling to travel on horseback, and not able to endure frost, snow, or rain, or to lodge in the field!”
From ‘The Grand concern of England explained in several proposals offered to the consideration of the Parliament, (1) for payment of publick debts, (2) for advancement and encouragement of trade, (3) for raising the rents of lands …’ / by a lover of his countrey, and well-wisher to the prosperity both of the King and kingdoms. London: [s.n.], 1673.
People like this were in the minority however and the battle was on to improve times in order to attract more customers from rival companies. The service was able to expand hugely when regularly maintained turnpike roads were opened for traffic from the middle of the eighteenth century. ‘Flying’ coach services began to be advertised. From 1757 the Manchester ‘Flying Coach’ to London organised by business people in that city managed an average speed of 4-5 miles an hour. This was a doubling of the speeds of earlier public stagecoaches on the mud-filled and rock-strewn surfaces of most of England’s roads. Coach design improved with steel springs and lighter bodies and John MacAdam introduced his revolutionary method of road surfacing from 1816. The great era of coaching had begun.
This wonderful early nineteenth century illustration of a stage wagon shows the so-called ‘Kendal Flying Waggon’. Given the apparent lack of hurry as goods and passengers are being loaded on, we can assume the title is meant to be a joke. The wagon is a canvas-covered bow top affair much like the carriers wagons we’ve already blogged about but looks to have pairs of horses to pull it unlike the carriers who had two at most, in line.
We have to assume that Westmorland’s long-distance travellers would have been able to tap into stagecoach services using newly built turnpike roads through important market towns like Kendal and Kirkby Stephen from the middle of the eighteenth century but we have little evidence of public stagecoaches before the 1820s when we begin to see regular services advertised in local newspapers and trade directories. The private coach services had rather wonderful names, this advert is for the ‘Good Intent’ coach running to Whitehaven from Kendal and back the following day. The one way journey took twelve hours, 7am to 7pm but included lots of stops along the way.
Notice the reference to ‘Mail Coaches’ in the advert. We’ll be covering those services in a separate blogpost.
Becoming a staging point for a coach service was highly lucrative for an inn. They would make money supplying fresh coach horses, some even began to run their own coach services. They would also offer food and accommodation to weary travellers waiting for connecting coaches. The American Joseph Ballard was not impressed by the amount of money over and above his fare that was needed when travelling by coach in England in 1815.
“Besides the fare in the coach you have to pay the coachman one shilling
per stage of about thirty miles, and the same to the guard whose business it is to take care of the luggage, &c.; &c.; Should the passenger refuse to pay the accustomed tribute he would inevitably be insulted. You must pay also, at the inns, the chambermaid sixpence a night, the “boots” (the person who cleans them) two?pence a day, and the head waiter one shilling a day. The porter who takes your portmanteau up stairs moves his hat with “pray remember the porter, Sir.” In fact, it is necessary in travelling through England to have your pocket well lined with pounds, shillings and sixpences, otherwise you never can satisfy the innumerable demands made upon a traveller by landlord, waiters, chambermaids, and coachmen, &c.; &c.” Joseph Ballard (2009) ‘England in 1815: the Journal of Joseph Ballard’
The Crown Inn in Kendal clearly also had a lucrative business hiring out transport to people who needed to travel on from the town’s coach stops to places not served by the stagecoach route.
By this time stagecoaches were running at speeds of eight to ten miles an hour, with relatively leisurely stops for refreshments and horse changes at distances of between five and fifteen miles depending on the road conditions.
For a flavour of what a nineteenth century stagecoach journey was like read this wonderful broadsheet called ‘The Night Coach Adventures’ printed in Birmingham between 1842 and 1845 and now in the Bodleian Libraries’ collection. The broadsheet was designed to be read (and sung) aloud to comic effect and this one is particularly vivid.
Considering a stagecoach might weigh up to two tons with as many as fifteen passengers plus luggage on board, coach horses didn’t last long, usually being sold on every two to three years for lighter work.
Eight miles per hour doesn’t sound very fast especially given that this is an average including stops, but accidents still happened, a coach filled up most of the normal road width so people on foot or trying to pass in carriages or on horseback needed to get out of the way quickly. Fully laden, a coach was also dangerous to its passengers if a wheel broke or a horse decided to misbehave.
The local newspapers record many such incidents in Westmorland. This one near Kendal had a happy ending:
This one near Kirkby Stephen did not:
“COACH OVERTURNED – It is truly lamentable that we have to inform our readers of the recurrence of the accident which lately produced such sad consequences at Kirkby Lonsdale:- On Wednesday evening as Patrickson & Co.’s coach was on its way to Sedbergh from Kirkby Stephen it was overturned about two miles from the latter place. Five of the passengers who were much injured were taken back to Kirkby Stephen; and another female passenger, who was severely wounded by the coach falling on her breast, was conveyed to the house of Mr John Petty, Easegill Head, where (we are informed) she lies in a precarious state. No blame is imputed to the driver, the accident being occasioned by one of the horses becoming unmanageable: hence it is evident that it is not only the duty of the propritors [sic] of stage coaches to employ careful drivers, but also to select tractable horses.
We have received another account of this accident which our correspondent believes to be correct :- it states that four of the passengers, two ladies and two gentlemen (some of whom were at first thought to be seriously injured) have received slight bruises, but are so far recovered as to be able to proceed on their respective journies [sic]. All the passengers concur in exculpating the coachman from every charge of improper conduct.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 21 August 1819
From the evidence of the 1829 Westmorland Trade Directory we can get a really clear idea of the routes and timings of stagecoach companies operating through the Westmorland Dales at the very peak of the age of coaching and not long before the arrival of the railways which was to sound its death knell.
There were three long distance routes passing through towns in the Westmorland Dales, serviced in 1829 by four individual stagecoaches:
- Carlisle to York ‘The Express’ stopping at the Kings Head Tap, Bongate in Appleby
- Kendal to Glasgow via Carlisle ‘The New Times’ from the Kings Arms & ‘The Royal Bruce’ from The Commercial Inn
- Lancaster to Newcastle ‘The Lord Exmouth’ stopping at the King’s Arms Inn in Kirkby Stephen
‘The Express’ passed through Appleby three times a week on Mondays; Wednesdays and Fridays. It departed for Penrith and Carlisle at 7.30pm arriving in Carlisle at 10.30 the next morning. On the return journey it left Appleby at 10.30am and arrived in York via Brough and Bowes at 7.30pm.
‘The Lord Exmouth’ ran every day it seems. It left Kirkby Stephen for Lancaster at three o’clock. Travellers heading the other way to Newcastle had to be at the Kings Arms at ten o’clock the following morning.
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