The first public postal service in Britain began in 1635 with letters carried from post to post in bags by ‘post boys’ on horseback. The boys delivered their bags to a local post master who kept letters local to them and forwarded ongoing letters via another post boy.
The nationwide service was let to regional contractors. This advert is for the hire of horses for ‘travelling Post’ in 1799, we’re not sure if these are for postboys to ride on or for hauling mail coaches:
It reads as follows:
“STAMP-OFFICE, SOMERSET PLACE, December 3rd, 1799
We, His Majesty’s Commissioners for managing the Stamp Duties, duly authorized by the Lords Commissioners of his Majesty’s Treasury, pursuant to Act of Parliament, to let to farm the Duties granted by “An Act on the 26th of His present Majesty, on Horses let to hire for travelling Post, and by Time,” do hereby give Notice, that we intend to let, at our Office, in Somerset Place, the said Duties to farm, on Tuesday the 7th of January next, between the Hours of Ten and Twelve in the Forenoon, according to the Districts in the Statement under-mentioned, and to put the same up at the Sums placed opposite to each, for the Term of three Years, from the 1st Day of February next, to such Persons as may be willing to contract for the same. All Persons intending to farm the said Duties are to deliver in their Proposals to us, at the Stamp-Office, in Somerset Place, at least three Days previous to the said 7th Day of January next, signed with their Names, stating the Places of their Abode, and specifying the District for which they intend to bid, or their Proposals cannot be proceeded on, as directed by the said Act. No Persons licensed to let Horses for the Purpose of travelling Post, nor any Persons for their Use, can be admitted to contract for said Duties.
A Statement of Districts for farming out the Post-Horse, &c. Duties.
NO DISTRICTS PRODUCE
1 North Britain £5,274
2 Northumberland; Cumberland; Westmorland; Durham £3,508
The above Sums are the gross Amounts of the Duty arising within each District respectively for the Year ending on the 1st of August 1787…”
Newcastle Courant – Saturday 21 December 1799
The service was slow and not terribly reliable as the boys were easy targets for robbers, but the system served the country for well over 150 years.
The delivery of mail was revolutionised in 1784 when a visionary ex-theatre owner John Palmer took it upon himself to persuade the government and The Post Office management to take up his tried and tested methods for a faster service using horse-drawn coaches. He’d perfected the system moving people and theatre props between venues in his former job. He was allowed to organise (and pay for!) a trial run of mail from Bristol to London using a light four wheeled coach drawn by four horses. He smashed the normal time from 38 hours to just 16. The Royal Mail coach service was born.
Read more about Palmer and the development of the Mail Coach post service in this British Postal Museum & Archive Factsheet
Ann Woodley has also written in detail about the history of the Mail Coach on her Regency Collection website.
The service spread rapidly and by 1787 it had reached Glasgow. Mail coach designs were improved and as turnpikes were built and road surfaces got better, the times got faster, 10 or more miles per hour. The mail coaches became the standard method of delivering mail over long distances. The coaches were smartly painted and carried a well-armed and liveried guard on an outside seat at the back. The mail coach didn’t have to pay toll fees on turnpike roads and the gatekeepers were warned to open up their toll gates by the guard on the coach blowing his post horn as they galloped towards them. If the gate wasn’t opened in time the toll keeper could face a fine for delaying the mail.
The presence of the guard; the speed and reliability of the service and the fact that they were only allowed to carry limited numbers of passengers and amounts of luggage meant they were a much safer and faster way to travel than the privately-run stage coach so people were willing to pay a higher price for a seat.
The coaches, horses and drivers were operated under private contracts. There was fierce competition for the contracts as not only was there the guaranteed Post Office income for carrying the mail there was money to be made from carrying passengers.
New Royal Mail routes were advertised in local newspapers, like this one starting from the Commercial Inn in Kendal in 1829. ‘Four inside’ refers to the number of passengers that could be accommodated inside the coach.
Trade Directories also advertised the Royal Mail coach times and stopping places in towns. Both Kendal and Appleby had a regular service passing through on their well-maintained turnpike roads.
From the KING’S ARMS, Stricklandgate [Kendal]…
London, The Royal Mail, through Lancaster, Preston, Manchester, Macclesfield, Leek, Ashbourn, Derby & Northampton, d. ½ p. 11 night, ar. ½ p. 1 mg.
Penrith, Carlisle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, The Royal Mail, to Glasgow, by way of Gretna, Ecclefechan, Lockerby, Beatock Bridge, Douglas Mill, and Hamilton, to Edinburgh, by way of Longtown, Langholm, Hawick, Selkirk & Dalkeith, d. ½ p. 1 mg. ar. 12 ngt. “
History, Directory & Gazetteer of Cumberland & Westmorland, 1829 p668
Royal Mail, to Glasgow, dep. Half-past 10 evg. ; arr. ¼ before 3 mng.
Royal Mail, to London, dep. ¼ before 3 mng. ; arr. Half-past 10 evg…
The Coaches stop at the King’s Head Tap, Bongate [Appleby] ; and passengers and parcels are booked for the Royal Mail by Mrs. Mary Richardson, Bridge street. “
History, Directory & Gazetteer of Cumberland & Westmorland, 1829 p529
Notice that the service would run right through the night as well as daylight hours, virtually nothing stopped it. For a particularly vivid and rather comical account of a mail coach stop at an inn take a look at this Scottish ‘chapbook’ printed some time between 1816 and 1820 and now at the National Library of Scotland. It was meant to be read (and sung!) aloud, no doubt to the great amusement of those listening.
If for any reason the coach couldn’t continue it was up to the guard to unharness a horse or continue on foot to their destination with the all important bags of mail as shown in the James Pollard illustrations below.
Unsurprisingly, snow was a major issue on the routes north from Kendal over Shap Fell in the winter months and the mail guards must have really earned their wages on those occasions.
“DETENTION OF THE MAILS.- On Saturday last, the mail and other coaches, from the north, did not reach this town till after six in the evening, although they were due a little after two o’clock in the afternoon. The drifts of snow on Shap Fells were described as being of an immense size. Many of our local carriers did not arrive at all – being, in some instances, set fast. Mr Burton’s inn at High Borrow Bridge, is said to have been crowded to overflowing, during Saturday and Sunday, with adjourners of all descriptions.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 23 March 1844
Accidents seem to have been few and far between, but a drunk coach driver could put everyone in danger. The ‘outside passenger’ in the following newspaper report was someone who rode either beside or later on, behind the coach driver on top of the coach. These seats were cheaper than the inside ones for obvious reasons.
“KENDAL PETIT SESSIONS – …Friday. – William Woolmer, the inspector of coaches for this district, appeared before the mayor, Edward Tatham, and Thos. Proudfoot, Esqrs., to lay an information against John Ellwood, a mail coach driver, for drunkenness whilst on the box. The Magistrates, however, thought that the case did not come within the meaning of the stage coach act, as Elwood, was stopped from endangering anyone’s life, by an outside passenger jumping off the coach whilst taking in the letter-bags at the Post-office, and refusing to get on if he was suffered to drive. The guard then compelled him to descend, and another coachman mounted in his place. 5s. was the fine inflicted.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 07 October 1837
The theft of oats from a stable of mail coach horses in Kendal in 1841 reveals the fact that women also ran Royal Mail coach services, in this case the Misses Burney of Burton-in-Kendal:
“William Brown stood indicted for stealing on the night of the 13th March last a quantity of oats from a stable in the White Horse yard, in this town [Kendal], the property of Jesse and Eleanor Burney, of Burton.
The prisoner pleaded not guilty, and objected to Mr R. Harling, maltster, as a juryman.
Mr Boustead briefly detailed the facts of the case to the jury, and called the following witnesses:-
John Airey – I am an ostler, and live in Kendal. I am a servant to the Misses Burney, of Burton. I attended upon the mail coach horses for them. The horses are kept in a stable in the White Horse yard. The stable is farmed of Mr W. Wilson of the White Horse Inn. I always lock the stable door when I leave it. I keep the key in my own possession. I have the charge of the corn which is in a binn [sic] in the stable. I never lock the binn. I remember going to the stable on the night of the 13th of March last. I went there for the purpose of harnessing the horses for the mail coach. It was a little past ten o’clock in the night. The mail coach leaves Kendal at ten minutes past eleven o’clock. When I got to the door of the stable I observed that it was open. I am positive I left the door locked. I am sure that I never missed locking the door. I swear I locked the door on that particular night, and put the key in my pocket. When I went to the stable on the night in question, I found a skeleton key in the lock. I cannot give a minute description of that key. When I first went into the stable I did not observe any person there, but when I was harnessing one of the horses I trode [sic] upon a man. He was lying in the farthest stall of the stable. I immediately left the stable, and went and told Mr Wilson there was a man in the stable. When I came out of the stable I shut the door, and fastened it by putting the link on the lock staple. A person could not then open the door from the inside. Mr Wilson and myself then went in company to the stable. We had a light with us. We found the prisoner at the bar in the place I have described before. I know that the prisoner did keep a hack horse. I am not aware that he has one now. I can’t swear how long it is since he kept a horse. I never employed the prisoner to harness or clean the horses that are under my care. I am certain the prisoner never harnessed one of my horses.
Cross-examined by Mr Ramsey – The prisoner never did an odd job for me, but he has sometimes come into the stable when I have been harnessing the horses. The prisoner had no sack with him. I don’t know that the prisoner ever took oats before. I won’t swear that there is not another key about the premises that will open the lock. When I trode upon the prisoner he did not speak. He was much the worse for liquor at the time. I have seen many a horsekeeper drunk in the stable. It is quite a common occurrence. I have taken a few pots of ale myself at times. I had rather slept in bed than in the stall of a stable. I positively swear I never employed the prisoner to do odd jobs for me. I keep a man under me. That person had gone out of town on that night. The prisoner may have swept my stable on his own account.
Mr Wilson of the White Horse Inn was then called, who corroborated the statement of the witness Airey.
Robert Hutchinson – I am a police constable. I remember being sent for to the White Horse Yard on the night in question. I took the prisoner in charge and brought him to the station house. I searched him, and found oats in three different pockets of his coat. I took a sample of the oats from the binn in the stable and compared it with the oats found upon the prisoner. They corresponded.
Cross-examined by Mr. Ramshay – I have compared two eggs together, but never found them to correspond in shape. I never know two eggs of a size. The prisoner was the worse for liquor; but I should certainly say he knew what he was about. He could converse, and asked for bail.
Mr. Ramshay then addressed the jury on behalf of the prisoner in a very ingenious speech.
The Chairman having summed up, the Jury retired, and on their return into court gave a verdict of “Not Guilty.””
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 17 April 1841
By the time this case came to court, the heyday of the mail coach was past. The arrival of the railway meant that the mail could be transported at speed all over the country in almost all weathers. In Westmorland and other rural areas, the mail coach survived for a while as a service complimentary to the railway, indeed, some railway companies organised their own mail coaches to carry mail from stations out to towns not served by their trains.
It seems that the local ‘Locomotive Company’ in Kendal wasn’t always scrupulous about attempting to out-compete its rivals by laying on a complimentary coach service called ‘The Engineer’ in opposition to the regular mail coach ‘The Fair Trader’, as this newspaper clipping shows. The speed of the horse-drawn service is quite remarkable at 15 mph:
In the end the horse-drawn mail coach could no longer compete with the superior speed of the train. The guards often ended their working days as train guards and the horses were sold in their hundreds.
“The horses belonging to the late Whitehaven and Kendal mail coach company, were sold on Thursday week at Whitehaven. The attendance of buyers was numerous. The horses forty-five in number averaged 16l [£16] each, about the same price as the mail horses averaged at the late sale at the King’s Arms, Kendal.”
The Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 12 June 1847
Local mail still needed to be delivered and horse drawn gigs were employed to carry the uniformed post man and mail bags around the district. Anne Taylor sent us this postcard saying “
“No date, note on the back of the postcard reads “Mr W Bainbridge, driver of the mail gig, Kirkby Stephen.” There is a bit more that is difficult to read but suggests the horse was stabled at Redmayne/Redman House. Both spellings for the house are used; Redmayne House is a Georgian house, Grade II listed, in Silver Street, now a B&B“
The Post Office where the mail would have been sorted for delivery lay on Victoria Square in Kirkby Stephen and Anne tells us that the house is still colloquially known as the Old Post Office.
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