Stage coaches, Mail coaches and mere whipsters ~ Sue Millard tells all…

Now this is so tremendously cool I can hardly bear it!  (I may need to start fanning self…) 

Because today, for your edification and delight and pedantic gratification, I have here, on this very blog, someone who can tell you absolutely EVERYTHING about carriage driving and coaches and stage coaches and Mail coaches and the lot! 

It’s this kind of knowledge that I call thinking in old money!  It’s so wonderful!  Sesquisuperlative, even.  (Breathe, Bennetts, breathe…) But it’s absolutely essential to the historian or novelist who wants to go beyond the mere pretty picture to a practical, tangible understanding how they lived 200 years ago.

Hence I am chuffed to bits to be able to introduce you to Sue Millard, who’s going to take us through the paces.  (I know, bad pun!  Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.) 

She’s an experienced carriage driver–so listen to her, she knows what she’s talking about–she’s written on a novel about same (horsey heaven for the equine-minded!).  And I hope and pray I can talk her into writing another blog about curricles and phaeton driving for me/us.  So be extra-extra-nice to her.

Sue Millard: 
“I read a good deal of historical fiction.  I’m also a carriage driver, with 30 years of practice, and in order to research my current novel (Coachman!) I’ve ridden as a passenger for ten miles behind four horses put to a road coach.  So an author’s book will find itself in flight across my desk if it displays ignorance about carriage driving.  Even my much-read copy of Regency Buck, with Heyer’s fabulous curricle race from London to Brighton, has pencilled exclamation marks here and there.

“Driving is a huge subject, so in the space available I’ll concentrate on the commercial coaches: the stages, and the Mails.

“A Mail coach was one contracted to the King’s or Queen’s Post Office, and was painted black and maroon, with red wheels and undercarriage. Its primary function was to carry post as efficiently as possible, seating only 8 passengers (four inside, three on top and one beside the coachman).

“The guard, who was responsible for the safe arrival of the Mail, sat in lonely austerity on a single seat behind, loading and unloading mailbags, keeping the driver up to his schedule, and completing his waybill with times of arrival and departure from set points on the journey.  A letter could travel from London to Liverpool in 24 hours – so the Mail was speedy, and expensive, but not restful.

“A stage coach was a commercial proposition, carrying up to 15 passengers – four insiders, and three bench seats on the roof each carrying three outsiders (or four skinny ones), and perhaps two beside the coachman.  Stage coaches tended to allow for meal breaks, so I’m sure they were more popular with the innkeepers than the Mails were.

“Routes and timetables were published, but routes were combined where customers proved scarce.  Some offered daytime-only coaches during winter, then put on an additional night coach in summer.  Others, ‘butterflies’, ran in summer only.

“Stage coaches were brightly painted in their company’s colours, and had names, like Red Rover, Reliance, Regulator, Albion, Greyhound, Emerald, Rocket.  Every named ‘coach’ was really four vehicles – one going up the road, one down, and one spare at each end of the journey in case of breakdown.  Mails, on the other hand, were known by their destination out of London, like ‘the Liverpool Mail’.  Only the Exeter Mail was known as ‘Quicksilver’.

“Commercial coachmen drove anything between forty and sixty miles, this distance being called their ‘ground’, and guards, particularly on Mails, might travel very much farther, sometimes remaining with the coach for a full day’s journey.

“Often ignored by authors is the army of support staff, the yard men, porters, and ostlers.  They fed and watered and groomed and harnessed the right animals at the right time so they were ready for the coach to arrive, and often to depart only a minute or two later – yes, to unhitch four horses in that time, and put the fresh team in.  John Parker’s grooms hold the modern world record for a change of 21.2 seconds.

“A coachman adjusted the reins and bitted the horses to suit their tempers and his hands.  A ‘whip’ was the term for a skilful driver, who could use the lash, either folded or unfurled, to move the horses over sideways, as a rider would use his leg, thus keeping the pole and splinterbar going in the correct direction before the coach made a tricky turn.  He would only make the lash sting if a horse played up, and to use a five foot stick with a ten foot lash on that offender alone, perhaps in the dark or in windy conditions, truly required great skill.

“Only the older coachmen of a more brutal era used the ‘short Tommy’ which was kept to thrash the last ounce of effort out of an exhausted team.  William Chaplin, the greatest of the London coaching proprietors in the 1830s, was instrumental in having this infamous tool more or less banned from the City.

“Unlike riding, driving is COLD work!  Coachmen wore gloves, heavy coats, aprons to keep off the rain, neckcloths ditto and waterproof beaver hats.  They were relatively inactive, and they had no central heating from a nice warm animal!

“For passengers, travelling inside was noisy and claustrophobic and smelly if the windows were closed, plus the chance of motion-sickness if you had your back to the horses.  Travelling outside was cold, even in summer (think of British seaside holidays), and in dry weather the dust of the road smelled and tasted of dung.

“Coaching teams of four achieved an average of between 9 and 14 mph over ten-mile stages, by combining walk/trot/canter as the ground permitted.  At the end of their stage, the team was changed for a fresh one.

“Horses worked in neck collars with hames, in order to deal with the weight of the coach, which could be up to 3 tons when loaded. Horses lean their weight into the collar, which is attached to the bars, that pull the coach, by long leather traces, from the Latin verb that gives us ‘tractor’ and ‘traction’.  And only on modern Christmas cards have horses ever been put to a coach without traces.

“The horses were directed by the reins or ‘ribbons’.  Basic braking was effected by pole chains from the wheel-horses’ collars to the pole-head, and steering both by the chains and by the traces acting on the solid splinter-bar above the front wheels.

“The soundtrack to the Road is the heavy grinding of iron tyres on stone; the wonderful rhythm of sixteen trotting horseshoes; the ripple of the chains from the wheel-horses’ collars to the pole; the chatter of the bars at the pole head when descending a hill; the scream of an iron brakeshoe chained under a hind wheel by the guard – and the occasional oath when the friction-heated shoe is taken off again!”

For more information, Sue also has a blog: and a website:  Do check them both out. 


20 comments on “Stage coaches, Mail coaches and mere whipsters ~ Sue Millard tells all…

  1. Sue Millard says:

    I should add that the maximum number of passengers on Mail or Stage was that permitted by licence, and later coaches (1830s) carried more than those of the Regency era pictures here.

  2. mesmered says:

    Wonderful information.

  3. Truly brilliant blog – really enjoyed it – well done Sue!

  4. Thank you for all this great information! Excellent article.

  5. Marvelous article! And as for “They fed and watered and groomed and harnessed the right animals at the right time so they were ready for the coach to arrive, and often to depart only a minute or two later – yes, to unhitch four horses in that time, and put the fresh team in. John Parker’s grooms hold the modern world record for a change of 21.2 seconds.” Well, these men would put a modern Indie 500 pit crew to shame!

  6. Sue Millard says:

    HI Florence Dove – that modern world record was actually done against a pit crew at a big horse show – and the pit crew lost!

    Thanks everyone – nice to know it’s useful info 🙂

  7. […] Stagecoaches, Mail Coaches and mere Whipsters Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  8. Grace Elliot says:

    Vivid and informative,thank you.
    G x

  9. bob stewart says:

    wonderful blog. could smell the dust, feel the jolts and catch the sense of excitement. thanks for the journey

  10. colin moffatt says:

    I would like to know the various paint colours used on stage coaches

  11. […] But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…) […]

  12. […] Stage coaches, Mail coaches and mere whipsters […]

  13. […] Still worrying about horses and carriages and distances? For the real low-down on horse-drawn travel in days gone by, read Sue Millard’s excellent post on horses and carriages here. […]

  14. Andrew says:

    Really enjoyable and interesting Sue. I work in High Street Ware which I believe was an important coaching town in the 18th and 19th centuries. Do you have any specific information about Ware’s role in coaching. The town allegedly had over 100 pubs in its pomp.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s