Mail Transport Experiments during Victorian Times

Coach, train or pentacycles? Senior Curator Julian takes you on a journey of the mail transport revolution.

The Victorian era witnessed some of the most dramatic developments in the transport of mail that has ever occurred. When Victoria was born in May 1819 almost all mail was being carried through towns and across mainland Britain by foot, on horseback or in simple horse-drawn carts and wagons.

The Village Post Office, 1853 (2002-0978)

Mail Coaches

The speediest of mail carriage was provided by the swift Mail Coaches that had first commenced running 2 August 1784. Mail Coach livery was impressive: black and maroon painted body with bright red wheels. Even the Mail Coach guard was provided with a bright red uniform.

A black and red 18th century mail coach against a white background

Royal Mail Coach, c.1783 (2006-0246)

Moses James Nobbs, last of the Mail Coach Guards. Watercolour Painting by H E Brown.
c 1890

When Victoria became Queen on 20 June 1837 the Mail Coaches were already on their last legs. The last London based Mail Coach, between London and Norwich, via Newmarket, ran in April 1846. Many had already ceased operating as their passengers had switched allegiance to the new railways.

A brief cross-over from the Mail Coaches to the Railway. The Louth – London Mail Coach was loaded at Peterborough onto the newly opened Peterborough – Blisworth Railway. (2009-0071)

Because Mail Coaches were subsidised by passenger fares they became unprofitable and contractors begged to be released from their contracts with the Post Office. The last mail coach was probably the ‘Derby Dilly’, which ran between Manchester and Derby in 1858. This ceased on the opening of the Midland railway line to Rowsley.

A move to the rails

The first carriage of mail by rail was on 11 November 1830 on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway that had only begun operating the previous month. Trains were speedy (compared to Mail Coaches), and reliable.

A powerful piece of legislation, The Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act, 1838 granted the Post Office power over the UK’s railways. The Postmaster General could call on any railway to run a train, especially for mail at times fixed by him. Railway companies were also required to supply and fit out sorting carriages for mail. For a while, guards still sat atop the railway carriages, just as they had on the Mail Coaches.

Travelling Post Office – First North Eastern Railway coach, 1881 (POST 118/792)

A converted horse box, temporarily fitted with letter sorting frames, was successfully operated between Birmingham and Liverpool on the Grand Junction Railway from 20 January 1838. Specially built dedicated Travelling Post Office (TPO) carriages began running soon after. These TPOs continued to operate until the night of 9 January 2004.

A Travelling Post Office, showing extended net and pouches, approaches a Bag Exchange Apparatus (no number)

A Travelling Post Office, showing extended net and pouches, approaches a Bag Exchange Apparatus

One remarkable feature on many TPOs was the mail bag exchange apparatus. A special iron frame and mechanism on the side of sorting carriages exchanged heavy leather pouches of mail with similar apparatus erected trackside, all while the train was running. The very first dedicated TPO was fitted with such an apparatus and these continued until the final exchange in 1971. After this date, trains simply stopped at stations to exchange mail bags.

Other road services

Victorian contractors operated a great number of horse-drawn mail carts and vans for the Post Office. McNamara alone had a fleet of 260 mail vans in London in the 1890s. The number of horses being used for the transport of mails across the UK was immense.

In 1893 McNamara had 600 horses at their central quarters in Finsbury alone. Also, for ‘out of London’ duties, they kept 42 horses on the Brighton road working the Parcels Coach, and 26 horses for the Tunbridge Wells mail service. Other contractors would also have been using similar numbers for their mail services. It wasn’t just horses either, donkeys were drawn into service on a few rural cart deliveries.

The Post Office’s strict specification for contractors to build vehicles for their contracted mail services (POST 10-206/12)

Because the Post Office paid so much to the railways for carrying mails, especially parcels, it started a brand-new form of road service in 1887. The Royal Mail Parcel Coaches were large and again operated by contractors, this time with a heavily armed Post Office guard accompanying the mails.

Royal Mail Parcel Coach c.1900 prior to setting off on the London-Brighton run. (H4087)

Queen Victoria may have seen many of the large number of horse-drawn mail vans, but it is unlikely that she would have witnessed some other experiments. Tricycles were used experimentally for mail delivery in 1880 in Coventry.

This was followed by experiments with five-wheeled Centre Cycles, colloquially known as ‘Hen and Chicks, used in the Horsham district in Sussex. Quite large numbers of bicycles were purchased in 1897 when the radius for the free delivery of telegrams increased from one to three miles.

Further experimentation

Other experiments were more radical. An electric parcel van was trialled in the City of London in 1894. A steam driven van carried the mails between London and Reigate for nine weeks in 1897 but it struggled with the weight.

A steam-powered Daimler motor van – one of the earliest ever used for mail conveyance, 1898 (POST 118/5726)

The following year, trials were held with oil (petrol) driven mail cars and the internal combustion engine has remained the favoured vehicle until today. However, experiments are yet again being held with electrically powered vans, lorries and cycles.

Pop into our exhibition to see the grand Bristol-to-London Mail Coach from the 1800s for yourself.

– Julian Stray, Senior Curator