Mail coaches

A whistlestop tour through the curious and dangerous history of British mail coaches.
Black and red horse drawn mail coach. Two large wooden wheels at the rear, and two smaller wooden wheels at the front. A window on each side. Beneath the window in gold coloured paint 'BRISTOL/ LONDON'. On the door panel beneath this in multi-coloured paint (predominantly gold coloured) 'ROYAL/ [royal coat of arms]/ MAIL'. Attached beneath the doors on either side are metal fold down steps. To the right of the window is the star of the Order of the Bath composed of rays of silver, charged with an eight pointed Maltese cross. In the centre are three imperial crowns, within a red band marked in gold 'TRIA JUNCTA IN UNO', the motto of the order. The central device is surrounded by two branches of laurel. To the left of the window is the star of the Order of St Patrick, an eight-pointed star at the centre of which is a shamrock bearing three crowns on top of the cross of St Patrick, red on white. This is surrounded by a blue circle bearing, in gold coloured lettering, the motto 'QUIS SEPERABIT MDCCLXXXIII'. On top of the mail coach cab is a bench with two black metal rails either side. In front of this is the driver's position with black cushions and a rail around the edge of the seat with folding back rest, and a sloped wooden foot plate. Below, on the coach body marked in gold coloured paint : 'GR' intertwined. Either side of this are attached metal steps. To the rear of the coach, the body is marked with gold coloured paint: 'No 105'. Above this is a metal stool-like seat with black cushion [cushions are not contemporary]. The interior of the coach is lined with grey material, and black seat cushions. A grey strap is attached to the inside of the window to allow opening/ closing. Horse hitching pole, red with black stripe, and rings and a hook at one end is unattached. This mail coach has been restored from several broken elements found discarded in a farmyard. The body work has been reconstructed on to the original 18th-century undercarriage

A restored 18th-century horse drawn mail coach (2006-0246)

  • Before the mail coach

    When a public postal service was first introduced in 1635, letters were carried between ‘posts’ by mounted post-boys and delivered to the local postmaster. The postmaster would then take out the letters for his area and hand the rest to another post-boy to carry them on to the next ‘post’. This was a slow process and the post-boys were an easy target for robbers, but the system remained unchanged for almost 150 years.

  • An oil painting showing a letter carrier delivering post on horseback to villagers

    The Village Post Office, 1853 (2002-0978)

  • John Palmer

    John Palmer, a theatre owner from Bath, had organised a rapid carriage service to transport actors and props between theatres and he believed that a similar scheme could improve the postal service.

    In 1782, Palmer sold his theatre interests, and went to London to lobby The Post Office. Despite resistance from senior Post Office staff, who believed the speed of the mail could not be improved, William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, accepted the idea. An experimental mail coach journey, undertaken at Palmer’s expense, started from Bristol on 2 August 1784, at 4pm.

    How long did it take?

    It reached London at 8am the next day, exactly on schedule. A journey from Bristol to London that had taken up to 38 hours now took just 16.

  • oil portrait of John Palmer

    Portrait of John Palmer, Oil on canvas (2004-0139)

Extension of the service

A map containing the mail coach routes across the South-West of England in 1814.

A map of Mr Aust’s district with the routes of the Penny Posts & 5th Clause Messengers, the distances of their walks outwards, the Receiving Houses etc. Corrected to April 1814 POST 21/123

  • The success of the trial led Pitt to authorise other mail coach routes and by spring 1785, coaches from London served Norwich, Liverpool and Leeds. By the end of that year there were services to Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle, and by 1786, the service had also reached Edinburgh. That same year, Palmer was made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office.

  • A map key depicting the colours used to annotate the routes.

    Key from POST 21/123

Method of operation

The mail coach, horses and the driver were all provided by contractors. Competition for the contracts was fierce because it meant status and a regular income in addition to passenger fares. The first mail coaches were poorly built but an improved patented coach, designed by John Besant, was adopted by The Post Office in 1787. Besant, later in partnership with John Vidler of Millbank, enjoyed the monopoly of supplying the coaches.

Every morning, when coaches reached London, they were taken to a constructor’s works, usually Vidler’s, to be cleaned and oiled. In the afternoon, they were returned to the coaching inns, where horses were hitched up for journeys to all parts of the country. Outside London, coaches also made journeys between the main post towns.

2011-0463/10 A hand-coloured non-photographic lantern slide of people and horse-drawn mail coaches in a courtyard, possibly outside the Bull & Mouth coaching inn. (2011-0463/10)

  • How fast were the coaches?

    The average speed of the coaches was usually 7-8 mph in summer and about 5 mph in winter, but with improvements to the quality of the roads, it had risen to 10 mph by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Mail coach guards

The only Post Office employee aboard the mail coach was the guard. He was heavily armed, carrying two pistols and a blunderbuss. He wore an official uniform of a black hat with a gold band and a scarlet coat with blue lapels and gold braid. He also had a timepiece, regulated in London to keep pace with the differences in local time, and recorded the coach’s arrival and departure times at each stage of the journey. The guard sounded a horn to warn other road users to keep out of the way and to signal to toll-keepers to let the coach through.

A Blunderbuss, 1788-1816. Believed to be of Post Office origin and used on Mail Coaches. Wooden, polished walnut stock and butt with decorative brass butt cap and mounts. Brass trigger guard protecting [iron] trigger. Brass 14 inch barrel with bore (or internal diameter) which widens towards the muzzle. Birmingham proof marks on barrel. Iron, non-decorated flintlock lock (firing mechanism) with flint present and mounted in a folded material [leather]; there is also a hinged bolt safety catch. No manufacturer's marking on lockplate. Non-original wooden ramrod with horn tip which slots into stock and ramrod pipes beneath the barrel.

A Blunderbuss, from around 1788-1816. (OB1995.338)

As the coach travelled through towns or villages where it was not due to stop, the guard would throw out the bags of letters to the Letter Receiver or Postmaster. At the same time, the guard would snatch from him the outgoing bags of mail. One guard, Moses Nobbs, served for 55 years (1836-1891) on coaches and later on trains.

Moses James Nobbs: (Last of the Mail Coach Guards) by H E Brown. (2004-0180)

Mail coach livery

From the establishment of Besant’s patent coach in 1787, the livery remained the same. The upper part of the coach was painted black while the door and lower panels were maroon. The wheels were what is now known as Post Office red. The Royal Coat of Arms appeared on the doors along with the title ‘Royal Mail’ and the name of the town at either end of the coach’s route. The stars of the four principal orders of knighthood – the Garter, the Bath, the Thistle, and St. Patrick – appeared on the upper panels of the body. The cipher of the reigning monarch was on the front boot, and the number of the coach on the back boot.

Mail Coach (2006-0246)

Travelling on the coaches

Initially, four passengers were carried inside the mail coach but later one more was allowed to sit outside next to the driver. The number of external passengers was increased to three with the introduction of a double seat behind the driver. No one was permitted to sit at the back near the guard or the mail box.

The mail coach travelled faster than the stage coach but whereas the stage stopped for meals where convenient for its passengers, the mail coach stopped only where necessary for postal business. The journey could get quite rough in places and the passengers had to get out and walk if the coach was going up a steep hill in order to save straining the horses. The contractors organised fresh horses at stages along the route, usually every 10 miles.

An oil painting of a Post Office Stage Coach

The Post Office Stage Coach (OB1997.294)

  • Lioness attack

    An unusual event occurred in October 1816 when the Exeter mail coach, while on its way to London, drew into the Pheasant Inn on Salisbury Plain. The leading horses were attacked by a lioness which had escaped from a travelling menagerie. The lioness then turned her attentions towards a large dog which had proceeded to attack her, which she chased and killed.

    The lioness’s owner eventually recovered her from underneath a nearby granary. The passengers had taken refuge inside the inn, bolting the door and stopping anyone else from entering.

  • A coloured print of a lion attacking one of four horses drawing a mail coach with two drivers. In the background is a large house with people standing in the window. On the print, under the image is 'THE LIONESS ATTACKING THE HORSE OF EXETER MAIL COACH./ To Thomas Hasker Esq. Superintendent of His Majesty's Mail Coaches. This print by permission is most respectfully Dedicated by his obedt [sic]. Sert [sic]. Robert Pollard. Drawn from the information of Joseph Pike, Guard of the Mail at the time of the event, on the Night of Sunday the 20th of Oct 1816 at Winterslow Hut near Salisbury. The ferocious Animal had escaped from the custody of an Exhibitor of Wild Beasts &c.'. Under the image:'To be had of the Book & Printsellers in Town & Country'.

    The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach, Print, 1817 (2009-0010)

Demise of the service

The development of the railways led to the end of the mail coaches, with railways first carrying mail on 11 November 1830, between Liverpool and Manchester. Other rail lines developed and by the early 1840s many London-based mail coaches were being withdrawn from service.

The last regular London based coach service was the London to Norwich, via Newmarket, which ended on 6 January 1846. Mail coaches survived however on services between some provincial towns until the 1850s. Many mail coach guards found continuing Post Office employment as mail guards on the trains.

Sources from the collection

POST 10: Inland Mails Organisation: Road (1786-1934)

POST 58: Staff: Nomination & Appointment (1737-1954)

POST 96: Private Collections: John Palmer (1786-1792)

POST 97: Private Collections: Lord Walsingham (1787-1794)

Portfolio collection

Harris, S. 1885. The Coaching Age.

Robinson, H. 1948. The British Post Office.

Vale, E. 1960. The Mail Coach Men of the late Eighteenth Century.