Stamps, Horses, and Wheels: The Mail Coach History

In the age of email, we tend to forget the importance of letters. However, letters and the public postal service changed the way that we lived. Today we want to explore the mail coach history. Today it is only a dim and distant memory, but they were once a common sight throughout Europe and beyond. At HankiesHandkisses we love all things 19th century and want to share the history of the mail coach with you.

From Papyrus to Post

Since the dawn of time, there have been letters. Some have been recovered from Egypt dating back to the times of the Pharaohs. In Roman times, riders carried letters between cities. During the Middle Ages, letters were mostly exchanged by traveling merchants. However, as literacy levels increased in the 17th century, the need for a public postal service became evident. The first public postal service was organized in Britain during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). However, it seems that as early as the 1620s, royal officials could deliver letters for a fee. There were no stamps at this time.

One problem with this system was its inability to manage the increasing volume of letters. Furthermore, those delivering letters were often targeted by robbers. As often as not, mail was lost or misdirected. By the 1690s, France had a rudimentary postal service, which was overseen by the royal government. Much of it was in private hands and involved stagecoaches carrying passengers and bags of mail. These were not strictly mail coaches.

The Birth of The Mail Coach in Britain

In the theatrical sphere of the 1780s, amidst the resounding applause and the smell of the greasepaint, a gentleman by the name of John Palmer hatched a simple yet brilliant idea that would change history.

He would often whisk his troupe of actors from town to town across England, their journeys fueled by the steady hoofbeats of stagecoaches. He marvelled at their speed, their grace, and their ability to carry his dreams from Bath to London in just a day’s journey. His successful career in the theatre had allowed him to rub shoulders with the influential, and the seeds of an ingenious idea began to take root.

His brainchild? To repurpose these stagecoaches, tailoring them for a single, noble purpose – delivering mail. He envisioned them swifter, more reliable – the beating heart of a revolutionized postal service. His proposal was met with stiff resistance from the Post Office, a hurdle on the path of his revolutionary dream. But destiny had a champion waiting in the wings: William Pitt, the future Prime Minister, who saw the promise in Palmer’s plan.

To convince the skeptics, Palmer needed proof. The stage was set in 1782, as he was granted a chance to test his brainchild. A dedicated mail coach was commissioned to race from Bristol to London, its progress keenly watched and timed. As the curtain lifted on the 2nd of August, the first dedicated mail coach embarked on its inaugural journey from Bristol, triumphantly arriving in London in less than a day – a feat much quicker than any delivery the Post Office had previously seen.

The result left Pitt, and indeed the nation, in awe. In the following years, over three dozen routes sprang to life, with mail coaches becoming the lifeblood of England’s communication system. The echoes of their success rang out far and wide, reaching as far as Scotland, Ireland, and Australia. The stagecoach, once a simple mode of transport, had now become a symbol of progress, carrying with it the aspirations and messages of an entire nation.

Mail Coach – A New Design

Image by G.C. from Pixabay

Imagine, if you will, the thunderous rhythm of hooves against cobblestones, the thrilling creak of wooden wheels spinning rapidly, and the wind in your hair as you traverse the countryside at a pace faster than you’ve ever experienced. This was the exhilarating world of the mail coach, the ingenious successor to the stagecoach.

This wooden marvel was drawn by a lively ensemble of up to six horses, each chosen for their strength and stamina. Every twelve miles, these gallant steeds were interchanged, a seamless dance perfected over time. Like a clockwork orchestra, the mail coach moved with a sense of purpose and urgency.

As you stepped up to its body, you would find seating for four, an exclusive experience requiring a heftier fare than the commonplace stagecoach. Often, these seats were shared not with fellow passengers, but with bulging mail bags bursting with letters, and also old postcards later on, from across the realm.

The journey was an adventure. When the coach approached an uphill climb, passengers had to disembark and continue on foot until they conquered the top, where they would rejoin their carriage. Occasionally, one could experience the thrill of an open-air ride, perched on the upper outside seats, feeling the rush of the wind and the raw beauty of the landscapes.

Despite its speed, the mail coach’s voyage was not always the smoothest. It dashed over rutted and uneven roads, causing its occupants to jostle uncomfortably in their seats. Ladies in their elaborate dresses might have found the journey particularly challenging. Yet, many relished the thrill of it, their hearts pounding in sync with the horses’ rhythmic gallop.

For a closer glimpse into the exhilarating experience of a mail coach ride, one needs to look no further than the evocative essay “The English Mail Coach“. Embark on this written journey, and let the past come alive with each turn of the page.

The mail coach always had to have a guard. The mail they carried often contained valuables or cash apart from letters and early postcards (for examples of these see HandkiesHandkisses). The guard was stationed at the back and usually had a gun, this was typically a blunderbuss. This meant that robbers were less likely to rob the post. The guard had a watch to monitor the progress of the coach and would blow a horn to warn people that the mail-coach was coming.

Mail coaches’ advantage was speed and security. Soon there were mail coaches all over Britian and beyond. The upper part of the coach was painted black and the lower end painted maroon. While the wheels had been painted in a bright red now known as post office red.

At first, the coaches were an assortment of styles, each unique in its design. However, the scene transformed when John Beasant brought forth his brilliant innovation, a uniform and efficient design that he later patented.

Mail Coach History in Europe

In France, big mail coaches named for their inventor Turgot were introduced in 1765. They were for both passengers and mail coaches but they were not a real success.  During the Revolution, the French army employed some mail coaches but generally relied on post riders. The introduction of prepaid postage stamps increased the volume of letters. Increasingly European countries adopted the mail coach. On French roads the solidly built diligence, became well-known as it delivered and collected mail. This was widely imitated in Germany, Italy, and France. Each national mail coach had their own colours. The impact of the coaches has been termed the ‘mail coach’ revolution by many European historians.

Mail Coach History in Wild West

Image by toptop54 from Pixabay

Stages coaches were widely used in Pre-Revolutionary America. Coachmen occasionally acted as post men. Mail coaches became a common sight on American roads by 1800. These coaches were unreliable and often broke down. In 1827 the Concord stagecoach was introduced was a revolutionary suspension. Dedicated, mail coaches were increasingly built, and these were distinct from the stagecoach because they had a large compartment for the mail underneath the driver’s seat. The mail coach was often attacked by robbers and bandits in the Wild West. But in reality, more employees died while working on mail coaches in accidents caused by mules and horses. The US Mail contracted the delivery of mail to private companies. By the 1850s the Overland Express carried mail and people from the East to the West Coast.

The Final Journey of the Mail Coach

The relentless march of progress echoed through England’s landscape, ringing the death knell for the once revolutionary mail coach. In 1830, the first mail train surged forward between London and Manchester, marking the beginning of an inevitable transition.

The sturdy, horse-drawn mail coach, a symbol of connection and progress, found itself in an unfair race against the iron behemoth of the train. By the 1850s, only a handful of these noble vehicles continued their routine, threading their way through the lanes of provincial towns, a reminiscent echo of a fading era.

The railways, with their irresistible allure of speed and efficiency, became the new carriers of correspondence on the 11th of November, 1830, when the first mail-laden train chugged between Liverpool and Manchester. As the network of rail lines grew, London-based mail coaches bowed out one by one, their services no longer needed in the early 1840s. The guards, once the keepers of the mail coaches, found new roles aboard the railcarriages, transitioning along with the times.

While the transformation was swift in England, the railways took a slower route across Europe. The resilient mail coach endured well into the late 19th century, its heart still beating in sync with the hooves of its trusty steeds. However, the mail train eventually claimed victory, mirroring the same fate as its predecessor.

Across the Atlantic, in the vast expanses of the United States, the story unfolded similarly. The Wild West held onto the mail coach longer than most, its legacy living on until the closing years of the 19th century. Yet, eventually, even here, the mail coach’s galloping days drew to an end, replaced by the steady rhythm of the railway’s heartbeat.

 Today the surviving examples are held in museums, and they are admired for the beauty of their workmanship.

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