The Stage-Coach Industry, its birth and growth
On the 9th April 1657 an advert appeared in Mercurius Politicus, a London Newspaper. A public coach service was about to start running between London and Chester. The 190 miles would take four days, and a passage cost 35 shillings.
Prior to this, anyone who needed to make a long journey through England would have had to walk or go on horseback, unless he was exceedingly rich, had his own private carriage, and the many servants necessary to support a journey.
Most of the new coach's passengers would have been travelling between London and Dublin. It was Chester's importance as a port that singled it out to be the terminus of this new form of public transport. Chester was the main port for travel between England and Ireland. Henry Cromwell was trying to improve relations between the two countries. More people were travelling between them.
The coach service was a success, other routes started, linking London with other major towns in the country. However, the timetable for this first coach was a little optimistic. Adverts two years later show that it was now taking five days for the journey.
At this time most main roads in England were just wide strips of land through which travellers had to pick a way as best they could. The good road surfaces left behind by the Roman civilisation eleven hundred years earlier had disappeared. They had disintegrated though lack of maintenance. In winter the roads became a quagmire. Travel was best reserved for the summer.
For a hundred years the public coaches plied their routes at the same pace: as fast as the horses could do the journey. Not very fast, because roads remained poor and the same horses had to drag the coach over the whole of its route. A series of wars and the resulting high taxes lead to conditions in which highwaymen and smugglers flourished. Travellers dare not venture out at night because of the risk of highway robbery.
Eventually, in the mid 1700s, life began to improve. The pace of commerce quickened. The Industrial Revolution had started. Industry relies on transport. It demanded improved transport services.
In the county of Lancashire, on Cheshire's northern border, the town of Manchester became a big industrial centre, heart of the world cotton manufacturing industry. The port of Liverpool developed links with suppliers and customers worldwide. In 1754, the Manchester Flying Coach was introduced, it still took four and a half days for the 182 miles to London. In 1758, the Liverpool Flying Machine was introduced. It did the 206 miles to London in only three days, the fare being two guineas.
"Flying" had originally implied speed. The new faster coaches used teams of horses stationed along the route and changed at regular intervals, and eventually the prefix "fly" came to signify this. In addition to the "Flying" coaches, fly-wagons carrying goods by road, and fly-boats on the canals were faster than ordinary wagons or boats because they, too, relied on regular changes of horse.
There followed a period of intense development of the roads and the services running on them. Many turnpikes were created. Road users had to pay, but that meant that, despite inefficiencies in the turnpike system, more money was spent on roads. Engineers such as "Blind Jack" Metcalf, and later John McAdam, and Thomas Telford straightened the routes, improved the road surface, and built bridges to take roads leaping over rivers. The "flying" horses and improved roads enabled stage-coaches to travel faster.
As road transport improved, Chester's importance as a port declined (it retained status as the county administrative centre). When roads had been bad, it was relatively faster for boats to struggle up the River Dee to Chester's inland location, 25 miles from the open sea. With improved roads, it became faster for passengers to go to the coast and embark there.
To make matters worse, navigation on the Dee estuary became more difficult as the river filled with sandbanks. The merchants of Chester tried to improve the navigation, but they struggled in vain as, over many years, their port headed along the Cheshire side of the Dee estuary towards the sea: from wharfs alongside the city walls, to Shotwick, to Burton, to Neston, to Parkgate, and to Hoylake, each new quay opened up, then silted up. By the end of the eighteenth century, the physical advantages of the Mersey estuary (its narrow entrance kept silt-free by strong tidal currents) had given the main international port to Liverpool.
Stage-coaches still came to Cheshire, but most of them now crossed the county, starting and ending their journeys in Manchester or Liverpool.
In 1784, the stage-coach industry was boosted by the introduction of mail-coaches. Until that time the Royal Mail had been carried on horseback, but coaches had become faster and had started (illegally) to carry some mail. To counter this, the Post Office set up a system of mail-coaches, run by coach operators under franchise. Mail-coaches were given privileges on the road, and allowed to carry a few passengers to share costs. They soon became the elite way to travel. Previously, coaches had been the domain of the aged and infirm, but now men of action and business, who had previously preferred the flexibility of horseback, began to eye the speed of the coach. Other coaches competed with the Mail and with each-other to go ever faster.
By 1797, stage-coaches were travelling between Manchester and London in thirty-six hours,
the mail-coach did the journey in only twenty-eight hours.
Further improvements to the roads, and shorter stages (the distance between horse changes), helped to speed the coaches.
Coaching inns arose everywhere to provide teams of fresh horses for coaches,
and sustenance for travellers.
The number of passengers increased, this led to even more coaches, new routes, ever shorter stages, faster speeds.
By 1830, stage-coaches were going just about as fast as was possible using only the power of horses. They had become fashionable conveyances each having a grand name. Their drivers were the elite workers of the period. Even their horses knew they were superior as they cantered, faster than any other conveyance, along "their" stretch of the turnpike.
The stage-coach industry had reached a degree of speed, reliability, and complexity far removed from its beginning 173 years earlier. Roads were rapid and safe. Travel was in vogue. Travellers with time and money had a very sophisticated set of travel facilities at their disposal.
Short routes enabled those living in small country towns and villages to visit the nearest big town, conduct some business there, and return home the same day. Longer routes criss-crossed the country, linking major towns, and many minor ones. The longer journeys usually involved an overnight stay, or at least overnight travel.
A stage-coach travelled about 100 miles in twelve hours, so for the 200 miles from Cheshire to London, Bristol, or Edinburgh, the traveller had a choice. Either travel non-stop and finish the journey in 24 hours, or stop overnight en-route and take two days. Those travelling longer distances had similar choices.
Mail and post coaches wooed the non-stop travellers. "Day coaches" and coaching inns provided an integrated service for those who preferred to rest overnight. To cater for day-coach travellers, several large towns, London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, etc., located about a hundred miles apart, had developed into travel-hubs. Each was the focal point for many stage-coach routes, and had several large Inns and Hotels.
In addition to overnight accommodation, the larger Coaching Inns also provided complex travel facilities. They could usually arrange a through-journey to anywhere in the country, and to the main continental European destinations. A journey may have needed several changes of stage-coach and overnight stops, but it could be arranged by the booking-clerk in the travel office of one of these Inns - for a price.
Stage-coaching had evolved into a number of specialist services, targeted at different needs and pockets. These included:
On main roads there were inns every eight or ten miles. Their main function was to provide fresh horses for coaches and post-chaises. It took just two minutes to change a team of four, then the coach was off on its next eight-mile stage. If spare time was available a stop may have lasted a little longer, giving passengers time to take refreshments and to make themselves comfortable, but a twenty-minute stop was a rare luxury on a stage-coach journey.
Horses were usually owned by an innkeeper and hired by the double mile (out and return). For a horse, an eight or ten mile stage was half a day's work. It then spent a short time eating and resting before drawing a coach travelling in the opposite direction, thus returning to its home stables. It usually rested on alternate days.
Coachmen (coach drivers) usually did about fifty miles before another took over. They expected a hefty tip from each passenger, and harassed those who did not give to expectation. Some coaching adverts listed the number of drivers for a given journey. This gave passengers an indication of the amount they would have to expend on tips.
Most coaches carried a guard. He also expected a tip. He usually stayed with the coach for the whole of its journey. On routes lasting 24 hours, the guard may not have been very alert by the end of the journey.
Most coaches carried four passengers inside, a few carried six. Earlier, outside passengers sat on the roof itself, but by 1830 seats were provided at that level. The law limited the number of outside passengers: in 1830 twelve were allowed on an ordinary stage-coach, but only one on a mail-coach, and many fast post-coaches voluntarily restricted themselves to none or just two.
The authorities tried hard to enforce the load limits and, near London, some men made a living as paid informers (they received a share of the fines). In the country, no doubt, a certain amount of overloading went unnoticed. One of the pressures to overload came from a standard practice in the stage-coach industry: when a coach picked up an unscheduled passenger by the road-side, the driver usually pocketed the fare.
The first coaches had been imported, but a local coach-building industry developed and British coaches were now respected for their fine lines and quality finish. However, coach design was still an art rather than a science. Some commonly agreed rules of good design were less that scientific. In particular it was felt that horses found it easier to pull a load carried high above ground. (Large wheels make a load easier to pull, but that is a different matter). This false assumption resulted in coaches being made top-heavy. Extra passengers and luggage were allowed at roof level at a time when coach bodies were being made lighter.
The most common accident to befall a coach was overturning. The trigger may have been the horses shying, bolting, or making a sudden turn, or a wheel breaking, going into a ditch, over a boulder or lump of compacted snow, but the result was usually the same: the coach fell onto its side. Outside passengers were not infrequently thrown to the ground. Many were injured or killed. Whatever the state of the horses before the accident, they often stampeded after one, dragging the wreckage of the coach some distance, adding considerably to the injuries.
Mail-coaches had priority on the road. All other road users were obliged by law to keep out of their way. The Mail did not have to stop at toll-gates. As it approached, the guard would play a vigorous tune on his horn to alert the toll-keeper, so he could have the toll-gate standing open. A similar tune was played on the approach to an Inn where a fresh team of horses should be waiting. At the main termini, Manchester, Liverpool, etc., passengers were first loaded at the coaching inns, then the mail-coach made its way to the Post Office to load the mail. In London, where a great many mail-coaches departed at the same time each evening, it became a socially accepted pastime to go the main Post Office at St Martin le Grand to "watch the mail depart".
Travel by stage-coach was very expensive, only the wealthy could afford it, and only the very wealthy could go by mail or post coach. Rather than quoting fares, which are difficult to understand due to inflation, it is revealing to look at the operating costs.
Taking as an example the Chester to London route, 188 miles in just under 24 hours. For a daily service in each direction the operators needed:
A full load was 5 passengers on a mail coach, 4 or 6 on a post-coach, and 16 on an ordinary stage-coach. Stage-coach proprietors had to obtain sufficient from an average load of passengers to cover the above costs, plus something for themselves and a profit for investors. (Mail-Coaches had a guard provided free by the Royal Mail, and did not have to pay road tolls, but they had to travel a route specified by the Mail, not necessarily the best route for passengers, and they still had to travel even when there were no passengers.)
Travel by coach was never comfortable. Those who could afford it took a seat inside. There, passengers (some of whom may have been less than pleasant after nights on the road) were crammed into a tiny space, and banged and jolted together for hours or days. The less well-off travelled outside at half the inside fare. In summer, with fair weather, this may have been an almost pleasant way to travel. But those who know the English weather will realise the potential pitfalls, even in summer, and particularly in winter.
A few packet-boats provided passenger services on the county's canals and rivers. Inland, they were horse-drawn. A journey by canal-packet was slower than by coach, but it was comparatively confortable. The boat had a smooth motion, none of the jolting and bumping of the coach. Passengers had space, they were not squeezed together in a small compartment. Various classes of accommodation catered for different pockets, but a journey between Manchester and Runcorn or Liverpool, in the coffee lounge of a Bridgewater Packet, gently winding its way through the tranquil Cheshire countryside, was probably the most luxurious form of travel then available.
Looking at the passenger transport services running in, to, or through, the county of Cheshire in the spring of 1830, and following them to destinations outside the county, there were 87 stage-coach routes (207 services each day), and 13 packet-boat routes (32 services). Most routes operated two services each day, one out and one back. A few routes did not operate every day. Some operated several times a day.
The north of Cheshire, and to a certain extent the east, were well provided with local stage-coach services. The inhabitants of most towns in those areas could travel into Manchester, conduct several hours business, and return home the same day. Those of the north of the county, could travel into Liverpool for a few hours business and be back in their own beds that night. Those of Macclesfield, Knutsford, and Northwich, could travel into Chester for a few hours business and return by nightfall. The south of the county was not so well served by local routes. If someone from Nantwich or Middlewich wanted do business in any of the local "big" towns, it would have involved an overnight stay.
Stockport was visited by 91 stage-coaches each day, more than any other Cheshire town. It was on the main road south from Manchester so saw a lot of long-distance coaches. It also had its own small network of market-coaches linking nearby towns, and medium distance links to Liverpool, etc.
Chester was second, with 62 stage-coaches each day. It was a focal-point in the Mail-Coach network, saw some coaches travelling south from Liverpool via the new Mersey steam ferries, was the centre for a number of routes serving North Wales, and had medium distance links to Manchester, Shrewsbury, etc. Most other towns in the county were visited by several stage-coaches each day, although many of these were on their way to Birmingham or London, so were not conveniently timed for local destinations. No village was more that five miles from a stage-coach route.
More distant destinations in the south of England and Wales were reached by changing in Birmingham or London, and those in Scotland and the north by going via Manchester or Liverpool. Ireland was reached via Holyhead or Liverpool. Most European destinations were reached via London and the cross-Channel ferries. Other continents were reached via Liverpool.
Some possible long distance itineraries are shown below, comparing, where relevant, posting (travelling non-stop) with day-coaching (resting overnight). To keep track of days each journey starts on a Monday.
In this era most of the population could not afford stage-coach fares. They did not leave their home village except for the occasional day visit to the local town. Those who had to travel walked. Their journeys may have been similar to the following:
The Stage-Coach Industry, death by steam
I chose to study travel in the spring of 1830 thinking that this was before steam had started to change the travel industry. I was wrong. Steam had not yet changed passenger transport by land, but paddle steamers had recently been introduced onto the county's rivers and on the shorter sea crossings. Steamers had greatly improved ferry services on the Dee and Mersey estuaries. For the first time, ferries could publish a timetable and keep to it. This benefited the stage-coach industry which had introduced improved services based on the new ferries.
It was a different story when the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened on the 15th September 1830. This was the first railway to successfully compete with stage-coaches. By comparison with stage-coach travel, the new railway was far more comfortable, it reduced journey times by half, reduced fares by half and, to rub salt into the wound, railway employees were not allowed to accept tips.
Earlier railways had not attracted many passengers. Their method of operation did not enable passengers to be carried swiftly. The L&M used the latest steam technology, but equally importantly it got the business model right. It created the formula for a public mass transport service. It revealed the future of land transport. This was just the start. Railway travel rapidly developed to become even faster, cheaper, and more luxurious.
Stage-coaches could not compete. By 19th November the Post Office (a conservative organisation) had transferred the Liverpool to Manchester Mail to the railway. In the spring of 1830, thirty coaches had run each day between Manchester and Liverpool, and more had run to Liverpool from towns surrounding Manchester (Stockport and Macclesfield among them). All were doomed. Two years later, only one was still running.
The new railway was extended southwards, reaching Birmingham in 1837, and London in 1838. The early trains travelled between Liverpool and London in 11 hours, compared to 24 hours by the fastest stage-coach.
"Railway Mania" hit the country. New railways were proposed everywhere. It took some years to extend railway coverage over the whole country. Some new stage-coach routes were started to act as feeders to the railway, but in general, wherever the railway went, stage-coach routes closed. The image of coaching had changed. From being the fastest mode of transport, the smart way to travel, coaches came to be seen as slow and old-fashioned. Engine Drivers, not Coachmen, were the new elite workers.
As stage-coach routes closed, tens of thousands were put out of work. Drivers, guards, ostlers, farriers, toll-keepers, innkeepers, booking-clerks, cooks, waiters, chamber-maids, coach-builders, harness-makers, providers of fodder, disposers of dung, most would lose their jobs. A similar thing happened to hundreds of thousands of horses.
The main roads changed from bustling highways full of fast long-distance travellers, to sleepy backwaters serving only local traffic. The turnpike trusts fell apart as their main source of revenue dried up and, shortsightedly, they hit motorised vehicles with penal tolls and restrictions, stifling inovation in the UK, and allowing Germany and France to take the lead in developing road transport. The immediate future of transport in the UK belonged to the railway.
Stage-coaches struggled on in gaps left by the railway. There were occasional revivals for sentimental reasons, or when the railways abused their monopoly powers, but for most people stage-coaches soon became a thing of the past.
Remnants of the stage-coach era do still exist. A remarkable number of old coaching inns can still be found, in town centres and villages and on old highways, often in the most unlikely places, thumbing a nose at modern regimentalising town planners. Their locations determined 200 years ago by the need to provide fresh horses there. They have survived because they continue to welcome visitors with good food and good cheer.
Carl's Cam, Coaches