Post Boys & Mail Coaches
"Them as 'ave seen coaches afore rails came into fashion 'ave seen something worth rememberin'! Them was 'appy days for old England, afore reform and rails turned everything upside down."
Recollections of a coachman, St Martin's-le-Grand Magazine.
Even before Henry VIII established the office of 'Master of the Posts' in the early 1500s, horses were used to speed the delivery of the king’s despatches ('royal mail') throughout the country. Sir Brian Tuke was appointed by Henry to oversee a system of riders travelling in relay between 'Posts', or stages.
The post routes extended from London to Scotland, Holyhead, Falmouth and Dover for mainland Europe. Each post was about 20 miles in length, the distance a horse could comfortably travel at speed, before needing to be replaced.
From 1574, each 'Post Master' had to have at least three horses available for use. At the sound of the approaching Post Boy’s horn, his own Post Boy was made ready to start the next stage of the journey. The work of the Post Boys was both uncomfortable and dangerous. Time could be lost through hold-ups by highwaymen, or just the perils of bad weather.
In the late 18th century, John Palmer, a theatre manager of Bath, complained to the Post Office about the slowness of mail delivery. He proposed a system whereby mail was delivered by horse-drawn coach, with swift changes of horses every 10 miles. This would allow a high average speed and increased security for the mail.
The trial mail coach run from Bristol to London took only 16 hours, a remarkable speed for the time. The first regular mail coach route was therefore established from Bristol to London, via Bath, on 2 August 1784.
Mail coach guards were employees of the Post Office (the only ones on the coaches). They sat outside, on top of the coach, armed with a blunderbuss and a brace of pistols to safeguard the mails.
The guards blew a horn to alert other road users to give way to the oncoming mail coach. The sound of the horn also alerted coaching inns of a coach’s imminent arrival. A fresh team of horses would therefore be set for a quick changeover. You can see this in the image below, as a mail coach leaves an inn with the worn horses going to stables on the right.
By the end of 1785, coaches were travelling the length and breadth of England. By 1786, the London-Edinburgh route was being completed within 60 hours. For fifty years, mail coaches were the speediest road service in the country.
The coming of the railways quickly brought an end to the mail coach era. The last London-based mail coach left for Norwich in April 1846. But horse-drawn vans and carts continued to transport mail locally throughout the 19th century, and even into the next.