The Mail Coach
Mail coaches revolutionised the way letters and parcels were carried throughout Britain in the eighteenth century. The speed and punctuality of conveyance was increased dramatically, meaning that where communicating over distance had before taken days, it was now completed within hours. It was the whole of Britain who benefited as news travelled faster, businesses operated more efficiently and payments and valuables could be conveyed without fear of being lost to highwaymen.
John Palmer is remembered today for establishing mail coaches in the late eighteenth century. Palmer was a businessman and theatre owner from Bath who conducted a successful trial run between his hometown and London in 1784. When this showed that the mail could be conveyed along the Bath to London route in 13, rather than 36 hours, the benefit was easy to see and routes were soon established throughout the country.
As a result, mail guards and drivers became familiar figures of the highroad. As the examples in this episode of The People's Post show, they had a reputation not only for time-keeping and security, but for a fondness of the hospitality at the roadside inns they visited – leading at times to scandal and punishment.
Carrying passengers as well as the mail, the speed of the "flying coaches" astonished those who rode them, and yet the industrial revolution soon brought even greater marvels in the destruction of distance when railways ended the mail coach era as quickly as it had begun. However, during its heyday, the mail coach was part of the fastest, most comprehensive and most efficient transport system anywhere in the world. Fascinating artists, poets and essayists in its own time, it is now established as an icon of its day and a familiar symbol of the historic Royal Mail.
For further reading, see Frederick Wilkinson, Royal Mail Coaches: An Illustrated History (2007). The Royal Mail Archive managed by The British Postal Museum & Archive is home to many other books on this subject such as David Mountfield, The Coaching Age (1976). Others include histories of regional routes, artwork, prints, and also biographical histories such as Edmund Vale, The Mail Coach Men of the late Eighteenth Century (1960) and Charles R. Clear, John Palmer (of Bath): Mail Coach Pioneer (1955). Portfolios about mail coaches and John Palmer containing articles and cuttings are also available to visitors. Vyki Sparkes' blog Stop me if you've heard this one gives further information on this topic.
The Chester to London Mail Coach
Portrait of John Palmer
The Original Bath mail coach
The Post Office Stage Coach
The Departure of the Night Mail
Moses Nobbs, Mail Coach Guard