A stagecoach is a type of covered wagon for passengers and goods. It is strongly sprung and generally drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers. The business of running stagecoaches or the act of journeying in them was known as staging.
Originating in England, familiar images of the stagecoach are that of a Royal Mail coach passing through a turnpike gate, a Dickensian passenger coach covered in snow pulling up at a coaching inn, and a highwayman demanding a coach to "stand and deliver". The yard of ale drinking glass is associated by legend with stagecoach drivers, though was mainly used for drinking feats and special toasts.
The stagecoach was a four-wheeled vehicle pulled by horses or mules. The primary requirement was that it was used as a public conveyance, running on an established route and schedule. Vehicles that were used, included buckboards and dead axle wagons, surplus Army ambulances and celerity (or mud) coaches. Selection of the vehicle was made by the owner of the stage line, and he would choose the most efficient vehicle based upon the load to be carried, the road conditions, and the weather; and used a two, four or six-horse team based upon those factors and the type of car.
The stagecoach was supported on the thoroughbraces, which were leather straps supporting the body of the carriage and serving as shock absorbing springs (the stagecoach itself was sometimes called a "thoroughbrace"). The front or after compartment of a Continental stagecoach was called a coupé or coupe. An inside passenger or seat was an inside, while an outside passenger or seat was an outside. On the outside were two back seats facing one another, which the British called baskets. In addition to the stage driver who guided the vehicle, a shotgun messenger, armed with a coach gun, often rode as a guard.
The stagecoach traveled at an average speed of about five miles per hour, with the total daily mileage covered being around 60 or 70 miles.
The term "stage" originally referred to the distance between stations on a route, the coach traveling the entire route in "stages," but through metonymy it came to apply to the coach. A fresh set of horses would be staged at the next station, so the coach could continue after a quick stop to rehitch the new horse team. Under this staging system, the resting, watering and feeding of the spent horses would not delay the coach.
The stagecoach was also called a stage or stage carriage. Sub-types included:
- mail coach or post coach: used for carrying mail.
- mud coach: lighter and smaller, with flat sides and simpler joinery.
- road coach: revived in the United Kingdom during the last half of the 19th century.
Crude coaches were built from the 16th century. Without suspension, these coaches achieved very low speeds on the poor quality rutted roads of the time. By the mid 17th century, a basic stagecoach infrastructure had been put in place. The first stagecoach route started in 1610 and ran from Edinburgh to Leith. This was followed by a steady proliferation of other routes around the country. A string of coaching inns operated as stopping points for travellers on the route between London and Liverpool by the mid 17th century. The coach would depart every Monday and Thursday and took roughly ten days to make the journey during the summer months. They also became widely adopted for travel in and around London by mid-century and generally travelled at a few miles per hour. Shakespeare's first plays were staged at coaching inns such as The George Inn, Southwark.
By the end of the 17th century, stage-coach routes ran up and down the three main roads in England. The London-York route was advertised in 1698:
- Whoever is desirous of going between London and York or York and London, Let them Repair to the Black Swan in Holboorn, or the Black Swan in Coney Street, York, where they will be conveyed in a Stage Coach (If God permits), which starts every Thursday at Five in the morning."
The novelty of this method of transport excited much controversy at the time. One pamphleteer denounced the stagecoach as a "great evil [...] mischievous to trade and destructive to the public health." Another writer, however, argued that:
- "Besides the excellent arrangement of conveying men and letters on horseback, there is of late such an admirable commodiousness, both for men and women, to travel from London to the principal towns in the country, that the like hath not been known in the world, and that is by stage-coaches, wherein any one may be transported to any place, sheltered from foul weather and foul ways; free from endamaging of one's health and one's body by the hard jogging or over-violent motion; and this not only at a low price (about a shilling for every five miles), but with such velocity and speed in one hour, as that the posts in some foreign countries make in a day."
The speed of travel remained constant until the mid-18th century. Reforms of the turnpike trusts new methods of road building and the improved construction of coaches led to a sustained rise in the comfort and speed of the average journey - from an average journey length of 2 days for the Cambridge-London route in 1750 to a length of under 7 hours in 1820. Robert Hooke helped in the construction of some of the first spring-suspended coaches in the 1660s and spoked wheels with iron rim brakes were introduced, improving the characteristics of the coach.
In 1754, a Manchester-based company began a new service called the "Flying Coach". It was advertised with the following announcement - "However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually (barring accidents) arrive in London in four days and a half after leaving Manchester." A similar service was begun from Liverpool three years later, using coaches with steel spring suspension. This coach took an unprecedented three days to reach London with an average speed of eight miles per hour.
Mail coach reform
Even more dramatic improvements were made by John Palmer at the British Post Office. The postal delivery service in Britain had existed in the same form for about 150 years—from its introduction in 1635, mounted carriers had ridden between "posts" where the postmaster would remove the letters for the local area before handing the remaining letters and any additions to the next rider. The riders were frequent targets for robbers, and the system was inefficient.
Palmer made much use of the "flying" stagecoach services between cities in the course of his business, and noted that it seemed far more efficient than the system of mail delivery then in operation. His travel from Bath to London took a single day to the mail's three days. It occurred to him that this coach service could be developed into a national mail delivery service, so in 1782 he suggested to the Post Office in London that they take up the idea. He met resistance from officials who believed that the existing system could not be improved, but eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to carry out an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old system the journey had taken up to 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2 August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later.
Impressed by the trial run, Pitt authorised the creation of new routes. Within the month the service had been extended from London to Norwich, Nottingham, Liverpool and Manchester, and by the end of 1785 services to the following major towns and cities of England and Wales had also been linked: Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. A service to Edinburgh was added the next year, and Palmer was rewarded by being made Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office. By 1797 there were forty-two routes.
The golden age of the stagecoach was during the Regency period, from 1800 to 1830. The era saw great improvements in the design of the coaches, notably by John Besant in 1792 and 1795. His coach had a greatly improved turning capacity and braking system, and a novel feature that prevented the wheels from falling off while the coach was in motion. Besant, with his partner John Vidler, enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of coaches, and a virtual monopoly on their upkeep and servicing for the following few decades. Obadiah Elliott registered the first patent for a spring-suspension vehicle. Each wheel had two durable steel leaf springs on each side and the body of the carriage was fixed directly to the springs attached to the axles. Within a decade, most British horse carriages were equipped with springs; wooden springs in the case of light one-horse vehicles to avoid taxation, and steel springs in larger vehicles. These were often made of low-carbon steel and usually took the form of multiple layer leaf springs.
Steady improvements in road construction were also made at this time, most importantly the widespread implementation of Macadam roads up and down the country. Coaches in this period travelled at around 12 miles per hour and greatly increased the level of mobility in the country, both for people and for mail. Each route had an average of four coaches operating on it at one time - two for both directions and a further two spares in case of a breakdown en route. Joseph Ballard described the stagecoach industry in 1815:
- "The stage fare from Manchester to Liverpool, distance forty miles, is only six shillings. This is caused by the strong opposition, as there are eight or ten coaches continually running between those places. Besides the fare in the coach you have to pay the coachman one shilling per stage of about thirty miles, and the same to the guard whose business it is to take care of the luggage, &c. &c. Should the passenger refuse to pay the accustomed tribute he would inevitably be insulted. You must pay also, at the inns, the chambermaid sixpence a night, the "boots" (the person who cleans them) two pence a day, and the head waiter one shilling a day. The porter who takes your portmanteau up stairs moves his hat with "pray remember the porter, Sir."
- The beds at the inns are surprisingly neat and clean. In many of the inns in a large town, the chambermaids furnish the chambers and depend upon their fees for remuneration. The stagecoaches are very convenient and easy. No baggage is permitted to be taken inside, it being stowed away in the boot places before and behind the carriage for that purpose. Here it rides perfectly safe, not being liable to be rubbed, as they ride upon the same springs that the passengers do. A person can always calculate upon being at the place he takes the coach for (barring accidents) at a certain time, as the coachman is allowed a given time to go his stage. The guard always has a chronometer with him (locked up so that he cannot move the hands) as a guide with regard to time."
The development of railways in the 1830s spelt the end for the stagecoaches and mail coaches. The first rail delivery between Liverpool and Manchester took place on 11 November 1830. By the early 1840s most London-based coaches had been withdrawn from service.
The diligence, a solidly built coach with four or more horses, was the French analogue for public conveyance, especially in France, with minor varieties in Germany such as the Stellwagen and Eilwagen. The diligence from Le Havre to Paris was described by a fastidious English visitor of 1803 with a thoroughness that distinguished it from its English contemporary, the stage coach.
A more uncouth clumsy machine can scarcely be imagined. In the front is a cabriolet fixed to the body of the coach, for the accommodation of three passengers, who are protected from the rain above, by the projecting roof of the coach, and in front by two heavy curtains of leather, well oiled, and smelling somewhat offensively, fastened to the roof. The inside, which is capacious, and lofty, and will hold six people in great comfort is lined with leather padded, and surrounded with little pockets, in which travellers deposit their bread, snuff, night caps, and pocket handkerchiefs, which generally enjoy each others company, in the same delicate depository. From the roof depends a large net work which is generally crouded with hats, swords, and band boxes, the whole is convenient, and when all parties are seated and arranged, the accommodations are by no means unpleasant.
Upon the roof, on the outside, is the imperial, which is generally filled with six or seven persons more, and a heap of luggage, which latter also occupies the basket, and generally presents a pile, half as high again as the coach, which is secured by ropes and chains, tightened by a large iron windlass, which also constitutes another appendage of this moving mass. The body of the carriage rests upon large thongs of leather, fastened to heavy blocks of wood, instead of springs, and the whole is drawn by seven horses.
The English visitor noted the small, sturdy Norman horses "running away with our cumbrous machine, at the rate of six or seven miles an hour." At this speed stagecoaches could compete with canal boats, but they were rendered obsolete in Europe wherever the rail network expanded in the 19th century. Where the rail network did not reach, the diligence was not fully superseded until the arrival of the autobus.
Beginning in the 18th century crude wagons began to be used to carry passengers between cities and towns, first within New England in 1744, then between New York and Philadelphia in 1756. Travel time was reduced on this later run from three days to two in 1766 with an improved coach called the Flying Machine. The first mail coaches appeared in the later 18th century carrying passengers and the mails, replacing the earlier post riders on the main roads. Coachmen carried letters, packages and money, often transacting business or delivering messages for their customers. By 1829 Boston was the hub of 77 stagecoach lines; by 1832 there were 106.
The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827. Abbot Downing Company employed leather strap braces under their stagecoaches which gave a swinging motion instead of the jolting up and down of a spring suspension. The company manufactured over forty different types of carriages and wagons at the wagon factory in Concord, New Hampshire. Concord stagecoaches were built so solidly it became known they didn't break down but just wore out.
The Concord stagecoach sold throughout South America, Australia, and Africa. Over 700 Concord stagecoaches were built by the original Abbot Downing Company before it disbanded in 1847. The company was still building coaches, wagons, and carriages according to their business card of 1898. In his 1861 book Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord stage's ride as like "a cradle on wheels".
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- Cobb & Co Heritage Trail.
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- The Stage Coaches of Britain. Anvil. Text based on Stagecoach by John Richards (1976).
- Stagecoaches: TombstoneTimes.com
- Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1979 (in English 1984)
- Felix Riesenberg, Jr., The Golden Road The Story Of Californias Spanish Mission Trail, Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1962
- Stagecoach History: Stage Lines to California
- Wild West Tales: Stories by R. Michael Wilson; Stagecoach
- Robert Glass Cleland, A history of California: the American period, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1922 Chapter XXIV, The Overland Mail and the Pony Express, pp. 359-368