It was the late 1700s before the roads were in good enough shape to support coach travel. People until that time were of the nature to ride a horse or walk. Goods were placed upon pack horses. The roads were often muddy and full of ruts. Road surfaces were expensive to maintain and became the “option” of the local gentry or the aristocracy. It was nearly impossible to travel during the rainy seasons.
The first stage coach company established a route between London and York in the first decade of the 1700s. It would take about 10-14 days to travel from Edinburgh, Scotland to London by the mid 1700s. By the mid 1800s, one could make the same journey in 3-4 days.
According to Wikipedia, “A stagecoach is a type of covered wagon used to carry passengers and goods inside. 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 coach traveled in segments or “stages,” thus the name. The coach traveled at 5-7 miles per hour. They changed out hours at the “stages,” meaning about every 2-3 hours. At a staging inn, the travelers could find a bit to eat or take care of their personal needs. He could also spend the night at the inn and take a different coach the following day.
According to the Georgian Index, “The coach body was suspended on leather straps, called thorough braces, to absorb some of the road shock, but the hanging vehicle body must have swayed terribly. Passenger were expected to get out and walk up steep hills to spare the horses and were even expected to help push the coach when the wheels became mired in mud holes. Worse yet, robberies by highwaymen were so common that paste jewelry was usually carried on trips. Progress on the poor roads was slow and coaching inns were busy, noisy places where uninterrupted sleep was almost impossible. Travelers arrived at their destinations motion sick, muddy, and exhausted.
“The coaching inns provided a support structure for coach routes. Fresh teams of horses were kept in readiness for changing out the exhausted team that had just run the previous stage of the journey. These teams were contracted to stage lines or the Royal Mail. Other horses were available to be leased by individuals. Crack teams of hostlers prided themselves in changing mail coach teams in as little as three minutes. Passengers could get a meal at an appropriately timed stop at a coaching inn. Many inns were famous for house recipes. Others were know for taking advantage of passengers by providing undercooked food or slow service. Inns were generally built around a central cobbled courtyard that gave some protection from the weather and made it easy to watch for coaches coming in. However, the convenience was offset by the difficulty in sleeping in a place where servants and passengers constantly came and went, horns were blown to announce arrivals and departures, and teams of horses created a constant clatter on the cobblestones. Travel guides generally advised coach passengers who were spending the night to stay at an inn rather than the main coaching inn.”
Mail coaches traveled much faster than a private coach owned by a member of the gentry would do. They were not required to wait for changes, did not spend the night anywhere, and had relief drivers.
Stage coaches used their own horses, or horses under contract purely to the stage company. They had their own drivers, not postilions, so it was not necessary for them to adhere to the speed limits put on private hires. Stage coaches did stop at night, unless they were express routes, which operated only between a few large towns. There were night coach routes, too, that operated only at night, but theses employed the worst vehicles, worst horses, and worst drivers, so passengers customarily avoided them. They mostly carried packages between towns without going through London.
Stage coaches averaged about 7 miles per hour on the turnpikes, but much slower on secondary roads, which they traversed often since they were the only real public transportation connecting smaller towns. They also operated across the country instead of always radiating from London like the mail coaches did. They pushed their horses hard and carried LOTS of passengers, so the horses rarely lasted even three years of service, often being sold to farmers as plow horses afterwards.
Mail coaches were the fastest form of transportation, averaging 9 miles per hour, but they only operated on the turnpikes and only on turnpikes in good condition. Unless the roads were properly maintained, the mail route would be dropped. They did not stop for anything except changes of horses, which happened very quickly. Again, the horses were under contract strictly to the post office, so they were unavailable to travelers. Mail coaches carried, at most, 7 passengers: 4 inside, three outside. Their coaches were smaller and lighter than the stage coaches, which added to their speed.
A traveler would hire horses every 15-20 miles if he wanted to make any time. But the coach was required to stop at all toll gates, slow for all the numerous villages, and give way whenever a mail coach came up behind them. By the 1830s, that speed was doubled due to macadamization, which started in 1814.
Historic UK tells us, “The Regency period saw great improvements in coach design and road construction, leading to greater speed and comfort for passengers. For example, in 1750 it took around 2 days to travel from Cambridge to London, but by 1820 the journey time had been slashed to under 7 hours. This was the golden age of the stagecoach. Coaches now travelled at around 12 miles per hour, with four coaches per route, two going in each direction with two spare coaches in case of a breakdown. However the development of the railways in the 1830s had a huge impact on the stagecoach. Stage and mail coaches could not compete with the speed of the new railways. Soon the post was traveling by rail and by the mid 19th century, most coaches traveling to and from London had been withdrawn from service.”