There are many fine posts on the internet regarding the various types of coaches available to those of the Regency, but such is not the purpose of my piece today. This one has more to do with writing scenes in which these vehicles break down and the aftermath.
One of the many plot devices available to us as writers is a coach breaking down. When this happens, what are some of the realities of such an accident. I know I have had my fair share of disabled vehicles in my stories. In truth, in some of my earlier ones, I was not as accurate as I am now, nor as accurate as I hope to be in the future. Historical facts are a steep learning curve, and, as I have little to no personal experience with these types of transportation, I am constantly learning. Therefore, I am including a variety of facts I hope will help others struggling with these scenes.
One thing each writer must keep in mind, the speed at which the characters are traveling and the stamina of both the horses and the occupants of the vehicle are equally as important as is the size of the carriage. Pay attention to that fact as I include some facts on each type.
Miss de Bourgh drove by in her phaeton, which he never failed coming to inform them of, though it happened almost every day. (Chapter 29, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).
Miss De Bourgh’s phaeton and ponies is an extravagant display of her family’s wealth. To be able to afford a specialized carriage for only one person’s use demonstrates the family’s affluence. In comparison, the Bennets, who are less wealthy than Lady Catherine, have one set of horses for the whole family. Therefore, when the horses are needed to work on the farm, the carriage cannot be used and the family must walk to their destination.
Likely Miss de Bourgh’s phaeton was of the low-slung variety, especially as it is being pulled by ponies. It would have a lower center of gravity and be very safe and secure, and the ponies easy for a woman to control and unlikely to run away with the vehicle.In Georgette Heyer novels, we often read of the more dashing heroines driving a high-perch phaeton, which also has four wheels, but the box is suspended high over the front axle. It is a fast and fun vehicle to drive, but like a modern SUV, has a higher center of gravity, making it more likely to overturn, especially when pulled by the high-couraged cattle that would make such a sporty vehicle worth owning. (Austen Blog)
A phaeton did not have a place for a “tiger” to ride on the back of the carriage.
One morning, about a week after Bingley’s engagement with Jane had been formed, as he and the females of the family were sitting together in the dining room, their attention was suddenly drawn to the window, by the sound of a carriage; and they perceived a chaise and four driving up the lawn. It was too early in the morning for visitors, and besides, the equipage did not answer to that of any of their neighbours. The horses were post; and neither the carriage, nor the livery of the servant who preceded it, were familiar to them. (Chapter 56, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
A traveling carriage would customarily be drawn by a team of four horses. This would be true for managing a country road, but not in the city. While in London or any city of prominence, the coach would typically employ only two horses.
If the coach is drawn by a team of four, the outriders or any gentlemen riding beside the coach would be positioned by the pair closest to the carriage’s wheels. These horse, known as wheelers, were generally larger and stronger than the lead horses. If the lead horses were spooked, the rider could possibly keep the wheelers calm and prevent a ride-away carriage accident.
The Bennets keep a carriage; we aren’t told what kind, but we can probably assume it is a closed vehicle that can seat six to eight people—quite proper for a large family like the Bennets. Mr. Bennet does not keep horses solely to pull the carriage; he borrows working animals from the home farm for carriage duty. That detail not only shows that the Bennets are not extremely rich, but allows for the plot twist of Jane Bennet riding horseback to Netherfield, getting caught in the rain, and catching a cold that allows Jane and her sister Elizabeth to get to know Messrs. Bingley and Darcy a little better—and vice-versa. (AustenBlog)
Often we read where a coach is turned on its side. I have written more than one such scene in my career. Again, the writer must remember that newer coaches were lighter than those carried over from the previous century, and a broken axle would not necessarily cause the coach to end up on its side. It would likely be tilted. If you turn it on its side, you require more than the broken axle to send it over. The writer could add a nearby ditch (been there, done that) or have the coach traveling at a greater rate of speed than normal (runaway leaders on a carriage team, right?). Remember that when a closed carriage ends up on its side, the people must climb out the door. They will be slammed against each other (no seat belts) and likely piled upon one another. It is also NOT likely that a couple of men could right it. In addition to the weight of the people inside, a traveling coach would be loaded down with trunks, etc. Naturally, we all have read stories of petite women right a car when her child is trapped under it, but that would be the exception, not the rule. Now, if a friendly farmer comes along with a team of mules, the men + the mules = the possibility of an upright carriage.
I, also, would not suggest that people fall out the door of a carriage being knocked over. Rocks. Paving stones. Stone walls. All spell a hard landing. Moreover, if the carriage is turning onto its side, they could be easily crushed by the weight of it.
This link has several photos of coaches with a broken axle (It has been purposely broken to fit the space, but it still works by clicking on the first line).
Regency writers must remember, there was no brake that could be set from the seat. For heavier stagecoaches and coaches, one of the coachmen had to get down from the box and set the “drag” to slow the carriage when it was going down a steep hill. Harold Esdale Malet, Nimrod in Annals of the Road: Or, Notes on Mail and Stage Coaching in Great Britain, provides us with an anecdote regarding the drag not being properly set: “‘Some few years past I was travelling to Brighton, I think by the ” Alert,” at the time driven by a coachman named Pattenden. On pulling up at the extreme point of Reigate Hill, and being anxious to get the drag on, he did not do it securely. On starting rather brisk, whether it came in contact with a stone, or from what cause I know not, but it flew from the wheel it was placed on to the opposite one, and fixed as properly and securely as if placed by hand, in which manner we proceeded down the hill, in my opinion, a providential and singular circumstance, which perhaps, prevented a serious accident.”
Meanwhile, Mueller’s Lane Farm in NW Illinois tells us a bit about the history of brakes, which, although not Regency era specific, will provide you an overview of the issue: “When large and heavy loads were being transported to towns, ranches, homes and mining camps, etc., the steep, winding grades were scary to even the most hardened of teamsters. Costly and deadly would not be overstating the situation. In these circumstances, the standard brakes were woefully inadequate to keep from pushing the team out of control and wrecking the whole shooting match. There were three basic methods to ease the loaded wagon safely down to the bottom.
“The first was to use the “pole brake”. This is done by placing a long pole about 4’ to 6’ long into the two steel bands on the roller bar at the rear of the wagon. The roller bar is the heavy steel arm that is suspended slightly ahead of the rear axle. The bar is bent at a right angle that rises up between the wheel and the box on the right side of the wagon. The ‘arm’ has two steel bands attached. The stout pole is placed into the bands and extends up into the air. A rope is then securely tied to the upper end and is run down to the front of the wagon where the teamster can pull it with his hand or push with his foot by way of a loop in the rope. This pulls the pole forward thus adding greater leverage to the brake shoes against the rear wheels and applying the braking pressure.
“Another way to create drag to control the load was by using ‘skid shoes.’ These are small steel sleds of a sort, that the teamster would place, one in front of each rear wheel. The wagon was then rolled into the skid shoe and by way of a chain or heavy leather straps and the shoes secured to the bottom of the wheels. A chain at the nose of the shoe was fastened forward to the body of the wagon. As the wagon was drawn forward, the rear wheel s were kept from turning and the wagon drug down the hill.
“The last method was very similar to the skid shoe method in that a long pole was run between the spokes of the real wheels. As the wagon was moved forward, the rear wheels were blocked from moving. This way of skidding the loaded wagon was quick to implement but hard on the wheel spokes and the wagon itself. It was called ‘rough locking the wheels’.”
Another major error when creating a carriage wreck is that the harness cannot be simply switched to another type of coach, for the harness is specific to the carriage. As most coaches were custom made, the harness would be created for that particular coach, not easily interchangeable. The “wrecked” carriage would have to be a common type of carriage, and the harness could only be used on the same type, i.e., phaeton to another phaeton, curricle to another curricle, etc. Moreover, if the carriage is overturned, those who survived would most likely need to cut the harness to free the horses. Doing so would leave but a bridle and bits of the reins, not something to be used on another carriage. In addition to the harness, the coach’s axle, middle post, etc., must match to make repairs.
Those who drove for the Royal Mail would cut one of the horses free and ride with the mail pouch to the next station, leaving the passengers and the coach behind to wait for assistance.
“He meant, I believe,” replied Jane, “to go to Epsom, the place where they last changed horses, see the postilions, and try if any thing could be made out from them. His principal object must be to discover the number of the hackney coach which took them from Clapham.” (Chapter 46, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
“Everyone says he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise.” (Chapter 5, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).
A hackney-coach is the equivalent of a modern-day taxi: a horse and carriage for hire to take a person a short distance to his or her destination; thus Mr. Bennet could guess that the eloping couple had completed their journey in London. The coach itself would likely have been an old vehicle, castoff by its original owner, and could be any type of vehicle that has a box for a driver, who was known as a jarvey. Hackney coaches within London were licensed and assigned registration numbers, which would allow Mr. Bennet to trace the driver and, in the case described above, hopefully learn where he had set down, or delivered, Lydia and Wickham. (AustenBlog)
By, 1823, the lighter horse cabs began to replace cumbersome hackney coaches in great quantity, and by the mid 1830’s, the hansom cab set the new standard for modern horse cabs. Aloysius Hansom, an architect, designed the first carriage. When Hansom went bankrupt through poor investments, John Chapman took over, designing an even lighter, more efficient cab, one whose framework did not strike the horses on their backs or sides whenever a carriage ran over an obstacle in the road.
“And if you will stay another month complete, it will be in my power to take one of you as far as London, for I am going there early in June, for a week; and as Dawson does not object to the Barouche box, there will be very good room for one of you — and indeed, if the weather should happen to be cool, I should not object to taking you both, as you are neither of you large.” (Chapter 37, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
“and that will be our time for exploring. While they are with us, we shall explore a great deal, I dare say. They will have their barouche-landau, of course, which holds four perfectly; and therefore, without saying any thing of our carriage, we should be able to explore the different beauties extremely well. They would hardly come in their chaise, I think, at that season of the year. Indeed, when the time draws on, I shall decidedly recommend their bringing the barouche-landau; it will be so very much preferable. When people come into a beautiful country of this sort, you know, Miss Woodhouse, one naturally wishes them to see as much as possible; and Mr. Suckling is extremely fond of exploring. We explored to King’s-Weston twice last summer, in that way, most delightfully, just after their first having the barouche-landau. You have many parties of that kind here, I suppose, Miss Woodhouse, every summer?” (Chapter 32, Jane Austen’s Emma)
A barouche is an open vehicle that seats four people and has a top that folds back like a convertible automobile. Lady Catherine offers to take Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas to London in her barouche when she goes there. A barouche-landau has two seats facing each other, and a top that opens in the middle and folds back. (In P&P95, we think Elizabeth and the Gardiners arrive at Pemberley in a barouche-landau, which attentive readers of Emma will know is just the thing to use for summer sightseeing in the countryside! (AustenBlog)
A landau, drawn by a pair or four-in-hand, is one of several kinds of social carriages with facing seats over a dropped footwell, which was perfected by the mid-19th century in the form of a swept base that flowed in a single curve. The soft folding top is divided into two sections, front and rear, latched at the center. These usually lie perfectly flat, but the back section can be let down or thrown back while the front section can be removed or left stationary. When fully opened, the top can completely cover the passengers, with some loss of the graceful line.
The landau’s center section might contain a fixed full-height glazed door, or more usually a low half-door. There would usually be a separate raised open coachman’s upholstered bench-seat, but a landau could be postilion-driven, and there was usually a separate groom’s seat, sprung above and behind the rear axle, saving the groom from having to stand on a running board.
Shannon Donnelly’s Fresh Ink, in an article called “Horse Sense” tells us, “Chandros Leigh, a distant cousin of Jane Austen, obtained an estimate for a fashionable laundau in 1829. The price of the basic carriage was 250 pounds, which included: ‘plate glass and mahogany shutters to the lights, and plated or brass bead to the leather, lined with best second cloth, cloth squabs, and worsted lace….’ The ‘extras’ ordered including footman’s cushions, morocco sleeping cushions, steps, silk spring curtains, his crest on the door, embossed door handles and full plated lamps. These brought the cost to 417 pounds, 11 shillings and 6 pence, but he was given 60 pounds in exchange for his old carriage.”
Ms. Donnelly, who is quite knowledgeable on horses, also warns Regency writers that a wreck with an open carriage would cause more injuries. An open carriage turned upon its side would mean the passengers were ejected because of the carriage’s high center of gravity. As the horses would remained spooked by the carriage, the animals will, more than likely, not accept being hitched again to the carriage, even if it can be turned upright.
The act of overturning any vehicle, but especially the larger ones meant for traveling, would break the harness.
“Curricle-hung, you see; seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps, silver moulding, all you see complete; the iron-work as good as new, or better. He asked fifty guineas; I closed with him directly, threw down the money, and the carriage was mine.” (Chapter 7, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey)
Younger gentlemen’s personal vehicles were usually either a gig or a curricle. These fast, sporty carriages were similar in being open vehicles with two wheels, seating two comfortably, and driven by one of the passengers; the main difference being that a gig was equipped to be pulled by one horse and a curricle by two, thereby doubling the horsepower—a Trans Am to the gig’s Firebird, if you will. Mr. Collins, predictably, owns a gig, in which he takes Sir William driving while he is visiting Hunsford. Mr. Darcy, also predictably, owns a curricle, which he uses to drive Georgiana to visit Elizabeth at the inn in Lambton. (Austen Blog)
A gentleman could also have a tiger ride on the back of a curricle, but not a gig. If one of these carriages overturns, a person could possibly jump free of the vehicle, and the writer could have them only experience bumps, bruises and scrapes. Fatal injures are not guaranteed. Hopefully, when the person jumps he calculates his chances of not slamming his head into a stone wall or catching his coattail and being dragged along by the frightened team. (Just saying a stone wall would be my luck!)
Like all modes of transportation mentioned previously, curricles and gigs were custom made for the owner. Some curricles had a step on the back, while others had a seat for the tiger. If no tiger was employed, a box of scrap metal was secured to the back to assist with balance and to keep the harness from weighing too heavily on the horse/horses.
Check out some of these disasters found on “Curricle Crashes and Dennet Disasters—The Dangers of the Regency Road” on Jane Austen’s London, in which Miss Austen describes her own misadventures.
Additional References Not Cited in the Post:
Adams, William B. English Pleasure Carriages: Their Origin, History, Varieties, Materials, Construction, Defects, Improvements, And Capabilities (1837). London: Kessinger, LLC, 2008. Print.
“Nineteenth Century Carriages: Descriptions of Different Types of Horse-Drawn Transportation | Suite101.com.” Historical Resources | Suite101.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2009.
“Queensland Museum – Cobb & Co.” Cobb Co Museum. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. http://www.cobbandco.qm.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/carriage/carriage.asp?Carriage=28.
“Transportation in the 19th Century.” Literary Liaisons, Ltd. Web. 28 Oct. 2009. http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article033.html.