When writing a scene where my characters travel by coach, many issues must be taken into consideration before the scene is complete. Type of coach? Miles between point A and point B? Time of the year? Country roads or turnpikes? Number of hours/days required? How often to change horses? Weather conditions?
Stage and mail coaches traveled much faster than a private coach would do. There was no reason for them to wait for changes, nor did they spend the night anywhere. Moreover, they had relief drivers.
Stage coaches also used their own horses, or horses under contract purely to them. They had their own drivers, not postilions, so they did not have 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 used the worst vehicles, worst horses, and worst drivers so passengers typically avoided them. They carried mostly packages between towns without going through London. Stage coaches averaged about 7 miles per hour on the turnpikes, much slower on secondary roads, which they traversed often since they were the only real public transportation connecting smaller towns or that operated across the country instead of always radiating from London like the mail coaches did. They pushed their horses hard and carried a LOT of passengers, so the horses rarely lasted even three years in service, being sold to farmers as plow horses afterwards. Stage coaches did have to stop at tollgates, but their horses were ready at each stop so changes were fast. They used a shorter stage for changes than private job horses did — 10-15 miles.
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. They did not stop for anything except changes of horses, which happened very quickly and very often, usually every 2 hours. Again, the horses were under contract strictly to the post office, so 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.
Mail coaches averaged 5 miles per hour on the turnpikes, less on secondary roads. One needed to hire horses every 15-20 miles if one wanted to make any time. They generally averaged 7 miles per hour. They were often slowed, for they had to stop at all toll gates, slow for the numerous villages, and give way whenever another coach came up behind them. Also, traveling after dark was not a good idea unless a huge emergency necessitated it. By the 1830s, that speed was doubled due to macadamization of the roads, but that had not even started in 1814.
The men who changed the horses for the mail or stage coaches were as fast as the team that changes tires at a NASCAR race. Reportedly, they could do the job in under 5 minutes.
From Jane Austen’s World we have a different perspective of the mail coach. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and how true it is in this instance. George Scharf the elder, a popular genre painter of the early 19th century, was also a prolific drawer of ordinary scenes in his adopted city of London. One can study his drawing of the Mail Coach Bound for the West County, 1829, endlessly, imagining many tales while thinking back on the history of coach travel. This mail coach is being readied at the Gloucester Coffee House on Piccadilly, where so many mail coaches left at night. The horses are waiting to pull this heavily laden wagon. They will pull it for 15 miles before they will need to be changed. Even with improved roads, the coach will not be going much faster than 7-8 miles per hour. Scharf drew this scene in 1829, a year before the first passenger train would be introduced. By the mid-18th century this scene in Piccadilly would have changed dramatically.
“I count 9 people on top the wagon, one passenger sitting next to the coachman, seven on top of the wagon (one is definitely a porter), and two passengers inside. I imagine there are two more people seated inside that we cannot see, for the interior holds four passengers, and that the gentleman putting on the great coat is waiting for the porters to finish loading the packages before he takes his seat on top of the coach. The woman and child standing next to him must be waiting to see him off, for, if the rest of the mail bags, packages, and luggage are to be loaded, there won’t be room for them as well. If they are waiting to board, then I pity the four horses who will be pulling 13 people along with the mail.
“Travel was quite costly back then.
Costs of travel: [estimates for 1800]
- Stage Coach: 2-3 pence / mile = 1.25 pounds from London to Bath / half-price if up top / outside [but remember the average income was about £30 / year
- Hired post-chaise = estimate about £1 / mile [i.e @1 shilling / horse / mile, to include the postillion] – Jane Austen in Vermont
“For a family living on £25 – £30 per year, such costs were prohibitive. The cheapest seats were on top and on the outside. One can see a woman holding her child wedged between straw baskets. Should the coach take a turn too fast or be involved in an accident, she and her babe could be flung off the vehicle or trapped underneath should it overturn. At best, they felt the wind and rain and arrived at their destination disheveled and covered in road dust if the weather was dry, or soaking wet with rain. One shudders at the thought of what it felt like to be an outdoor passenger in the winter.”
Some Stage Coaches timed the change of horses to a meal time and gave the passengers twenty minutes to eat, stretch their legs, and tend to personal needs.
Some stage coaches and mail coaches ran 365. Some never ran on Sunday. Whether there was more than one stage or mail going out a day depended on the route. Then there were various stages owned by private companies. These ran on their own schedules and were more or less dependable, and also often more crowded. They, too, were not supposed to run on Sundays or religious holidays, but some did–it was about a profit. Times to change horses might be a touch more relaxed in that some stops were worked into their schedules, including changes of horses. Some of these coaches might have a team of six, and so a change would take longer (more horses = more time). They would also generally run only once a day in one direction–or possibly even less. But it all depends on the route and traffic.
Travel was delayed and the coaches stopped during blizzards and when the snow blocked the roads. In a couple of cases, outside passengers froze to death because of the cold. Torrential rain did not necessarily stop the coach from completing its route, but more than one road had been known to wash away or the ditches to overflow and the paving stones to become loose or misplaced. Do you recall the scene in “Becoming Jane” where James McAvoy’s character of Tom Lefroy must carry “Jane Austen” across the muddy road and assist the other gentlemen in removing the carriage from the muck. It is a pivotal scene that broke many Austenites’ hearts.
The destination determined whether the next coach would be in two hours or the next day. Cary printed a schedule.
There is the Royal Mail. This ran over specific routes, usually only once a day in either direction. They did not travel on Sundays or religious holidays, so no Christmas Day travel. Their schedules were very tight, and horses were changed in about 15 to 20 minutes, or less–a person barely had time to use the facilities or get some tea. Their purpose was to deliver the mail and passengers were secondary, and the coachman very strict on times.
Frequency of coaches was daily, at best. There were never several coaches going all the same way with the same exact destination. The needs of the populous determined the the frequency. We are talking about a much less populous world than the one we live in. Between large cities, more need would be obvious, and less need the further one was removed from London. One might see several coaches all using the same road, for example, they are all using the London to Bristol road, but they split off for various end destinations.
To purchase a seat on a coach could be quite difficult, for most tended to be packed and sold out, so not easy to “catch” a ride. One purchased his ticket at the origin point for the mail or stage. One might be able to bribe a coachman on a stage to fit you inside or on an outside seat, but it was not always possible. Horses can only pull so much weight.
What a writer of Regencies requires is to research the route the characters are taking. I recommend Cary’s Itinerary or Patterson’s. Look up your route and you will discover what coaches go through the setting of the story (from Point A to Point B). These travel guides are possible to find online, and as used books, and are not that expensive.
Another trick I use is to calculate the distance using Google maps, and then I determine how long it would take a modern day person to bike from Point A to Point B. That provides me a rough idea of how many hours my characters would spend in a coach. Google also provides the “bike” information with a few simple clicks.
Here’s the online link to Cary’s (second edition, 1802). I keep it bookmarked. Cary’s New Itinerary… https://books.google.com/books?id=cg4QAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=carys&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ozn1VIaWHcWMNon8gogC&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=carys&f=false