Traveling by Stagecoach During the Regency Era

Stage and mail coaches traveled much faster than a private coach would do. They did not have to wait for changes, did not spend the night anywhere, and had relief drivers.

Stage coaches also used their own horses, or horses under contract purely for their use.  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 usually 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 distance between changes than private job horses did, meaning they were changed out every 10-15 miles.  

Mail coaches were the fastest form of transportation, averaging 9 miles per hour.  However, they only operated on the turnpikes and only on turnpikes in good condition.  They actually dropped one route during the Regency because the road surface was too destructive to their safe passage. They did not stop for anything except changes of horses, which happened very quickly and very often (5-7 mile stages usually).  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.

When I figure how long it might take a character in one of my books to travel from point A to point B, I estimate an average of 5 to 7 miles per hour on the turnpikes, less on secondary roads. That means one needs to hire horses every 15-20 miles if the character is to make good time. I often get a rough estimate of how long it takes by using a Google search for the distance between two cities if traveling by bicycle. Then, I make adjustments for the better roads, straighter routes, etc. It is a good starting point, though.

Many traveled with postilions who have a speed limit of 7 miles per hour.  But they have to stop at all toll gates, slow for all the numerous villages, and give way whenever a mail coach comes up behind them. One must also consider the season of the year and daylight available for travel. By the 1830s, the average speed was doubled due to macadamization, meaning better paved roads, but that process did not start in 1814. (See John Loudon McAdam)

The men who changed the horses for the mail or stage coaches might be thought of in terms of a NASCAR team – certainly not as fast, but comparable, and equally efficient. They could do it for under 5 minutes. However, some timed the change of horses to a meal time and gave the passengers twenty minutes.

Some stage coaches and mail coaches ran 365 days per year. Meanwhile, some lines never ran on Sunday. Whether there was more than one stage or mail going out a day depended on the route.

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. The destination determined whether the next coach out would be in two hours or the next day.

Keep in mind, there were different coaches.

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–one traveling on those coaches 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.

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. Yet, all those “possibilities” depended on the route and traffic.

In determining the frequency of coaches, one must remember there were never several coaches going all the same way, with the same exact destination. There the modern choices of whether to fly, take a train, travel by bus, or drive oneself was not available. We are talking about a much less populous world than the one we live in; therefore, the choices were limited. Coaching companies carved out their own routes and few overlapped. Between large cities, naturally, one must expect more need, and less need the further one was removed London. One might have several coaches all using the same road: for example, they might all use parts of the London to Bristol road, but they split off for various end destinations.

To claim a seat on a coach could be difficult, for most tended to be packed and sold out, so not easy to “catch” a ride. One bought his ticket at the origin point for the mail or stage. One might be able to bribe a coachman on a stage to stuff you in or give you an outside seat, but it was not always possible. Horses can only pull so much weight.

As I briefly mentioned above, what one really need is to research the route one characters will be required to travel. I recommend Cary’s Itinerary or Patterson’s. Look up the route to discover what coaches actually traveled through the setting. These travel guides are possible to find online, and as used books, and are not that expensive.

Here’s the online link to Cary Itinerary (second edition, 1802). I hope this helps those who are writing during this period.

Have a look at one of my previous posts on Stagecoach Travel.

Other Sources:

Coach Travel in Regency England

A Grim Reality: The Life of a Coach Horse in the Regency Era

How Far Did Our Ancestors Travel

The Stagecoach

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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