Controlling a Carriage During the Regency

“In Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey, Mr. Thorpe enthuses over his new carriage, boasting, “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” — and all for fifty guineas.

“Pray, pray, stop, Mr Thorpe!” ~ C E Brock illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“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.” [The Regency Horse World]

What was the difference between a Town carriage and one in the country? They were different in build and purpose. Getting about in Town might included a gig, a phaeton, a curricle or a Town coach. Traveling might involve a Landau or a Barouche.

Carriages for country and for town were generally quite different in build, for they served different purposes. And since carriages were custom built, almost every carriage could be a unique design. Common types of carriages, however, included:

The Phaeton – a four-wheeled, owner-driven vehicle fitted with forward facing seats, usually an open carriage.

The Gig – A gig was a small, lightweight, two-wheeled, cart that seated one or two people. It was usually pulled by a single horse and was known for speed and convenience. It was a common vehicle on the road (definition and photo credit courtesy of Horse and Buggy]

The Curricle – the “gig” of the quality, built to hold two, which could be two or four-wheels, and which sometimes had a top that could fold down

A Town Coach – a closed coach that could be drawn by one horse or a pair.

Landau – a four-wheeled vehicle that held four, which was drawn by a pair and built with a removable or folding top.

Barouche – a four-wheeled vehicle drawn by a pair, or by four or even six horses, with an option for a driver, or for post boys to ride and control the horses. Sometimes built with a fold-down top.

NOTE: Visit Horse and Buggy for more example and images of these carriages.

From what I can tell, few carriages were driven with a team of four horses in the city. 

In researching the management of teams of horses, I came across an interesting real-life tidbit of information which may be of interest. If the coach in question is drawn by a team of four horses, meaning out on the open roads of England, rather than a pair, a knowledgeable and experienced horseman would go to the heads of the wheelers, which is the pair closest to the carriage, rather than to the leaders, who are in front.

Though this may sound against reason, it absolutely makes a lot of sense. If the leaders are spooked and bolt, the wheelers will probably follow them, resulting in four horses running wild because they will be too much even for several men to control. But, if the wheelers are kept calm and stand their ground, the leaders are pretty much held in place, since in many cases, the wheel horses were larger and stronger. In addition, if the wheelers stay calm, and horses being “herd” animals, the leaders will typically calm down fairly quickly.

Now, what if there is a wreck. Is it possible to free the team of horses from the carriage but have them still wearing some sort of harness, or is it all attached to the carriage in some way so the only way to free the team is to remove it all?

As to detaching it, it depends. If one is speaking of job horses on a hired carriage, and something simple like a broken wheel or axle, yes, they could be detached and attached to a similar type of carriage. A harness is specific to the carriage and there are different types of harnesses, depending on the carriage.

If you’re talking a private carriage, keep in mind this is the age of custom, and one is not likely to find a carriage that will match the team unless it is a common type of carriage, and one must have a match (ie, a gig to a gig, a phaeton to another phaeton, etc.). Again, harness is specific to the type of carriage. For example, do you have shafts or a single middle pole?. If one is talking overturned or wrecked carriage, that is such a mess the horses must be cut away, you’ll have bridle, bit and reins intact and not much more. If one is talking the Royal Mail, the guard was instructed to cut away one of the horses and ride on with the mail pouch, leaving coach and passengers behind, so those horses were trained to drive and ride.

What happens with a wreck or a broken part depends on the coach, and is it open or closed? Is it older or  newer? Newer coaches tended for a lighter body and design. Also, typically, a broken axel is not going to leave the coach on its side–the broken axel will leave it tilted.

Source!!! One can find multiple images of broken axels and carriages at HERE.

Now, in describing a wrecked carriage, if one adds in a ditch or great speed, such might put the carriage onto its side. Yet, remember, we are not likely to discover a Town coach out where there might be ditches or traveling so fast? If one is talking a traveling chase, that is a different matter.

Here is a good account (if somewhat exaggerated) of an axel breaking at speed from Jane Austen’s London Curricle Crashes and Dennet Disasters – The Dangers of the Regency Road (And the leader here is looking back as if to ask what the devil is happening.)

For a closed carriage, if it gets on its side, folks are going to have to climb out the door–and it’s unlikely that 2-3 guys can right it, unless they’re really strong or have the help of some mules. But one can note that in the drawing, folks are falling out the door and such is going to end badly for them, for the carriage is going to crush bones.

For an open carriage, if it ends up on its side, folks are going to be thrown out of it, and there are no seat belts to secure them in place. Moreover, there would be a high center of gravity involved. It would be very unlikely, those involved will be able to harness the team to pull the carriage upright if it’s overturned, for the horses are going to be regarding it like a monster and may well be injured and certainly are going to be badly spooked. A much better option would be a local farmer with plough horses or mules. Now, all that said, there have been stories of moms picking up cars after an accident–panic and adrenalin can allow a person to do amazing things! Such heroic feats are rare, but possible, so write that carriage crash scene with a little realism and a large dose of “poppycock,” as George Darling in Peter Pan would say.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to Controlling a Carriage During the Regency

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    I’m always fascinated by the carriages they drove before motored transportation. And if the roads were not well kept or it rained it must have been hazardous. Thanks for your post.

    • I often use a Goggle map style search for the distances between places. Then, I do a “directions” between point A and point B as if traveling on a bicycle to determine the approximate hours it might take for the journey. Then, I make some adjustments for better roads (no highways, etc.). It is amazing what we authors of historicals must do “create” reality. Thanks for joining me today, Jen.

      • Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

        Thanks for that tip and distance. I never know how long it will take to get from point a to point B and that is the dilemma. I like the idea of riding a bicycle. Ha ha

  2. Needless to say, I do not have the characters ride a bicycle, but I thought bike riding was closer to a barouche or other traveling coach and all the toll road stops than driving a car.

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