Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Stagecoaches - Romance v. Reality

I am striking a seasonal note with this post by looking at the Images of stage coaches on Christmas cards.   They look colourful, dashing and rather romantic, but what was the reality like for our ancestors traveling 170 years ago?

Stagecoaches were public service vehicles designed specifically for passengers and running to a published schedule.  Eight passengers could be packed inside, with others sitting at the back of the coach and the poorest passengers atop along with the luggage. A newspaper report  of 1846 (below) refers to a heavy coach of 18 to 20 passengers.  

The coaches ran in stages, usually from 10-15 miles depending on the journey, the type of countryside travelled and the availability of inns and staging posts en route. 

The  driver was often the sole crew member responsible for the coach, the passengers, timekeeping and dealing with minor incidents.  Coaching inns acted as stopping points for travellers and  were where  the ostlers changed and fed  the teams of horses   On the Edinburgh  to London journey there were twenty eight changes of a team of four horses.  In 1819 in the Scottish Borders  the published time for a journey from Edinburgh to Hawick was just under six  hours for the 54 miles distance - a twisting route over rolling hills -  and  could involve three changes of horses.
For Mail Coaches the primary concern was the delivery of mail  although passengers were also taken.   In 1786 the first mail coach arrived in the Scottish capital from London. welcomed by the ringing of church bells,  and guns fired from the castle ramparts - even though on its inaugural run it was twelve hours late!  

The hey day of stage coach travel was the early 19th century, with  improvement in road building techniques, the development of the turnpike system (where tolls financed  road consgtruction),  and  increased comfort of the coaches themselves.  

The romantic picture  of stagecoach travel has been   perpetuated by many writers including Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.  American author  Washington Irving (1783-1859)  described his experiences in England  in his "Old Christmas" sketches, 

"I rode a long distance in one of the public coaches on the day preceding Christmas   The coach was crowded both inside and out with passengers who by their talk seemed principally bound for the mansions of  relatives or friends to eat their Christmas dinner.  The coach was loaded with hampers  of game and baskets and boxes pf delicacies....

A stage coach carries animation along with it and puts the world in motion as it whirls along.  The horn sounds at the entrance to a village  and produces a general battle.    As we drew into the great gateway of an inn, I saw on the  one side the light of a roaring fire kitchen fire, beaming through a window.  I entered and admired the picture of convenience, neatness and broad honest enjoyment  - the kitchen of an English inn,  it was of spacious dimensions hung around with copper and tin vessels, highly polished and decorated here and there with Christmas green".
Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" published in 1850 painted a rather different picture of the reality of a winter stagecoach journey. 
"How well I recollect the wintry ride! The frozen particles of ice brushed from the blades of grass by the wind and borne across the face; the hard clatter of the horses' hoofs beating a tune upon the ground;  the stiff-tilted soil,   the snowdrifts, lightly eddying in the chalk pit as the  breeze ruffled it;  the smoking team stopping to breathe on the hill top and shaking their bells musically,..........

Less poetically local newspapers are full of items on stagecoach travel:

"The Border Watch" - 19 November 1846: 

“A SLOW COACH. – The Edinburgh and Hawick coach, which left Princes Street, Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon at 4pm  did not reach the Bridge Inn, Galashiels, until about 10pm; thus accomplishing the distance of thirty-two miles in the astonishing period of six hours!   

The pace was such that an ordinary pedestrian would have found little difficulty in keeping up with the coach. The road was by no means heavy, although in some places newly laid with metal. The coachman did his duty well with whip and voice, constantly urging forward his jaded steeds, and employing the box seat passenger to assist him with a spare thong.
But it was all of no avail. The animals would not move one foot faster than another. Up hill or down hill there was little perceptible difference, and several times the vehicle came to a dead halt, almost on a level.

The coach was full from Edinburgh, but a passenger having been let down on the road, another person was taken up. In spite of the loud remonstrances of the passengers, a second was buckled on behind, and a third was allowed standing room beside him. It appears there is now no restriction as to the number a stage coach may carry, and consequently three poor miserable horses were forced to drag, throughout a weary stage of fifteen miles, a heavy coach loaded with eighteen or twenty persons.

If there is any law against cruelty to animals, surely it must apply to a case like this. Whatever grievances attend railway traveling, it will be something, at least, to get rid of this wholesome horse murder.”
Reports on accidents,  present a graphic picture of the perils facing passengers and  (and pedestrian) alike.

"The Kelso Chronicle": - 16 June 1837: 

"ACCIDENT. – On Tuesday evening when the coach from Kelso had passed Ord, the reins broke, and the driver left his seat, and went along the pole to recover them. His foot slipped, and he fell between the pole and the horses to the ground. Fortunately, the wheels passed on both sides of him, and he escaped with no other injury than a slight blow to the head.The horses set off at rapid pace, and ran through Tweedmouth. The passengers kept their seats, and the horses while running furiously along the bridge, were stopped by a young man named Robert Robertson, who, with great personal risk, seized the horses’ head.Had they not been stopped, in all probability, from the speed with which they were proceeding, the coach would have been upset at the turn of Bridge Street.  The conduct of the young man deserves great praise.”
"The Kelso Chronicle" -  4 October 1844:
“WONDERFUL ESCAPE. – As the Defiance Coach was leaving the town on Friday last, a girl, about 10 years of age, daughter of Mr. Ferguson, tailor, who was hastily crossing the High Street, and not perceiving the coach, ran in betwixt the fore and hind horses, by which she was struck down, when the horses and coach went over her, to the horror of the spectators, who could do nothing to save her. The wheels on the one side passed over one of her legs, bruising it most severely in two places, while the opposite wheels went over the top of her bonnet, close to the head, but without doing any injury. The poor girl’s thigh was also much bruised, apparently by one of the horses’ feet. We are glad to state that she is recovering from the effects of her injuries.”.

The development of the railways marked the end for stagecoaches  but the iconic image remains of a mode of travel that still captures our imagination. especially at Christmas time.  

Border Highways by John James Mackay, 1998 
Local newspapers of the Scottish Borders 


  1. Thanks Sue for a very interesting article. Happy Holidays.

  2. Great descriptions. I'm glad I don't have to take a stage coach anywhere!


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