The speaker for our February meeting was Mr Chris Forester with a talk, The West Country’s Mail Coach System from Exeter to London via Wincanton.
As a teenager Chris had an interest in horses and managed to secure a job at the Watney Brewery in Mortlake looking after the drays. He later went on to join the mounted police force, a post he held for twenty-five years. He moved to Wincanton ten years ago and is curator of Wincanton Museum.
Before the mail coach system started mail was carried by riders, usually single men on a horse carrying mail. They rode between posts, hence the name for our current postal system.
In 1784 John Palmer, who was in a theatre business in Bath, suggested that a mail coach system, based on the Post-Chaise carriage he used to move scenery and actors between theatres, would benefit the postal service. The Postmaster General William Pitt agreed on a trial run from London to Bristol at Palmer’s expense. Following the success of this trial more routes were opened up across the country resulting in an improved postal service and an additional form of passenger transport.
The mail coach journeys consisted of stages of ten to fifteen miles. This led to the growth of inns along the routes where horses would be changed and stabled before their return journey. It therefore took over seventy horses to complete the journey from London to Exeter. As the coaches were vulnerable to highway robbery, guards were employed alongside the driver to protect the mail which was kept in a padlocked box at the rear of the coach. Guards were armed with weapons including pistols and blunderbusses, a crude but devastating weapon used primarily by the navy of the time. As the service grew, many of the coaches were privately owned and provided a lucrative business investment for the proprietors. One of the most successful proprietors was William Chaplin who owned numerous pubs in London. His coaching inns and business employed over 2,000 people, had 76 coaches and owned 1,800 horses. Another well-known coach and inn proprietor was Sarah Ann Mountain. She owned the famous Saracens Head in London, provided coach services on over 20 routes and built coaches for sale.
From about 1800 there were two types of coach services on the routes, subscription coaches for paying passengers and the mail coaches that would primarily be used for transporting mail and occasionally carried passengers which gave an undisclosed subsidy for the drivers’ wages. Strict timetables had to be kept, particularly for overseas mail that needed to reach the port of Falmouth in time for the ships departing to countries in Europe. Many of the mail coaches were designated to transport mail to the main royal dockyards including Plymouth, Portsmouth Chatham and Bristol.
The design of mail coaches varied but the Vidler design, similar to the Western style mail coach, was particularly robust and suited the rough terrain and roads which were poorly maintained. The coaches did not afford a great deal of comfort. The coaches would carry up to 20 people in cramped conditions with some passengers seated on top, exposed to the weather and could fall off without the driver being aware. There were frequent deaths and injuries. Two fast mail coaches were introduced later from Exeter to London, the Quicksilver and Telegraph. They travelled generally at night so you had the added danger of not being able to see what was on the road. Both routes went in the same direction until they reached Amesbury where they split, with Quicksilver going via Yeovil and Salisbury and the Telegraph going via Deptford and Wylie.
The coach drivers were looked upon by young men as we might look on our modern day airline pilots. There was a lot of glamour attached to them as individuals but, to the contrary, they were generally overweight, rather smelly and foul-mouthed at times. They would be dressed in heavy woollen and leather coats and drank to keep the cold at bay; some were serious alcoholics so you would put your life in their hands travelling with them. The drivers came from varying backgrounds with ex-military officers, university educated men and retired clergyman among them. Their knowledge of the routes and terrain grew over time and they knew where conditions were good enough to speed up or ‘spring the horses’.
Wincanton itself had 21 pubs at one time, now just a few remain the Greyhound, the White Horse, the Dolphin and the Bear Inn amongst them. These were some of the coaching inns of the period with stables and ostlers employed to care for and change the horses between stages.
Mail coaches were slowly phased out during the 1840s and 1850s due to the development of the railways. It is thought that the last mail coach services to run were in the north of England and finished completely in 1847.