The golden days of coach travel



Prior to and throughout much of the 17th century, travelling around Britain would, for most people, involve negotiating lifts on wagons or carts or covering unenviable distances on foot. As the century progressed a small number of stagecoaches appeared. The first being slow, simple, covered wagons.

Stagecoaches were so-called because they would travel in stages, usually of around 10 to 15 miles. Early in the 18th century, a regular route was established between London and York and soon competing companies appeared running many other routes. By the mid-1700s competition was fierce. Speed became the focus of marketing, and the engineering of coaches was developed to improve performance.

In the early 1800s, during the Regency period, this advance in coach building along with improvements in the maintenance of roads meant that coaches could now travel at around 12 miles per hour. Horses were changed more frequently. A journey that had taken days to complete in the 18th century could be covered in under 7 hours. This became the golden age of coach travel.

Coach advertisement in the Pallisters Weekly, 1835

Coach advertisement in the Harrogate Advertiser, 1837

Mail coaches

As an alternative to stagecoaches, passengers were allowed to travel onboard mail coaches, which had been established in the 1780s. Mail coaches were privately owned, the owners having signed a contact with government to undertake certain routes to distribute the mail. They were on average more expensive than other coaches, though they carried less passengers and stopped less frequently. The best hostlers were able to change mail coach teams in as little as three minutes. Mail coaches were distinct from other stagecoaches, being painted in black and red livery with the Royal coat of arms on each side. The cost of travel on stagecoaches varied, depending on distance and how many other companies were operating similar routes. Passengers paid less for travelling on the top of the coach and those who paid to travel inside clambered to get the best seats by the windows. Contemporary accounts show that a wide range of people used the stagecoaches. Soldiers, clergymen, scholars, or servants moving to new posts may all have shared the small space.

The age of coach travel continued for some years after the Stockton and Darlington Railway marked the beginnings of the passenger railway era in 1824. The rapid expansion of the railway network in the following decades meant an end for the stagecoach proprietors. 

Memories of stagecoaches and mail coaches clattering into the bustling inns of towns across the country passed through generations. The era is recounted with great nostalgia in several publications.

In an introduction to the unpublished book ‘Riding through the Ridings’ by Joseph Appleyard (York, 1947), Major J Fairfax-Blakeborough MC laments the loss of these ‘picturesque coaching days’, describing the ‘spectacle’, the lore, legend, adventure, and poetry of the road.

Coaching Inns

The coaching era had a significant influence on several towns and villages in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Coaching inns appeared in settlements along the stages and mail routes, which became central to the economic growth of those towns and villages.

Refreshments and accommodation were required by travellers and stabling was necessary for the teams of horses. The establishment of a busy coaching inn meant increased business for local blacksmiths, harness makers, provisions dealers and stationers. The knock-on effect could be enormous. The coaching business influenced the breeding of horses and the size and success of markets for horse dealing.

The coaching inn with its frequent, though often brief, influx of travellers became a hub for the exchange of regional and national news and information.

Towns such as Northallerton and Thirsk, situated close to the Great North Road, were perfectly placed to take full advantage of the opportunities coach travel provided. In Northallerton the Golden Lion became the principal coaching inn, although it was not the first. The Black Bull and King’s Head were the earliest coaching inns. These were small concerns and the rapid increase in coaches and travellers meant that a new, much larger Inn was needed in the town and the Golden Lion took up the task. Mr Frank Hirst was a landlord, coach proprietor and postmaster during the height of the coaching era. He is said to have kept or ‘stood’ around 30 horses in stabling at the Golden Lion and more at other properties, amassing great wealth before his death in 1835.

Part of Northallerton Tithe map [T], 1842, showing the extent of the yards and stabling to High Street properties such as the Golden Lion

At Thirsk, the Three Tunns was the oldest coaching Inn although the Golden Fleece became the principal establishment, and gained something of a monopoly of the business in the town.

Mr Blyth grew the business after his relative Mrs Cass retired from the Three Tunns and gave him her horses to set up at the Golden Fleece, which he improved and enlarged. After Blyth’s death the business was inherited by his niece’s husband and the Hall family became proprietors for many years. Coaches running between Newcastle and Leeds, Edinburgh to London, and Newcastle to London all stopped here day and night. William Hall, who had been raised in the busiest years of coaching and inherited the business as a young man, was well-known for passing on tales of the age late into the 19th century.

This drawing of The Fleece Inn Yard, Thirsk by Joseph Appleyard, is part of a collection of drawings prepared for his unpublished book “Riding through the Ridings” and was sourced on the Joseph Appleyard website and reproduced with the kind permission of his family

Coaching characters

Stage coaches were privately owned, the proprietors employing coachmen as drivers. The drivers of those coaches which were contracted to deliver mail would also be accompanied by a guard, employed by the Post Office

The Coachman

The coachman had the opportunity to talk with passengers travelling on the outside of the coach. Initially, only one passenger was permitted to sit beside the driver of a mail coach though this later increased to three when an additional seat was added behind the driver.

The coachman was responsible for the coach arriving at its destination at the correct time.

The drawings of the coachman and the guard, above and below, by Joseph Appleyard, is part of a collection of drawings prepared for his unpublished book “Riding through the Ridings” and was sourced on the Joseph Appleyard website and reproduced with the kind permission of his family

The Guard

The Guard would often be armed, to defend the mail which he was transporting and the passengers if necessary. He would also carry a timepiece and a horn to signal to toll keepers to let the coach through, to signal of their arrival at stopping points and to warn other road users to keep clear. There were familiar calls on the horn for instruction, but also calls of no particular significance, played to cheer the passengers.

Being a guard could be lucrative as passengers were expected to tip their guard, and any other staff who provided them with service of any kind during their journey and at stops.

Coachmen, guards, and other staff employed at the coaching inns that people travelled through regularly would become well-known characters. Some of those employed in the coaching business carried out their roles for many years, their tales and exploits becoming folklore. The employer of two such characters, Billy Baines, a Post Boy at the Golden Fleece, Thirsk, for 50 years and Elizabeth Gill a chambermaid there for 55 years reported their deaths in a London newspaper, recognising how widely they would have been known.

The Perils of Coach Travel


In the 17th and 18th centuries, before armed guards were routinely employed, travellers on remote roads could be plagued by thieves. Tales of these highwaymen became increasingly fantastic and glamourous in the years since following their demise.

Well-known figures such as Swift Nick Nevison and later Dick Turpin, who both operated on the Great North Road, have become legendary.

Dangerous driving

There are numerous accounts of accidents involving stage and mail coaches and their passengers in records and in newspaper articles. In the early days of coach travel, and before regulations were introduced in attempts to improve safety, there were many factors which could result in injury or death to passengers: Poor or at best variable road conditions, adverse weather, badly maintained vehicles, ill or erratic horses and reckless drivers. Many of these issues related to the fierce competition which developed between coaches.

From the early 19th century, both coaches and many roads were improved. Legislation was introduced requiring the names of the coach proprietors to be painted on the coaches. The law stated that stagecoaches were not to carry more than six passengers on the roof and no more than two on the box. There were overall height restrictions. Coachmen faced fines and penalties for failure to comply.

Intoxicated coachmen came in for a maximum of £10 penalty, or the alternative, a term of imprisonment between three and six months.

‘To pursuing Thomas Mackleain an Highwayman, with a Hue and Cry warrant, on the 11th & 12th December 1795’ [QSB 1796 1/15/7]

A coach of one’s own

The growth of stage coaches as a means of transport in the late 18th and early 19th century meant that many people could travel further afield than ever before. However, the many perils of the road, not to mention the inability to choose ones travelling companions, meant that those who could afford it, preferred to travel in their own private carriages.

Only the wealthiest in society had the means to buy and keep a carriage. The costs involved not only the vehicle, but the horses and harness and their maintenance, staff to care for the horses and drive the carriage and sufficient land and stabling. All of this collectively was known as ‘equipage’. To the wealthiest of families, the carriage was an opportunity to demonstrate their status. They would not only employ a driver, but footmen and postillion riders, who would be provided with a particular uniform or livery. Their carriages usually bearing the family coat of arms or monogram. In addition to these expenses, carriages were also taxed. By 1810, a sum of £7 was due for every four wheeled carriage owned with £3 10s for each 2 wheeled vehicle.

Numerous types of carriage where available. The Barouche, Brougham, Dormeuse, Chaise, Phaeton and Landau, to name but a few. The smaller 2 wheeled carriages such as the dog cart or gig could be used for travelling short distances. The lightweight ‘Curricle’ and the high, single seated ‘Sulky’ were particularly popular among wealthy young men, the equivalent of today’s sportscars.

Second-hand carriages were sometimes advertised for sale in the press. Coach makers would take in used carriages in part-exchange and sell on the old stock. Larger towns and cities often had carriage marts, trading in used vehicles and parts.

Account of Samuel Butler for a carriage for Sir Lawrence Dundas, 1764 [ZNK X 1/9/57]

This bill for a carriage for Sir Lawrence Dundas, dated 1764, shows that coach builder Samuel Butler was to spare no expense. Features chosen included ’Spiral springs with neat brass furniture’ and ‘super fine cloth’. The coach had windows made using diamond cut class, with gilt edges and decorated with silk blinds. The wheels and springs were ‘Richly painted with proper colour’d flowers’. Inside and outside were ‘All over handsomely carv’d’.

In 1762, Butler had built the famous gold state coach still used by the British Royal family.

Image from ‘Sketches upon the road’ [ZFM]