Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

The Role of the Royal Mail Guard

with Martin Horler on Thursday, 13 June 2024
at 7pm at The Mint Methodist Church Centre, Exeter (Rowe Hall)

Dressed in full Royal Mail Guard uniform and sounding his post horn, Martin Horler made his impressive entrance to talk to the Society. The first image of his PowerPoint presentation featured The New London Royal Mail Coach pulled by four horses (plus two cock horses in heavy weather). Henry VIII started up a service to receive his own post but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that a really fast coach service came about.

Ralph Allan ran the Post Office and used Post Boys, who had to be over the age of 14. As identification they wore a silver medallion around their necks. They were a target of impoverished highwaymen and footpads who demanded valuables and money which was enclosed with letters. One way of defeating their efforts was a recommendation for the sender to cut notes in half and send one half to the recipient. If it arrived at its destination the other half could then be sent. Dick Turpin, a notorious highwayman was a butcher by day, who was finally caught by someone recognising the horse he had stolen. Only the Post Office could transport mail as ordinary road coaches were not allowed.

In the 1770s and 1780s John Palmer who owned the Theatre Royal in Bristol and the Theatre Royal in Bath had set up his own rapid carriage service to transport actors and props between theatres and to prevent a play script being lost or stolen, and it was common practice to send a fictitious parcel as a decoy. It was his belief that such a faster service could speed up Post Office deliveries and he lobbied William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who accepted the proposal. The Pitt family owned a house in Bath and his and the Palmer family used to meet up in the Assembly Rooms. John Palmer ran his first experimental journey at his own expense which left Bristol at 4 p.m. on 2 August 1784 and reached London at 8 a.m. the next day. The practice continued for ten months before Pitt agreed for the Government to take it on.

To maintain the fast timetable contracts were set up with inns along the route for a fresh change of horses every ten or so miles. The Post Office did not own the coaches but would be hired from contractors ensuring that they would be maintained and kept clean by them. A Job Master called Hobson owned hundreds of horses and wouldn’t allow anyone to specify which horses were wanted as part of the contract and selected the horses himself, the origin of the saying “Hobson’s Choice”, meaning no choice. The Turnpike Trust was set up and roads were built with a camber so that rain would run off. Toll Houses were erected along the routes with toll house keepers in situ to take tolls for use of the roads where a toll would be paid for every vehicle, sheep or cattle. The mail coaches were exempt from tolls and a horn would be sounded in advance of the arrival of the coach to ensure that the gate would be open to let the mail coach and armed guard through without stopping.

The original Bath coach’s first journey was 1 August 1786 and took 16 hours to reach London. Post boys took double the time. Martin showed images of the Post Office off Cheapside in London and Lad Lane, now Gresham Street, and a pub called the Swan with the two necks. There were images of the General Post Office, an example of a mail bag, the coach’s Boot with a hasp and staple. The Guard had his own padlock. Martin said he had been able to gain a lot of information from a visit to the Post Office Archive.

The Coachman was on the front of the coach, and the box seat was on the back. Inside there were four seats. A one-way ticket was all that could be purchased. An outside seat cost 14 shillings, and an inside seat cost 28 shillings. The Mail Guard earned one sovereign a week. Mail coaches were always on time and safe because there was an armed guard with his blunderbuss. Road coaches were not so fast because more people were on them.

In 1776 Palmer became Comptroller General of the Post Office responsible for roads and coaches and was responsible for setting up the system of arterial roads, an example being the A4/A303 London to Exeter, known as the Exeter Road. 47 mail coaches left London at 8 p.m. each evening covering 4110 miles. Palmer was finally pushed out of the Post Office because he was too autocratic and in 1797 Pitt secured him a pension of £3,000 per year. In 1818 John Palmer died and there is a memorial to him in Bath Abbey.

Floods were the worst enemy for coaches where drivers couldn’t see that bridges had washed away. Horses react differently in thunderstorms. In snowdrifts the Guard (who was the only Post Office employee) would take one of the leader-horses, take off the harness and ride off with the mail bags to endeavour to get the mail delivered. The Guard was given a warning for any misdemeanour, such as carrying fish, game, or deer in the Boot as a means of extra income.

Martin described the coach livery with the undercarriage in red, the coach in maroon and black with the destination, the Royal Coat of Arms, and the number of the coach on the Boot, along with gold leaf.

Martin showed actual examples as follows:

Royal Mail Artefacts - Martin Horler

A Lamp, the Weapons box which carried a pair of pistols, and blunderbuss which was fired from the hip, and a cutlass. The Post Office employed ex-army personnel as they were used to military discipline and were told to shoot to kill, but Martin said he had not come across any evidence that they did.

The Horn was 36” long and made of tin; copper horns were 42” long; and the horn demonstrated by Martin was 51” long

Calls were standard and five minutes were allowed for change of horses.

He blew a series of calls to demonstrate their differences: “Call to Board”; “Warning Start to Ostlers”; “Clear the Road” where ostlers were waiting out in the road; “Nearside Call” and “Offside Call” where a mail coach would signal which side of an obstructing vehicle it wanted to pass; “Pull Up Call” for road coaches which would stop for people waiting at the side of the road if there were vacant seats; “Change of Horses”; “Post Horn Call” to a Toll Gate to warn that a mail coach was coming through at 4 a.m. (gate open ready so that the coach did not have to stop).

Ring Guard at Romsey 2015

Martin then described all aspects of the uniform he was wearing:

Hat made of beaver skin; gloves, new livery coat every year for the King which was good for keeping the rain out; breeches made of buck-skin; leather boots and leather leggings; bag worn around the neck with a clock on the back which showed whether he was keeping to the tight timed schedule.

The final Call was “Home” which was blown on the occasion of a funeral of a Royal Mail Guard.

The British mail system became the envy of the world. The first Royal Mail coach was 1784 and the last one into London was 1874. In 1839 railways were used to load mail onto mail coaches.

Mail coaches were kings of the road. They travelled at night because roads would be quieter. The London to Exeter Royal Mail coach always left at 8 p.m. and would arrive in Exeter at 3.15 p.m. the following day.

Martin was thanked for a very lively, interesting and informative talk. See the website of the Bath Postal Museum for more information.

[ Sue Jackson, images are courtesy of Martin Horler ]

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