TRAVEL BEFORE THE RAILWAYS
13 February 2019
It is hard to imagine how people travelled before railways. Coaches first appeared in England in the 16th & 17th Centuries as the preserve of the rich who liked to be seen in them. The coaches were very expensive to store and maintain so were not available to most people. However, soon stagecoaches began to run out of London and travellers could book seats. These services became increasingly popular and were only in fact curtailed by the railways in the early 1800s.
Searching through the records there is an early reference to the Countess of Bath’s servant going to London on a stagecoach in 1648. By 1700 there is evidence of a regular service between London and Exeter. Speeds increased from 4 to 10mph. Exeter Flying Post ads show one service per week in 1766 and every day by 1758. Competition forced prices down (from £2.5.0d to £1.10.0d i.e. 3p per mile) while the services improved radically.
A real setback for coach travel was the state of the roads but by 1700 the infrastructure was improving once Turnpike Trusts had been established. They charged for road use and used the money thus earned to maintain 20,000 miles of roads. In due course the Trusts started on road improvement as well using military expertise and they even obtained mortgages against future income to contribute to improving/maintaining the roads.
Originally coaching inns were established inside city walls. The coaches would stop at the inns to change horses and enable the passengers to buy food or even spend the night. But as the coaches speeded up they needed more stopping points and did not want to waste valuable time at an inn. Various organisations cooperated on providing horses every ten miles (the maximum distance a horse could gallop non-stop) so that the coaches could keep up their great speed. The Royal Mail embraced this much faster system.
Exeter’s infrastructure was forced to change. The city gates were very narrow as were the streets and the demands of coach travel meant that by 1784 Eastgate had been demolished. In 1778 a wider bridge allowed free movement to Plymouth, the new Howell Road enabled easy coach travel to Tiverton and in 1835 coaches were using the New North Road.
By 1800 there was a wide variety of available stagecoach services with different prices, levels of comfort and speed. The Quicksilver to Plymouth was the fastest while the London Telegraph took 17 hours between Exeter and London at a cost of 5p per mile. The 19-hour service was cheaper (fish as luggage was forbidden!).
The numbers of coaches between London and Exeter increased rapidly and by 1830 many were extending down into Cornwall as well. Merchants, shop keepers, wives and children travelled inside these coaches. The cost was £2.5.0d from Exeter to London (i.e.5 pence per mile) but the cost to travel outside the coach was half that. So poorer people were only paying 2 ½ pence per mile. This when a labourer’s weekly wage was about ten shillings and a wagoner earned £1/week. So most people still walked. Originally there were no seats on top. Later there were seats but for safety it was important to stay awake. Apart from the fare, inside passengers had to pay a tip to the various coachmen who were changed almost as often as the horses.
Records appear to show that most of the coach travel was organized out of London. In the West Country services concentrated on smaller coaches feeding the Exeter to London run. So a provincial network developed with Exeter as the main hub. In the Exeter Pocket Journal of 1809 and 1838 can be found descriptions of these small coach services run by Thomas King in Bath(?) – Bath was very popular as a tourist resort - and John Whitmarsh in Taunton.
Contemporaneous diaries show that the great majority of people did not use the scheduled services but instead travelled in hired vehicles. A post-chaise was a light coach with 2 horses and a postilion and it cost 9p per mile. They accommodated two people in comfort and the great advantage was being able to choose your route. The post chaise would travel for 10-12 miles and then passengers would transfer to another and then another. They were used mainly for recreational travel and were considered very romantic (fiction heroines were always escaping in these vehicles in the 1780s to 1900s!).
The diaries of one Samuel Kirwan show that he travelled to London or Bristol on stagecoaches which used turnpiked roads. However, he frequently used horses on bridleways and one diary listing shows him having made 53 journeys by horse, 13 on post chaises and 6 by stagecoach (for longer trips).
The advent of the railways killed off long distance stage coach travelling but smaller coaches continued to be needed so that people could travel around Devon and also to deliver to and collect passengers from railway stations.