Carriage Accidents and Remedies in the 1700 and 1800s

During the time of carriages, there were numerous reasons as to why accidents happened and they happened to everyone. The primary causes for carriage accidents usually involved something related to drivers, roads, horses, harnesses, carriages, or riders and occurred for a variety of reasons that ranged from intoxicated drivers to equipment failures to shying or bolting horses.

The Runaway Coach by Rowlandson, Carriage Accidents

“The Runaway Coach” by Thomas Rowlandson. Public domain.

The following posts lists the causes of carriage accidents, some of which were deadly and also offers some of the remedies people suggested to prevent future accidents and incidents.

Causes for Carriage Accidents
Drivers Roads Horses
Careless Drivers
Furious Drivers
Ignorant Drivers
Collision with Other Vehicles
Loose Stones
Undocked Tails
Swish Tails
Other Problems


Remedies for Drivers Caused Accidents

  1. Careless Driving – Careless driving often resulted because a driver was not pay attention, which then resulted in carriages turning corners too fast, driving up banks or into ditches, or crashing into other vehicles or obstacles. Therefore, the suggestion was that proper driving needed to be observed and drivers needed to be constantly aware of what was happening to prevent carriage accidents. One story about carelessness involved Madame Récamier‘s coach when the postilion misjudged the edge of the roadway and one of the carriage wheels was wrenched off. It caused the coach to overturn and resulted in everyone and everything ending up in the ditch. “Two of the four horses were killed but the postilion escaped unhurt, as did the footman who jumped free of the accident just in time.”[1] However, those inside the carriage were bruised and Madame Récamier’s foot hurt.
  2. Furious Driving – This was a cause of accidents that could have been avoided. There were also no penalties for it, although it was suggested that if the guilty party gave out a false address, it should be a misdemeanor.
  3. Ignorant Driving – This was usually related to uneducated drivers who did not know the best way to hold the reins. Tips on holding the reins included never to drive with too slack of reins, and, supposedly, the best form was to loop one rein into the other, so that the near side rein was held under the thumb and looped over the fore-finger close to the palm. The off-rein was then looped into the near rein, and held in the palm of the hand, the tail ends of the reins hanging from the hand, the near one between the first and second finger, the other (the off one), down from the little fingers. Reins held in such a way pulled on the hand, not the fingers, and, so, were unlikely to slip through the fingers. Additionally, holding the rein in this way leveled the pull on the horse’s mouth.
  4. Intoxication – One suggestion to deter drunk drivers was to have stiff penalties inflicted upon employers of known drunkards and then ensure full penalties were meted out to guilty parties.
Carriage Accident in the Victorian Era, Public Domain

Carriage accident in the Victorian Era. Public domain.


Remedies for Accidents Causes by Road Obstacles

  1. Obstacles – There was several reasons for obstacles in the road. One main reason was because of streets being blocked for loading and unloading of goods. This caused a tremendous hazard as people attempted to maneuver around them. There was also sometimes road work with streets torn up for installation of pipes, etc. One suggestion to avoid construction and obstacles was to take back streets rather than the busier, well-traveled streets. Mail coaches also had to keep an eye out for dangerous items when they thundered down the road. Some of the things they regularly encountered were plows, tree branches, and doors, but gates were the most common thing found in roadways, and it was never clear if these obstacles were placed there to “facilitate robbery, or [done] out of sheer wantonness … [as the] instances of such acts of wickedness were frequent.”[2]
  2. Collision with Other Vehicles – This occurred primarily because of runaway horses, although it was claimed that good drivers could often avoid such collisions. One solution was for less experienced drivers to collide with something that stunned the horse and forced it to stop rather than another vehicle. There was also the “rule of the road.”[3] It stated to keep to the left side and pass vehicles going the same way by always going to the right. Such a rule offered advantages to drivers, riders, and pedestrians because it was orderly, everyone knew what to expect, and drivers could use their whips without accidentally lashing pedestrians.
  3. Loose Stones – Loose stones were particularly dangerous if a horse was traveling downhill. Stray stones usually appeared in the roadway because cart or wagon owners used the stones to block a wheel while they loaded or unloaded their cart or wagon. This was easily remedied by ensuring stones were picked up after loading or unloading.
Carriage Accident Due to Obstacles, Public Domain

Carriage accident due to obstacles. Public domain.


Remedies for Accidents Causes by Horses

  1. Bolting – Bolting usually occurs because a horse is fearful or confused. Brakes were one way fleeing horses were tired out, but for a bolting horse, drivers needed an instant release or some sort of detaching apparatus. Drivers were also advised to use a technique called “sawing the mouth.” It was where a person pulled on one rein and then the other. Once a fleeing horse was brought to a standstill, soothing words were suggested to get and keep the horse calm. Moreover, drivers were advised that they should never employ whips to pacify a restive horse as it produced the opposite effect. One person who was affected because of bolting horses was an American patrician named Gouverneur Morris. His horses were left unthethered as he took the seat and they bolted. “To control the runaway horses, he fell, and his left leg was mangled in a wheel. His left ankle was dislocated and several bones in the same leg were broken.”[4] Ultimately, his leg was amputated. Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orléans also died after his bolted. However, in this case the Duke died because he leapt from his carriage and suffered contusions to the head. 
  2. Shying – Shying was said to be the most frequent cause of carriage accidents. This usually occurred because the horse became frightened. The best way to prevent shying was to move the animal away far from the fright as quickly as possible. Another common practice by drivers was to pull the reins on the same side the horse shied. However, this sometimes caused the horse to run into some sort of danger, such as a ditch, which then might cause the vehicle to topple. Therefore, the best suggestion was good drivers should always be aware and noting the prick of the horse’s ears so that they could be ready to stop an accident before it happened.
  3. Rearing – Rearing was more common among horseback riders than horses pulling a carriage. However, once a horse began rearing, many people claimed it was difficult to stop them. Reasons for a horse rearing varied, but it included such things as excessive energy, fear, pain, etc.
  4. Jibbing – In horses that pulled carriages, jibbing (stopping and refusing to go) was more common than rearing. It was hard to eradicate such a habit as there were no mechanical contrivances to prevent it. For an occasional jibber, it was suggested a person slacken the reins and dig in the spurs. That way, supposedly, the horse would remember and be less likely to do it again. Drivers were also advised that if their horse was a jibber they should not attempt to have it pull a four-wheeled carriage, except as one of a pair. Moreover, it was suggested jibbers should pull gigs rather than other kinds of carriages.
  5. Falling – Horses do not usually fall. If they do it’s because of a simple mistake, with the most common reasons for falling related to tripping. It was claimed that tripping was much more likely to occur in horses raised in stalls because they were not allowed free range of motion. Horses raised in flat pastures or pens also had a more difficult time adjusting to rocky or irregular surfaces and were, therefore, also more likely to stumble, trip, or fall.
  6. Kicking – This was claimed to be a natural impulse in a horse that needed to be “trained out.” One tip given to help buyers avoid buying a kicker, was to harness or saddle the horse because by doing so it would reveal whether the horse possessed a kicking disposition.
  7. Undocked Tails – Horses were docked because if they had long tails it was difficult and risky to run them in harness as their tail could sometimes get tangled. Additionally, people believed an undocked tail might cause the horse to bolt if the horse’s tailed bone got over the reins.
  8. Switch Tails – Switch tails were false or fake tails made from hairpieces that were braided or tied onto a tail to make the horse’s tail fuller or longer. These were left on horses if elegance of appearance was required. However, they could also cause some horses to misbehave if the reins got under them.
  9. Other Problems – Sometimes horses suffered from what was called megrims or stomach staggers. It made the horse giddy, stagger sideways, and fall to the ground, with the horse sinking onto its hind legs first. It was frequently caused by a horse over feeding on dry oats and hay. This was remedied by feeding the horse steamed corn or a bran mash. There were also several other reasons for the malady: excessive driving, a badly fitting collar pressed against the horse’s windpipe, or a tight bearing rein.

Cigarette card showing a runaway carriage. Author’s collection.


Causes for Carriage Accidents
Harness Carriage Passengers
Breaking of Back Band
Breaking of Belly Band
Breaking of Hamestrap
Breaking of Traces or Draft Bolts
Breaking Polepieces
Breaking of Reins
Hitching of Reins under Shaftpoint or Pole
Shaft Point getting Inside Collar or into the Hame “Dee”
Using of Wrong Bits
Breaking of Axle
Wheel Coming Off
Breaking of Shafts
Breaking of Pole
Breaking of Forecarriage
Breaking of Hindcarriage
Foot of rider slipping off the step in getting in or out of carriage.
Lady’s dress catching in step in getting out.
Trying to get out of a carriage when the horse has bolted.
Sliding off the back seat because of sudden motion of the vehicle.


Remedies for Accidents Causes by Harness Issues

The main advice given to avoid harness accidents was for drivers to double check their harnesses for any defects before driving.

Remedies for Accidents Causes by Carriages Issues

To avoid carriage accidents, drivers were given the same advice as with harnesses: Check the carriage for defects or issues before driving off. Additionally, accidents involving a carriage were more likely to happen when a carriage was going up or down a hill. When going up a hill there was pressure on the carriage and horses, and the carriage could run backwards. When going down a hill, there was always the terror of the carriage descended too quickly. Moreover, when traveling downhill, the carriage could press against the horse or horses. There were numerous mechanical contrivances and inventions that could be used to prevent both uphill and downhill problems.

Remedies to Prevent Accidents Caused by Passengers

Among the advice given to prevent accidents was the following:

  1. Passengers were advised to watch their step when getting in and out of carriages to prevent accidental falls.
  2. Women were advised when getting in and out of carriages to always make sure both of their hands were free (even with the help of a gentleman). In addition, women needed to pay extra attention to their long skirts to prevent them from getting caught.
  3. Riders were advised to never jump out of carriage in motion as it was a risky proposition. However, if a horse bolted and the person wanted out, the person was advised to jump in the same direction as the horses were going.
  4. When riding in carriages, passengers were advised to pay attention and be careful to secure themselves so as not to slid off the seat if there was any sort of sudden movement.

One important side note about carriages: The choice seat in a carriage was the one on the right hand side facing the animals and, so, was usually reserved or given to women or the elderly.


  • [1] Walton, Geri, Napoleon’s Downfall, 2020, p. 88.
  • [2] Hyde, James Wilson, The Royal Mail, 1899, p. 35.
  • [3] Saddle, Harness Makers, Carriage Builders’ Gazette, Vol 14-15, 1884, p. 138.
  • [4] Kirschke, James J. Gouverneur Morris, 2005, p. 116.

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