Diligence Coach: How People Traveled in It in France

The diligence coach was a Frenchman’s main public conveyance. It was equivalent to its English counterpart, the stage coach. It falls into the category of a traveling coach and was used in the 1700 and 1800s to travel long distances throughout continental Europe. It was a solidly-built coach pulled by four or more horses. Everyone traveled in them at some point including the French socialite Madame Récamier, the wax sculptor Madame Tussaud, and Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal responsible for the drownings at Nantes.

Traveling in France in a diligence coach, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Traveling in France in a diligence coach. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One early description of the diligence coach stated that “the body of the carriage rests upon large thongs of leather, fastened to heavy blocks of wood, instead of springs, and the whole is drawn by seven horses.”[1] Eventually, however, diligence coaches traveling between Paris and Lyons were the first to be fitted with springs. The diligence coach also traveled at six or seven miles an hour, and how they traveled that quickly is amazing as it was usually laden down with people and luggage:

“Upon the roof, on the outside, is the imperial, which is generally filled with six or seven persons more, and a heap of luggage, which latter also occupies the basket, and generally presents a pile, half as high again as the coach, which is secured by ropes and chains, tightened by a large iron windlass, which also constitutes another appendage of this moving mass.”[2]

To drive the moving mass and steer the horses, the coachman’s spot was described as “every where — sometimes on the dickey — then on the top — then on one of the wheel-horses; and, in going up hill, two or three rods behind the diligence.”[3] That was partly because early diligence coaches placed the coachman’s perch well behind the rear axles.

Diligence coachman. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Diligence coaches were often claimed to be a “species of omnibus, having four places to carry passengers.”[4] In total, most diligence coaches carried between “fourteen to seventeen persons, exclusive of the conducteur [sic] and the postillions.”[5] The conductor rode on the imperial and was responsible “for the comfort of the passengers and safety of the luggage.”[6] When a team of five or more horses was involved, the conductor controlled the rear horses, while the postilions controlled the front horses.

The Diligence Coach, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The diligence coach. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Postilions were essential post-boys, and as horses were mounted from the left, postilions normally rode the front left horse in a pair. When a double team was used, there were often two postillions — one for each pair — or one postillion would ride on the left rear horse in order to control all four horses. Additionally, the postillion was usually the person off and on the horse “twenty times in the course of one stage without ever stopping the vehicle.”[6] When passengers needed help, it was the postillion who dismounted and harkened to answer their call and left the animals “to their own guidance.”[7] Otherwise, the postillion was rarely noticed even though he was often the person “repairing an accident — knotting his whip, or mending his saddle, or joining a bridle, or knocking some part of the machinery with a stone picked up from the road.[8] For this hard work, the postillion received a small amount in comparison to the conductor, and, in response, travelers were “thanked with a low bow, and many ‘bien obligés.'”[9]

Norman horses were the animals that pulled the diligence coach. These horses, named after the province from which they originated, were a cross between small horses called bidets and large Roman mares. The new breed was a light draft horse with a robust confirmation similar to a thoroughbred. They were often described as “small, stout, short, and full of spirit.”[10] The spirited Norman horses competed effectively against canal boats and, despite their heavy loads, clipped along at “six or seven miles an hour.”[11]

Anglo-Norman Horse, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Anglo-Norman horse. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of the size of the diligence coach and the strength of the horses, people had a tendency to overloaded them. This was the experience of one English traveler heading from France to Belgium. He complained his journey in the diligence was “abominable and disgusting.” One of the main reasons had to do with him and his fellow travelers going “from a five to a three horse Diligence, which, when … weighed [was] eight tons on the weigh-bridge, having thirty-four passengers!!”[12] Besides being squeezed into the diligence as if a sardine, the English traveler complained that the coach was so over-packed their arrival could not occur until “every box and trunk, and pack, which this huge machine [carried was opened and examined upon] …. entering the Belgic frontier.”[13]

Paris Diligence Coach, Public Domain

Paris diligence coach. Public domain.

The belief among many travelers was that a diligence coach could never be overturned, but that was precisely what happened to one diligence coach during an Italian rain storm. It occurred in an area with long ascents and a threatening precipice. Another set of diligence travelers heading to San Remo suddenly came upon the overturned coach and found it was “leaning heavily over a ditch.”[14] The accident occurred in part because of a careless conductor, an unlit diligence lamp, and “the obstinacy of a drunken postilion, who insisted on keeping too close to the ditch side of the road, while he instinctively avoided the precipice side.”[15] An attempt to extricate the diligence coach with its conductor and postillion proved unsuccessful. So, the diligence coach heading to San Remo had its horses harnessed to the precariously perched diligence.

The first attempt to secure the diligence coach resulted in “further locking of the wheel … and an additional bundling sideways of the leaning diligence.”[16] The second attempt also proved futile. Before the third attempt, the passengers were requested to exit the coach, and, “out into the rain and mud and darkness they came, warned by [the] conductor to beware of stumbling over the precipitous cliff, which dropped straight from the roadside … hundreds of feet down, into the sea.”[17] This time after a simultaneous “Ee-ye-ho! ee-yuch-yuch!” success was achieved. The diligence coach was restored to its upright position.

Tarascon diligence coach by Vincent Van Gogh, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tarascon diligence coach by Vincent Van Gogh. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the passengers in the overturned diligence coach may have never wanted to travel in a diligence again, the advantages of it made it the preferred mode of travel throughout Europe in the 1700 and 1800s. One advantage to the diligence coach was a cheaper fare. This was because “the average rate of fares [in a diligence] was equal to about a penny a mile, expect for the coupe, which [was] higher.”[18] Diligence seats were also numbered:

“[E]ach passenger [took] the seat allotted to him when paying the fare: the corner seats [were] always preferred, and [were] allotted to the first comers. Every passenger’s name was [also] called … before [the passenger entered].”[19]

Another advantage was the diligence coach carried a great deal of heavy luggage. In England the same amount of luggage would have been conveyed by wagon or canal and not be readily accessible to the passengers. However, perhaps, the most advantageous difference was the amusement English travelers enjoyed. Their enjoyment was brought on by “the grotesque dress and tintinnabular taste of the [diligence] driver, who attach[ed] small bells to the horses of the diligence,”[20] thereby providing a jingling announcement of his moving mass as they sped from village to village and town to town.


  • [1] Carr, Sir John, The Stranger in France, 1803, p. 32.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Wheaton, Nathaniel Sheldon, A Journal of a Residence During Several Months in London, 1830, p. 337.
  • [4] Beckinridge, Robert Jefferson, Memoranda of Foreign Travel, 1845, p. 162.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The Sporting Magazine, Vol. 46, 1815, p. 83.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Carr, Sir John, 1803, p. 33.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 58, 1840, p. 21.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 18, 1866, p. 352.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1843, p. 351.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Planta, Edward, A New Picture of Paris, 1831, p. 35-36.

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  1. Sally Roberts on January 1, 2023 at 12:59 am

    Thank you. I wonder if you could help me. My greatgrandfather wrote of travelling from Genoa to UK in 1840 by stage coach. Would you know if this might have been possible and if so how can I find out more about the routes through Italy and France? Kindest regards. Sally

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