French Diligence and the Stories of Its Travelers

The French diligence coach was the Frenchman’s main public conveyance. Some people thought it equivalent to its English counterpart, the stage coach. One writer claimed that the diligence coach was “a huge, heavy, lofty, lumbering machine, something between an English stage and a broad-wheeled waggon.”[1] English stage-coaches were equipped with two qualities of seating — inside and outside — whereas the French diligence coach in comparison had four sections, with three — the coupe, the interieur, the rotonde — essentially joined together forming the inside and the banquette on top above the coupe. That may have been partly why the French diligence was soon found from Austria to Russia and from Italy to Holland. Because of the French diligence’s prevalence, many nineteenth century travelers rode in them and offered opinions about their experience.

French diligence

Thomas Rowlandson’s “The Paris Diligence.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

One opinion came from an American named Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton, a graduate of Yale college. He traveled to Europe between 1823 and 1824 and during his travels he recorded his experiences in his journals claiming:

“[T]he body of the Diligence — or more properly, the three bodies put together — cannot be less than sixteen or eighteen feet long, each compartment being covered so as to form a continuous roof for the luggage, and a station for passengers in a fair day, whence they have a fine view of the country … The horse-gear is an indescribable composition of old scraps of leather, ropes, tow-strings, raw hide, chains, and bits of wood, put together as fancy or convenience dictate.”[2]

Eaux-Chaudes - Arrivée d'une French Diligence, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Eaux-Chaudes – Arrivée d’une Diligence. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When this indescribable composition got underway, Wheaton claimed they were “swept along with portentous rapidity.”[3] However, their forward rapidity did not last long as they were soon brought to a screeching halt due to straps and rigging falling to the ground. “Similar accidents happen[ed] a dozen times … and the conductor as often ran back to look for some piece of broken gear, which had fallen off in the hurly-burly — the piles of flint stones by the wayside always supplying a convenient hammer for adjusting the iron work.”[4] Wheaton also maintained that it was never clear how many horses were supposed to be pulling the diligence at any one time. Horses were constantly hitched or unhitched willy-nilly and done so “at any convenient place; so that there are sometimes three or four abreast … at different intervals.”[5]

Sir John Carr was an English barrister and travel writer who visited in France probably around the same time that Madame Tussaud was heading to London in 1802 to exhibit her wax figures. Carr’s travels resulted in The Stranger in France, a Tour from Devonshire to Paris that was published in 1803. His travel often resulted in him taking one of the French diligence coaches. He was not particularly impressed by it and noted:

“[The top of the diligence accommodated] three passengers, who are protected from the rain above, by the projecting roof of the coach, and in front by two heavy curtains of leather, well oiled, and smelling somewhat offensively, fastened to the roof. The inside, which is capacious, and lofty, and will hold six people in great comfort, is lined with leather padded, and surrounded with little pockets, in which travellers deposit their bread, snuff, night caps and pocket handkerchiefs, which generally enjoy each others company, in the same delicate depository. From the roof depends a large net work which is generally crouded [sic] with hats, swords, and band boxes, the whole is convenient, and when all parties are seated and arranged, the accommodations are by no means unpleasant.”[6]

Sir John Carr, Public Domain

Sir John Carr. Public domain.

His overall opinion was it was unpleasant, and he declared there was nothing as bad as the French diligence, stating, “a more uncouth clumsy machine can scarcely be imagined.”[7] He also maintained that the diligence was nothing more than “a cabriolet fixed to the body of the coach.”[8] Other people also argued whether the cabriolet was truly an “uncouth” vehicle.

Wilhelm Von Diez's Postkutschenreise, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Wilhelm Von Diez’s Postkutschenreise. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Edward Planta hoped to provide something better than the “inaccurate and ill-written” travel publications of his time. He wrote A New Picture of Paris that came out about year after Napoleon Bonaparte‘s loss at Waterloo. Planta’s intention in writing the book was to acquaint first time travelers with the French capital and the Frenchman’s various modes of travel. He described the French diligence as “a most curious and unique machine; it is a strange compound of the English stage wagon and coach; and its singularity possesses all the conveniences of each, without their defects.”[9] He also described the interior of the diligence and noted that it was “divided into two bodies.”[10] It could also accommodate between four and six passengers depending on its size. He also asserted:

“[The exterior with its leathern covers] defend[ed] both the head and legs from weather [and] … the conductor forms one of the party in the cabriolet; but if the weather be fine, he will go on the top of the diligence. Some diligences have the cabriolet inclosed [sic]; it is then termed the coupe and is by far the pleasantest part of the vehicle. The inside passengers are seated completely at their ease, free from the torture to which the unfortunate inmates of many of our stage coaches are frequently doomed; but the smallness of the windows, and the manner in which the seats are arranged, prevent them from enjoying much view of the country.”[11]

A French Diligence on the Road, Public Domain

French diligence on the road. Public domain.

While Wheaton, Carr, and Planta had differing opinions about the French diligence, for most Europeans, they found the vehicle to be a popular form of travel. There were many reason why it became popular. Among the reasons were its capacity to hold many travelers, along with its cheap fares, and its “being a little elevated above the springs, … [ so that there was] scarcely a possibility of the carriage being overturned.”[12] Moreover, the diligence clipped along at six or seven miles an hour and any of these reasons was good enough for the Swiss who employed it to deliver their mail. Austrians and Italians also found the French diligence advantageous, as did people in the southern parts of Germany. In Germany, the French diligence went by the “name of eilwagen (quick-coach)”[13] and in Prussia it was called schnellpost (quick-post). Even people in Holland, Belgium, and Russia used diligence coaches, and, although the diligence coaches in all these countries were supposedly similar, those of Russia were said “to be of a rather superior kind … [and] kept in [the most] excellent order.”[14]

French diligence. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

References:

  • [1] Ingram, Arthur, Horse-Drawn Vehicles Since 1760, 1977, p. 143.
  • [2] Wheaton, Nathaniel Sheldon, A Journal of a Residence During Several Months in London, 1830, p. 337.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 338.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 337.
  • [6] Carr, Sir John, The Stranger in France, 1803, p. 31-32.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 31.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 31
  • [9] Planta, Edward, A New Picture of Paris, 1827, p. 36.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1843, p. 351.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 352.

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