French Diligence and Its Drivers

In the early 1800s, one gentleman decided to travel to France “to gratify the wish of [his] Father, who was desirous to know the real state of the people of France, and especially of the farmers and labourers.” French coaches and coachmen were different in several ways from English coaches and coachmen. During his visit, the gentleman came upon a diligence (a form of public conveyance equivalent to the English stage coach). He described the French diligence and its drivers, as well as two outriders (escorts). His remarks follow:

“Coming out of Calais I met a diligence, or French coach, with two outriders. The cavalcade, altogether, was the most uncouth thing of the kind I had ever seen. I was obliged to retreat before it for some distance, to find a convenient place to let it go by, on account of the fear manifested by my horse. I stopped, and let it pass. One of the outriders gave my nag a cut with his whip in going by, and I did not expect any a salutation more polite, from the barbarous appearance of the whole concern, and especially from the manner in which the horses were driven along, which was, by the bawling of the riders, and the clacking of their whips in such a manner as almost to stun one.

French diligence and its drivers

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

There were five horses to the vehicle, which looked as cumbersome as those in which they carry wild beasts in England, and certainly less handsome, if beauty may be considered in such a case. The driver rode on one of the wheel-horses, which were two, abreast of each other, the three others being all abreast before. A description of the dress of the drivers of these carriages would appear incredible to an Englishman. I have seen caricatures of it in England: but, I expected to find the mode of travelling much altered: nevertheless, it appears to be nearly the same that it was many years ago.

French Coachman. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The driver and the outriders wore boots, which admit of no comparison with any thing that I ever saw before that went by the name of boots. Take off the foot, which was twice as big as feet generally are, the boot is a long fire-bucket; and if I were to fill a sheet of paper, I could not convey a more correct idea of the thing. The hat worn by the wearers of these boots, is of the old French fashion; that is to say, inclining in its shape towards a pyramid, the width of the crown at the top being, compared to its width, at the bottom, in about the same proportion as six inches bear to eight. The brim of the hat is remarkably small; and, from under the hind part of this hangs a pigtail, which, in respect to its size, needs no alteration to make it correspond with the boots. A great part of the powder belonging to the pigtail serves, as the rider bumps upon his saddle, to variegate his skeleton jacket, which was, in this case, of a blue colour with red collar and cuffs, and of so very scanty a fashion, that it appeared to be much too small for the wearer: it puts one in mind of one of those lucky school-boys, who have not been sufficiently starved to prevent them from growing out of their jackets.”

References:

  • Cobbett, James Paul, A Ride of Eight Hundred Miles in France, 3rd Edition, 1827.

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