Postal delivery service began in England in 1635 and it existed in the same form for 150 years. Mounted carriers rode between “posts” taking letters handed to them by local postmasters until they eventually reached the proper local postmasters, who in turn delivered them to the intended recipient in their area. This system was highly inefficient, and the post riders were easy targets for robbers, which is why theater owner John Palmer thought he could do better.
Palmer transported actors and materials. He believed his ideas could improve mail delivery countrywide. Fortunately for Palmer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, decided to let Palmer try, and he was successful: He beat the old delivery time by 22 hours and brought the mail from Bristol to London in 16 hours. A year later, in 1785, mail coaches, sometimes called a post coaches, were in business delivering mail from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle.
To further improve speed, Palmer’s mail service was soon aided by the creation of turnpike roads in the late 1780s. These roads allowed faster travel and “opened the way to enterprise amongst the proprietors of stage coaches.” The first mail coaches on these turnpikes, along with the horses and drivers, were supplied by contractors. They received on average “one penny-halfpenny per mile.” However, these contracted mail coaches were poorly built, and, by the 1800s, the Post Office owned their own fleets of coaches with black and scarlet livery.
Mail coaches were usually drawn by four horses and accommodated four passengers inside and three passengers outside. One American priest named Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton who visited England claimed the inside of the mail coach was “incommodious … the seats being small and very insecure.” It may have been worse if you rode outside the coach because riders could not sleep and dust was their constant companion.
As for the mail, it was secured by lock and key at the rear of the coach in a mail box and guarded by a Royal mail post office guard. Such guards were armed with pistols and followed strict rules that were enforced without exception to prevent the mail from being stolen.
By the 1820s, mail travel improved again. One writer claimed English traveling was the “ne plus ultra of perfection.” That was because a newspaper “published in London on a Saturday night, would be conveyed to subscribers, one hundred and seventy miles, by Sunday at noon.” For those who rode on these flying mail coaches, it was an experiencing not soon to be forgotten. Mail coaches were even helpful to Madame Tussaud as she claimed that many Kilkenny visitors were delivered northward to her exhibition in Dublin by them. One mid nineteenth-century traveler who took a mail coach remarked:
“[When] you hear the thunder of lids locked down upon the mail-bags … [it is a] signal for drawing off … Then … the horses [come] into play. Horses! Can these be horses that bound off with the action and gestures of leopards? … what thundering of wheels! — what a trampling of hoofs! — what a sounding of trumpets! — what farewell cheers — what redoubling peals of brotherly congratulation, connecting the name of the particular mail — ‘Liverpool for ever!’ — with the name of the particular victory — ‘Badajoz for ever!’ or ‘Salamanca for ever!'”
As mail coaches thundered down the turnpikes, they had to keep a sharp eye out for dangerous items in their path. It is unclear whether these items were placed there to “facilitate robbery, or [done] out of sheer wantonness … [as the] instances of such acts of wickedness were frequent.” Gates were one common thing mail coaches encountered on the roads. In 1804, a gate was found in the middle of the turnpike near Welwyn and two other gates at the entrance to Welwyn Lane. There was also, a large gate discovered near Ewenny Bridge in 1809, eleven gates were found outside of Lancaster on the way to Burton-in-Kendal in 1812, and between Northwich and Warrington in November 1815, at least eight more gates. But gates were not the only thing found in the speeding mail coach’s path.
“Early on the morning of the 14th April 1806, the mail-coach was obstructed, in coming out of Dumfries, by some evil-disposed persons placing boughs or branches of trees across the turnpike road, by which the lives of the passengers were put in peril and the mail much delayed … [and, in] … June 1817, the horses of the mail-coach were thrown down near Newmarket, and much injured, by stumbling over a plough and harrow, wickedly placed in their way by some evil-doers.”
Near misses or accidents were not just caused by maliciousness or dangerous items on roadways. Sometimes mail coaches caused the problems. This was the case with a speeding mail coach that resulted in a dangling draught horse. It occurred when the Sligo three-horse mail was charging down a narrow roadway leading to the bridge and suddenly rounded a corner. It struck an oat laden cart, which caused the oats to shift to the rear of the cart, “and in a twinkling, like Mahomet’s coffin, the draught horse was seen to be dangling in mid-air.” The constable tried to detain the offending coach, but the guard “snatched a pistol out of the arm-chest, and prepared at once to finish off the constable [if he did not let the coach proceed.]” The constable relented and the coach headed towards Sligo, “while the oat-cart horse was left contemplating the firmament from the altitude of a first-floor window.” As the guard was known, he was soon hauled before the magistrate for threatening the constable. He claimed he did not cock the pistol and that it was “merely produced … [for] moral motives and quite in a Pickwickian sense … So he got off.”
A more severe accident occurred in Scotland on the night of 25 October 1808 and involved several fatalities. It happened about ten o’clock at night at a place called Howcleugh. A mail coach heading from Glasgow to Carlisle made it halfway over the bridge, when the bridge suddenly collapsed in the middle arch. Apparently, the bridge had been weakened by frost and floods and no one knew at the time that there was any danger.
“The coach, passengers, horses, &c. were instantly precipitated into the river, down a fall of 35 or 40 feet. There were four inside and two outside passengers; the two outside passengers and two of the horses were killed upon the spot, and the other passengers had a most miraculous escape, but they were all very considerably hurt.”
Another coach coming from Carlisle to Glasgow was unaware of the tragedy, and they might have suffered the same fate, if not for a female passenger who noticed they were about to topple into the chasm and let out a screech. The coachman lurched the coach to a stop just in time, and the “passengers in the wrecked mail coach … survived (a lady and three gentlemen), along with the coachman and guard that had fallen into the abyss.” The mail was also saved when a servant risked his life and recovered the mail bags, which would have “otherwise … been carried down the stream.”
Although passengers were sometimes injured, coachman were the most likely victims of injury or death. Sometimes it had nothing to do with an accident. For instance, one driver of the mail, named John Paul, died in January of 1805 because he was cold.
“About two miles from Swansea, while proceeding with great rapidity down a hill, it being supposed the coachman’s hands were so benumbed with cold that he could not restrain the horses’ speed, the consequence of which was that he was so much bruised as to occasion his death.”
There was also a fatal accident to the driver of the Worcester mail on 27 March 1829. In this case Turner, the driver, had just taken hold of the reins and was in the process of wrapping a large coat over his knees. Unfortunately, the leaders started, “and turning sharply to the right, dashed one of the fore-wheels against a post. The shock was so violent … the coachman was flung from his seat … and his neck came violently against the curb-stone.” A physician came, bled Turner, and took him to the hospital where he died a few days later.
On 8 September 1837, another coachman, named Burnette, was killed because of a rookie mistake. He left “the horses unattended, with reins on their backs,” and when another coach passed by, the horses spooked and started on their own accord. Burnette, “rushing out to stop them, was thrown down and trampled on, so that he died.”
Although Palmer revolutionized mail delivery and established a more efficient system, it was not always easy going for mail coaches. By the 1840s, London-based mail coaches were slowly being withdrawn from service, and, by the 1850s, even the regional mail coaches were being replaced with railway mail services because railroad deliveries were faster and more efficient. However, in their heyday, there was nothing faster than a mail coach.
Those who traveled on them or witnessed them speeding by could never forget the excitement attached to them. One person captured the thrill of riding in a mail coach:
“Like fire racing along a train of gunpowder … A fiery arrow … let loose, … we are seen from every storey [sic] of every house. Heads of every age crowd to the windows … and rolling volleys of sympathising cheers run along us, behind, and before us.”
-  Pyne, W.H., The World in Miniature: England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. 1, 1827, p. 91.
-  Ibid., p. 98.
-  Wheaton, Nathaniel Sheldon, A Journal of a Residence During Several Months in London, 1830, p. 400.
-  Pyne, W.H., p. 92-93.
-  Ibid. p. 93.
-  De Quincey, Thomas, The Works of Thomas De Quincey, 1862, p. 312.
-  Hyde, James Wilson, The Royal Mail, 1899, p. 35.
-  Ibid., p. 35-37.
-  Baines, Frederick Ebenezer, On the Track of the Mail-coach, 1895, p. 262.
-  Ibid., p. 262-263.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  The Universal Magazine, Vol. 10, 1808, p. 476.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Tombs, Robert Charles, The King’s Post, 1905, p. 86.
-  Ibid., p. 87.
-  Ibid., p. 88.
-  Ibid., p. 89.
-  De Quincey, Thomas, p. 312.