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The Role of Stage Coaches in the Development

of the Postal Service in 18th Century Britain

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Jun, Bum Sun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Improvement of Road Conditions
II.1 Turnpike Trust
II.2 Roadbuilding Technology
III. Stage Coaches
III.1 Speed
III.2 Coaching Inns
IV. Application to Run the Postal Service
V Mail Coaches
V.1 Mail Coach Guards
VI. Conclusion
VII. Notes
VIII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

            The postal system in Europe has developed steadily for centuries. Yet the progress boosted as it met the demand for faster and more secured postal service among the economic centers. The efficiency of the postal system greatly increased with the extensive road building scheme. The improved infrastructure enabled stagecoaches to serve as major public transportation and the substitute for postboys (1).. The postal system became remarkably faster and more trustworthy. Among the European countries, Britain was the first to adapt mail coaches in use and establish an organized naionwide postal service. Thus, this paper will cover the stagecoachesĄŻ influence on the development of postal system, especially in the Great Britain around the 18th century.

II. Improvement of Road Conditions

            Until the 18th century, roads in Britain were in extremely poor condition. Romans have left Britain roads with extraordinary quality. Roman roads were paved with stone on which horses and carriages could run. However, during the Middle Ages these fine roads wore away and were no longer suitable for horses or any wheeled vehicles. They often got muddy after rain so that people had to walk on foot. Yet, in the 18th century, the road condition in Britain improved considerably.

II.1 Turnpike Trust
            Before the Turnpike Trust, the roads were managed by the respective parish they ran through. Since individual parishes could gain nothinng from managing roads there was no incentive to improve road conditions. Therefore, the quality of roads remained poor until the early 1700s.
            Around the 1650s, a group of businessmen near Cambridge proposed the idea of toll roads. They built series of toll gates on the road and charged tolls to the passers. In 1707, the first turnpike trust was created by Parliament with the Turnpike Act. Each turnpike trust was obliged to employ a surveyor, a clerk, and a treasurer. Trusts were valid only for 21 years and the authorization was to be renewed after that. Since turnpike trusts were making profit from managing roads, they had the responsibility to maintain good quality. Therefore, turnpike trusts played major role in enhancing the road condition in Britain.

II.2 Roadbuilding Technology
            Although turnpikes and toll-gates came into use in early 1700s, they were widespread only in the second half of the century. Even so, most toll roads were inefficient and easily got degenerated to muddy tracks. Then, civil engineers such as John MacAdam, John MetCalfe and Thomas Telford appeared to improve the roadbuilding technology. They all suggested cambered and raised roads that can drain water as fast as possible. Especially, John Loudon MacAdam, a Scottish engineer proposed the macadam road system which could protect the road from getting muddy. He used crushed stones and gravel bound on a firm base of large stones. He also put ditches next to the road so that rain could drain more easily. Stage Coaches could gain higher speed on the solid macadamized roads.

III. Stage Coaches

            The stage coach is a public coach regularly traveling a fixed route between two or more stations (stages). It was first introduced in London in 1640s and in Paris 20 years later. Stage coaches became a common means of public transportation in the 1690s. Early stage coaches were poorly designed, but soon effective design emerged. There were several elements that reinforced the utility of stage coaches.

III.1 Speed
            As a result of better design and road condition, speed of stagecoaches augmented greatly in the late 18th century. For instance, in 1749, the forty-five miles journey between Edinburgh and Glasgow took two days for a stage coach. Two years later, it was reduced to a day and a half. Average speed of coaches was 7-8 miles per hour in summer, 5 mph in winter. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne (2). it was raised to near 10 mph due to better roads. This unprecedented speed of the stage coach made it the most common means of public transportation of the era

III.2 Coaching Inns
            Coaching inn, sometimes called staging inn, was a pivotal part of infrastructure for stagecoaches. It was a stopping place for stage coaches where tired team of horses were replaced by fresh team. Customarily, coaching inns were 7 miles apart but this rule was not strictly applied. Coaching inns raised the efficiency of the stagecoach system.

IV. Application to Run the Postal Service

            A Bathonian (3) theatre owner, John Palmer, was strongly pleased with the antiquated system of sending actors and materials from theater to theater by coach. Yet, he felt inconvenient about the tedious postal service. He travelled all over the country but the inefficiency was same everywhere. So in 1782, John Palmer suggested to the Post Office in London to apply the same system in the postal service. As usual, he met resistance from the conservative senior Post Office staff. It was only by the enlightened judgement of Willam Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he could conduct a trial run on the Bath road which was from Bristol to London. The experimental mail coach journey started in Bristol on 2 August 1784, at 4pm, and arrived at 8am the next day in London. The former system took 38 hours while the new coach system took 16 hours.
            In 1784, the government signed a regular contract with John Palmer promising two and a half percent of commission from mail service profits. He was titled the Surveyor and Comptroller General of the Post Office. By the end of the next year, the service was available from London to Norwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Dover, Portsmouth, Poole, Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester, Holyhead and Carlisle. In the next year, it reached Edinburgh too.

V. Mail Coaches

            Stage coaches used in postal service were called mail coaches. Just like normal stage coaches, mail coaches were usually pulled by four horses and had seatings for four people inside. Additional passengers were to sit next to driver outside and there was a guard securing the mail box in the rear.
            Early mail coaches were poorly built. Although the road condition has improved substantially, the coach itself still needed innovation. In 1787, John Besant improved the design of coaches and attained a patent. The new design made coaches more practical and tough so that they could run on solid roads. The Post Office quickly adapted it to the mail coaches. With his partner John Vidler of Millbank, Besant enjoyed a monopoly on the supply of coaches.
            Mail coach livery remained the same even after Besant's patent coach. The coach was basically colored black with maroon doors and low panels. The wheels were in so-called Post Office red. There was a royal coat with the title Royal Mail and the names of towns at either end of the coach's route.
            Mail coaches served a vital role in the postal system. Until the railways substituted coaches later in the 19th century, mail coaches were widely used throughout Europe for their speed and security.

V.1 Mail Coach Guards
            The Mail coach guard was the only employee of The Post Office aboard on the mail coach. He was heavily armed with two pistols and a blunderbuss. He wore a black hat with a gold band in a scarlet coat. He had a timepiece in order to keep pace with the difference in time, and recorded the departure and arrival times at each stage. He blowed horn to warn the road users to keep out of the way of mail coach and also to announce to toll-keepers the conming of the mail coach. The toll-keeper would just check the number of mail coaches passed and charge the fee to The Post Office later in total. As the coach passes through a village where they do not stop, he would throw out bags of letters and snatch the outgoing letters. Only the coach guard had the key for mail box. The locked box was placed under the guard's feet which made a perfect place of concealment.


            The Great Britain in the 18th century met the era of stage coaches. Thanks to the greatly ameliorated road conditions and coach design, stage coaches could gain high mobility. John Palmer applied the scheme of stagecoaches to postal system and introduced the mail coach. With fast speed and reliability, mail coaches played a major role in the development of British postal system.


(1)      Before the emergence of mail coaches, mouneted postboys traveled between destinations to deliver mail
(2)      Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria, 24 May 1819 - 22 January 1901) was the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837, and the first Empress of India from 1 May 1876, until her death on 22 January 1901. Thus meaning approximately around 1840.
(3)      Bath is a small city in Somerset, England most famous for its historic baths fed by three hot springs. It is situated 99 miles (159km) west of London and 13miles (21km) south east of Bristol.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in October 2007.
1.      Edward Royle, Modern Britain A Social History 1750, London : Hodder 2nd ed. 1997
2.      Harris, S., The Coaching Age. 1885
3.      Robinson, H., The British Post Office. 1948
4.      Vale, E., The Mail Coach Men of the late Eighteenth Century. 1960
5.      Article : Coach, in : The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed. 1998
6.      Article : Stage Coach, in : The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed. 1998
7.      Article : Telford, Thomas, in : The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed. 1998
8.      Article : Macadam Road, in : The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed. 1998
9.      Article : MacAdam, John Loudon, in : The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, 15th ed. 1998
10.      Coaching History, from The Regency Collection,
11.      Coaches from 1750 to 1900, from History Learning Site,
12.      Roman Roads in Britain, from Britain Express,
13.      What Was Transport Like around Cardiff in the Early 1800s ?, from Cardiff History Web,
14.      Significant Scots : John Loudon MacAdam, from Electric Scotland,
15.      History of Roads - Where Did all the Roads Come from ?, by Neath Port Talbot,

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