Encounters with lions and highwaymen...the perils of delivering the mail by John Wright. First published in Carriage Driving December 2018.

For 150 years it was ‘post-boys’ on horseback with a horn that thundered and tooted their way across the countryside delivering mail at the blistering speed of 3mph (4mph if express!). But this would double to a breathtaking 8mph in 1784 when horse-drawn mail coaches took over for their own pretty good run of 62 years before they in turn would be replaced, by trains.

And that’s how they were advertised, as “flying” from London to York. The first mail coach was the idea of Bath theatre owner John Palmer. Convinced his coach that carried actors and materials could be used for mail, he suggested it to the Post Office in 1782 who, head-scratchingly, took two years to say yes. Moaning that he couldn’t do Bristol to London faster than the 38 hours it took post-boys, they allowed him to fund an attempt. His coach duly ‘flew’ from Bristol to London on 2 August 1784 in 16 hours.

It had worked so well it soon included other routes. “By 1792 there were 16 coaches that left London daily with as many inbound,” writes thesocialhistorian.com, “15 cross-country mail coaches...By 1811 there were some 211 coaches crisscrossing Britain, delivering the mail, and by 1812 it would cost 4 pence to send a letter 15 miles.”

Around this time Royal Mail had its own fleet of mail coaches, all in black and scarlet livery. Mail coaches were faster than stage coaches (which carried passengers and goods), stopping only to deliver mail and not designed for passengers’ comfort. The mail was in a box at the back where a well-paid Royal Mail guard with a scarlet and gold uniform, timepiece, horn to announce their arrival, and blunderbuss and two pistols to deter highwaymen. Much of the travelling was done at night when roads were clear, but often coaches had to swerve to avoid farm animals lying in the road.

Horse-drawn coaches belong to a mysteriously magical past, its charm described in 1889 by James Wilson Hyde in The royal mail: its curiosities and romance, “The hurried changing of horses...ever-varying Scene...the village with its rustic quiet, and odd characters; the fresh and blooming fields...the scented hedgerows in May and June...the farmer’s children swinging on a gate and cheering lustily with their small voices as the coach swept along.”

German composer Felix Mendelssohn, at 20 in 1829, the year he found fame, also captured the excitement on a visit to Britain. “We flew away from Glasgow on the top of the mail,” he wrote on 19 August, “past steaming meadows and smoking chimneys, to the Cumberland lakes...and the prettiest towns and villages...the stage running madly in the darkness...through the fog we see lamps gleaming, the smoke of manufactories...gentlemen on horseback ride past; one coach-horn blows in B flat, another in D...and here we are at Liverpool.”

The reality of mail coach travel was often far from these gentle sentiments. Roads were generally terrible; on steep hills passengers had to get out and walk; responsible for everyone’s safety as well as the mail, guards stuck outside at the back had to stay with the coach at all times, suffering bitterly in winter, both guards and outside passengers sometimes succumbing by being so numb they fell off or being frozen to death. Passengers also took pot luck with a driver’s integrity, one festivity-minded driver escaping punishment from the Postmasters-General for his behaviour on Christmas Day 1809 because he apologised:

“Whereas I, John, being driver of the mail-coach, on my way from Congleton [Cheshire] to Coleshill [Warwickshire]...did stop at several places on the road to drink and thereby got intoxicated, from which misconduct, driving furiously, and being from my coach on its returning, suffered the horses to run through the town of Coleshill, at the risk of overturning the carriage, and thereby endangering the lives of the passengers.” Incidents like this were not isolated. “Hardly a week passes without instances of disasters fatal to limbs,” wrote Charles Taylor in The Literary Panorama in 1810, “through the sottish inhumanity of these wretches.”

Storms made journeys dangerously unpredictable and drivers often had to negotiate obstructions such as torn-off branches, floods and heavy snow. In one snowstorm 14 mail-coaches were abandoned on the various routes. “The Brighton up-mail of Sunday had travelled about eight miles when it fell into a drift of snow,” wrote Hyde about one incident. “The guard immediately set off to obtain all necessary aid; but when he returned, no trace whatever could be found either of the coach, coachman, or passengers, three in number. After much difficulty the coach was found, but could not be extricated from the hollow into which it had got. The guard did not reach town until seven o’clock on Tuesday night, having been obliged to travel with the bags on horse-back and proceed across fields to avoid the deep drifts of snow.”

Another beautifully vivid account of ‘The Post in the Snow’ is from The Illustrated London News on 7 January 1854, written by S.S. who remembered the cheeky son of “my mother’s once favourite maid, Barbara, widow Bugler, called Jack. With many threats, and cautions, and promises, and a general contribution of garments, he was made post-boy...Bilberry, wickedest, wiliest, and most surefooted of our moor ponies, was selected as his four-footed assistant in carrying the letter-bag to and from the Cross-road Inn, where the mail-coach daily left and took up our letters.”

Snow never stopped Jack, but one Christmas night of heavy snow and a gale he didn’t return home. S.S. joined the search party and eventually found Jack’s cap in the snow. “In the leeward side of a hollow trunk of a huge branchless oak, almost buried in snow,” he wrote, “we found Bilberry lying, with poor Jack close and quite insensible under him where he had fallen asleep. We wrapped him in blankets, the old shepherds rubbed him with snow, and he soon came round – the shaggy coat of the pony had saved him.”

Accidents in the mail-coach days could be very serious. On a windy night of rain on 25 October 1808, a coach drove onto a new badly made bridge over a flooded river on the road between Carlisle and Glasgow at the end of a severe frost and snow storm and, wrote Hyde, “went headlong into the swollen stream through a chasm left by the collapse of the arch...The two leading horses were killed outright by the fall...the coach and harness were destroyed, two outside passengers killed, while a lady and three gentlemen inside miraculously escaped...the lady, who had scrambled out of the vehicle, sought refuge on a rock in mid-stream...Fortunately, the lady on the rock, seeing the lights of the Carlisle coach approach, screamed and thus warned the driver to draw up in time...The Carlisle guard asked, ‘Where will I grip her?’ But the lady, long enough already on the rock, broke in, ‘Grip me where you like, but grip me firm.’”

One Sunday night, near Salisbury in Wiltshire 201 years ago, passengers on Quicksilver (the coach, sold at auction for £133,660 in 2015), the Exeter Mail coach, found out that highwaymen did not top the list of threats to be feared when, at Winterslow Hut (where they had stopped to deliver mail) looked out with astonishment at the unlikely sight of one of their lead horses being attacked by a lioness which had escaped from a menagerie on its way to Salisbury Fair.

“The two passengers of the coach fled into the inn and locked themselves inside,”wrote Postal Museum cataloguer Freya Folaasen in March 2009, “while the mail guard attempted to shoot at the animal with his blunderbuss. A large dog from the menagerie set on the lioness ‘with such pluck and fierceness,’which made the lioness release the horse,” turn on the dog. The lion’s keepers managing to trap her under a granary, where they crawled in and tied her up while the locals looked on from the safety of the pub.

Mixed feelings greeted highwaymen, especially if they were the legendary Dick Turpin. One gloomy day at Alconbury Hill in Cambridgeshire, a rider “burst suddenly from the fog upon the York stage coach,” wrote W Outram Tristram in his 1893 book Coaching Days and Coaching Ways. “‘That’s Dick Turpin!’ Was uttered by a gentleman on the box-seat. The name acted like magic on the passengers. One jumped off behind...a faint scream in a female key issued from within; there was a considerable hubbub on the roof; and the guard was heard to click his horse-pistols. Turpin merely asked the major on the box seat about a ‘wicked baronet resident in Sussex’ and the coach continued on its way.”

Perhaps the most famous and oldest coach in Britain today is the London-Norwich Royal Mail Coach which, pulled by Hungarian Greys, has been carrying people all over the UK for displays and shows, driven each time by former Royal Army Service Corps coachman and stunt driver in the classic 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, John Parker. The history of this black coach with scarlet wheels and undercarriage (N205 signifying its route) has been traced back to 1870 but John believes it is much older. Now 77, John told me in February that he bought the coach in 1966, registering it a year later which allowed it to carry the Royal Mail, and he has driven it all over Europe over the 50 years plus ever since. “The coach is very strongly built. If someone wanted it in 30 years it would still be good.”

John told me he was retired from coach-driving now but still did driving instruction at his driving carriage centre, Swingletree, near Diss in Norfolk. In 1996 John broke the long distance record by driving non-stop 139 miles from London to Norwich Cathedral in 21½ hours. “My guard was George, a Jerseyman, nearly 80, who saw German occupation during the war. He was a good horn blower. As we came into Norwich we had to pick up the Bishop of Norwich at a bus stop to take him to the cathedral, and George said, “That actor’s very good as a bishop.” I said, “George, he is a bishop!”

I asked John about how the public has responded to the sight of his mail coach. He recalled one small incident when he once transported horses from Norfolk to Brighton in a lorry for a photo-shoot in Brighton, where “after unloading them I drove them a short way along a concrete road which put a thin grey line on their nicely blacked feet. When schoolchildren asked their teacher why they were dusty, he said, ‘They ran all the way from Norwich and burnt their feet.’ “I talk to the horses instead!” He adds with a laugh. “They know what you’re saying, and there’s a lot involved in driving them, holding four separate reins. Driving team horses takes a lot of learning.”

John Parker told me that the last mail left London in June 1846. Since then the public has had the joy of watching horse-drawn carriages. He enjoyed the July 1985 York-London Mammoth Mail Ride for Sport Aid sponsored by BBC Radio 1 which, in one week, raised over £50,000 along the route for charity, TV cameras following them all the way.

With a challenge in mind he approached five times Le Mans winner, driver Derek Bell, with the suggestion that his grooms could change one team of horses for another more quickly than Bell’s mechanics could change a set of tyres. ITV’s You Bet audience of millions watched as the horses were changed in 21.2 seconds, faster than the tyre-changers, setting a new official world record and entering the Guinness Book of Records. Father Christmas has even inquired.