The arrival of the stagecoach

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As a means of moving people around, stage coaches had become common by the 1690s. At first they only ran in the summer months and were very badly designed. They would often fall apart on the bad roads and a lot of trial and error was needed before an effective design emerged. By 1700, London was connected to a number of towns by stagecoach routes. 
The early coaches were very primitive. They had a wood and leather body slung by leather straps slung from upright posts attached to an undercarriage. The most important part of the coach was a long central beam known as the ‘perch’ to which the swivelling front wheels and fixed rear wheels were attached. Travelling on these coaches was a bone shaking experience and it would be impossible to read a newspaper on the journey.

 The design gradually improved throughout the 1700s so that by the 1790s the stage coach was a tough, practical vehicle superbly adapted to use the roads. The stage coach drivers who looked after these vehicles had a special status as superb horsemen and masters of the road.

Right: Practically dressed against the dirt and the cold, a mail coach guard collects packets for the  'Mail.'  Artist Henry Alken painted this portrait in the 1840s, although it would have been a similar sight twenty years earlier. 

Mail coach guard.
 The growing importance of Swansea and Cardiff meant that a mail coach had been set up by the 1780s. In the fashion of the time the coach was given a unique name that people would remember. The Bristol and Swansea ‘Diligence’ ran through Cardiff by 1788 and was one of many that helped develop Cardiff’s coaching inns. By the 1790s a coach from London would take about 25 hours to arrive at the Angel Inn in the centre of Cardiff. The mail coach folklore soon arrived and the townspeople of Swansea and Cardiff would gather round the coach inns awaiting the ‘Mail’, which was always a special affair with horses covered in ribbons, the bright and garish coach livery, and the guard blowing his horn.

 As reflects Cardiff’s growing status, the town soon became a centre for the coaches travelling to Merthyr and Gloucester. The development of the Turnpike routes meant that Cardiff was at the centre of a network of coach routes extending throughout the valleys and connecting the growing industrial communities of the coalfield.

Below:  A typical mail coach of the early 1800s. By this  time the coach had evolved into a tremendously practical and effective vehicle in response to the bad roads of the time. The wooden body was heavily painted to make it proof against water and mud, hence the culture of 'coach painting' and building that developed as an art form. Fifty coats of paint would not be unusual. There is a high ground clearance to move over and through the potholes and ditches of the earthen roads. The front wheels are smaller than the rear set to allow for effective steering as the wheels can pass under the overhang of the carriage. The driver is high up to allow a good view and to keep out of the mud, stones and dust that gets thrown up by the horses and wheels.  The passengers all have travel rugs to keep warm. 
Mail coach

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All content © Nigel A. Robins and Swansea History Web 2006, 2007

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