The book I’m sending in today is called Desired and it is the fifth book in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series. There has been a strong theme of travel throughout the series – in Whisper of Scandal the heroine travels to the Arctic on a ship, and in One Wicked Sin the hero and heroine escape in a balloon. (I had wanted them to escape on a canal barge but I thought it might be a bit slow!) Desired contains a great deal of travel in and around London, a sort of early sightseeing tour. What with all this jaunting around, plus the marvelous array of state carriages that featured at the recent Royal Wedding, I thought it might be nice to talk a little about coaches and horses. (Actually I thought the horses totally stole the show at the Royal Wedding. They were magnificent!)
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to go to an illustrated talk about the history of carriages, given by Colin Henderson, who had been the Queen’s Head Coachman. Not only did he have some wonderful anecdotes about the Golden Jubilee but he had also worked as a riding specialist and stuntman on a number of films and included the role of highwayman on his CV! He gave us a brisk trot through the early history and background of carriages – the word coach, for instance, comes from the Hungarian Kote – but it was when we got onto the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that my note-taking went into overdrive because he had so many fascinating little details that I had never read in the books.
After explaining to us the difference between “the leaders” – the leading pair of horses – and the “wheelers,” the two closest to the carriage, he told us that to ride postilion meant riding one of the front horses and leading the other. This was a hazardous enterprise as it meant that one of your legs was between the two horses and was in danger of being crushed. Postilions wore a steel leg guard to protect them in this position. Here is a Russian postilion's uniform from 1825.
The provision of lighting on both the inside and outside of carriages has always interested me so I asked if there was any illumination inside and was surprised to learn that there were candle-lamps inside a carriage as well as out. The smoke apparently made a mess of the upholstery! I had not quite appreciated what a hazardous business traveling at night could be, especially on the Mail Coach. The external lights carried no further than the first horse so you could not see the road ahead at all. Coachmen had to have extremely keen hearing to listen for the sound of approaching hooves. Since the mail carriages traveled at up to 10mph and some coachmen accelerated down the hills in order to gain momentum and make up time, the possibility of running into the back – or front – of another coach or hay wagon was very strong! I was also fascinated to hear that the coaches changed horses on average every 10 to 12 miles, or 15 on the flat, and that a change of horses took only 2 minutes, rather like changing the tires on a racing car! Mail Coaches were numbered like buses are now and 16 hands was the largest horse that could be used to pull a three and a half ton Mail Coach because anything taller didn’t fit under the coachman’s footboard. The picture is the Glasgow to London mail coach. Love the red livery!
There were also some fascinating facts about the Grand Tour. The Duke of Beaufort’s traveling carriage was decorated in Regency stripe and had secret lockers under the floor for his valuables. It was rather like a caravan; the cushions folded down to create a full-length bed! Other luxurious touches included silk-lined steps, which were folded up inside the carriage to protect them.
I enjoyed learning the derivation of a few other coaching-inspired words as well – the “fore-gone” was the carriage that you sent on a day ahead with your servants, linen and silver, so that when you arrived, everything was prepared (or concluded!) The phrase “cheerio” originally comes from calling for a sedan chair – chair ho!
This picture is the Craven State Carriage, a Victorian coach said to rival in magnificence Queen Victoria’s royal carriage. It is painted with seven coats of yellow paint, the most expensive color used for livery. Queen Victoria would not have been amused to be outshone! My favorite anecdote from the Victorian period was that the footboards on ladies’ carriages were enormous because it was thought indelicate that a lady should have to sit looking at the horse’s posterior!
I hope you have enjoyed this quick gallop through a few coaching anecdotes. What historical mode of transport would you choose for traveling? Would you like to drive a curricle or arrive in style in the Queen’s State Landau? I’m offering an advance copy of my next Scandalous Women of the Ton book, Notorious, to one commenter!