History Files


Modern Britain

The Mail Coaches

by Jackie Speel, 29 March 2009

The mail coaches were introduced in the late eighteenth century, to provide a more speedy and cost effective system of transport for the post than with the previous system. That previous system had involved post boys (often elderly) and others, had depended on convenience and travellers, and often involved frequent mail thefts and other factors which resulted in declining postal revenues.

John Palmer (1742-1818) of Bristol suggested the establishment of a mail coach system, an idea which was taken up by William Pitt on the suggestion of Lord Camden.

The experiment, begun in August 1784, proved an immediate success, and generated an increasing revenue for the government. Scottish and Irish mail coaches followed thereafter. The coaches fitted in with a range of less glamorous forms of transport - including wagons and canal boats, as well as boat services for Ireland (via Holyhead) and the Continent (the Hamburg and other mails). The various Post Office directories, and other directories of the time, listed the days for which services were provided, along with the times and coach names where appropriate, and the routes of regular services.

The development of the mail coach system depended in part upon improvements in road building - including macadamisation [1] and toll roads [2]. Military factors also played a part in road development. There was a need for good communications in order to counter the threat of insurgency and invasion, actual or perceived. The development of what is now termed the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions also played a part, managing to increase trade and improve materials, which resulted in a need for better communications with sources and markets.

The coaching networks evolved over time, with routes being extended or changed to suit demand. They wound down from the mid-nineteenth century, with the advent of the railways, which were quicker, more comfortable and could carry more: the transit is noted piecemeal in the Post Office and other directories. The last to go were the cross-country routes.

Some of the companies involved in the mail coach business managed to survive, sometimes through investment in the railways, or by entering into, and developing a new market, such as the provision of feeder services to the railways, much as bus services and taxis have done subsequently.

There were also coaching inns along the way, which served much the same functions as airport hotels and stations do today. Given the schedules and any potential delays the coaches could arrive, or depart, at all hours of the day or night. A number of former coaching inns can still be identified, such as The George, Southwark (near London Bridge), a rare survival of an original layout; Golden Cross House, Charing Cross (next to St Martin's in the Fields) commemorates the coaching inn that was previously on the site; and Fleet Street was, at one time, home to a number of coaching inns.

The origin of the term 'Cock and Bull stories' is said to be in the name of two pubs in St Albans.

[1] Macadamisation was the process of laying tarmac road surfaces. John MacAdam (1756-1836) was a pioneer in the development of modern road construction.

[2] Turnpikes were roads maintained by trusts, a feature of the eighteenth century, which charged users. There was much opposition at times, and effectiveness varied, although the journey between London and Edinburgh was reduced from twelve to four days. Profitability declined in the nineteenth century with railway development, and the turnpike trusts reverted to local authority control.


Main Sources

Post Office and other directories

Various other sources from general notes



Text copyright Jackie Speel. An original feature for the History Files.