Thursday, 29 April 2010
I've just finished reading "Royal Mail Coaches - an illustrated history" by Frederick Wilkinson and was struck by the many parallels between the Mail Coach era and the history of the canals.
The first mail coach ran, between London and Bristol, in 1784 seven years after the first of the true long-distance canals - the Trent & Mersey opened for traffic. It followed the earlier development of the stage coach, which carried passengers but not the mail - in much the same way as canals developed from much earlier river navigations.
Over the next 60 years both forms of transport underwent spectacular improvements. By the 1830's coaches, using the new turnpike roads, had dramatically reduced their journey times and the canals had developed from the winding "contour" canals, such as the Oxford and the Coventry to the likes of the Macclesfield and Birmingham & Liverpool Junction cutting straight across country with the use of aqueducts, embankments and locks grouped in flights for efficient working. That these improvements followed a similar course is no co-incidence as the guiding hand of the great engineer Thomas Telford was behind both.
In their day, both represented the pinnacle of achievement; the canals were the most efficient way to carry freight, whilst the mail coaches were the fastest form of transport known to man. Unfortunately, they both lost their supremacy to the same opponent. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened in 1830 and within ten years most of the long-distance mail traffic had transferred to rail. The last mail coaches ran from London to York in 1840; Edinburgh in 1842 and Norwich in 1846, although that to Thurso struggled on until 1874. It is as if the motorway network as we know it today were to lose most of its traffic by 2020 and be abandoned and derelict by the 2030's (if only!). With their emphasis on heavy freight, rather than mail and passengers, the decline of the waterways was slower - but they were never the same again after the coming of the railways.
The relative sophistication of coach operation is fascinating. Coaches were timed to the minute even over long distances on indifferent roads. The progress of every journey was recorded and guards were answerable to the authorities for any delay. A system of seat booking and charting was operated with bookings being transmitted to a central chartroom and tickets delivered back to passengers by the fastest available means - the coaches themselves! For an old busman like myself it was interesting to read that many of the working practices (legitimate and otherwise) of twentieth-century bus crews were prevalent two hundred years earlier as, incredibly, were many of the slang terms used by them in talking about the job.
The demise of the coaching industry also brought down many associated trades with, for example, the inevitable closure of the coaching inns with those that survive today clinging on grimly to a reduced local trade as the highways fell silent until the coming of the motor vehicle almost a century later.
And by a final co-incidence the publisher, "Tempus Publishing" is based outside Stroud at Brimscombe Port, where Severn Trows met Thames Barges on the Thames & Severn Canal to tranship cargoes at a site that after years of dereliction will soon, once again, be in water.
"Royal Mail Coaches - an illustrated history" by Frederick Wilkinson. Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud 2007 ISBN 978-07524-4212-9