Above: Painting by Charles Cooper Henderson of a Mail Coach in the snow.
There is no expectation that the snow will become this deep in London – at least, let’s hope not – but if you are wondering how the picture is linked with London, the answer is that it shows a Royal Mail coach. On its outward journey, such a coach would have set off from the General Post Office then situated within the City of London. For those interested in the subject of coaching inns and the days of coaching, some of the finest paintings of stage coaches ever made were by the very talented artist Charles Cooper Henderson. The realism created on his canvases is amazing.
The painting seen above was made between about 1835 and 1840. It was during those years that the first railways were being laid across England with some of them being laid in London. The days of the stage coach were about to end abruptly as a faster and easier mode of transport was about to emerge. At the date of the painting, the General Post Office stood on the east side of St Martin’s le Grand – a short street running north from near St Paul’s Cathedral. As time went by, additional premises were built on the west side of St Martin’s le Grand. The earlier buildings no longer exist but those on the west side of the street are still to be seen, now in use as commercial offices. The General Post Office was the hub from which Royal Mail coaches set off.
We now turn to the subject of the painting. At the time it was painted, Royal Mail coaches were the fastest vehicles on four wheels. This coach is either on a journey carrying mail from London or returning to London with mail from towns and cities outside London. Roads in England were, in the main, just terrible. When we use the word ‘road’ it should be understood that, in the early 1800s, it was no more than a track, well-worn by many cart and carriage wheels, but with nothing more than the earth in the ground for a surface. There were often many deep ruts which sometimes caused a coach to overturn. When the earth dried out in the summer months the surface was not too bad. As the colder months approached the weather became wetter – due to rain and often snow – causing the ground to become sodden. Great ruts were caused by the wheels sinking into the mud, often making the route impassable.
It was not until around 1820 that the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam devised his ‘Macadam’ surface, which consisted of laying a road using larger stones as a base and then topped off by smaller ones. It certainly improved the road surface but not all roads enjoyed the new road surface. The later construction of ‘tar-mac’ roads – with the surface being tarred to prevent the dust rising on a Macadam road surface – did not happen until after 1900.
So, underneath all that snow in the picture, was just earth which in this case had become mud. Mud made it very difficult for four horses to pull a coach but add to that the snow and it is a wonder that coach journeys were ever made at all. The picture portrays freezing conditions. We can see that not only had it been snowing but there is a deep frost which makes the going even worse. We can see the ice clinging to the wheels of the coach.
Royal Mail coaches were so-called for an obvious reason – they carried the letters and parcels for the Royal Mail. The royal insignia on the lower part of the side door of the coach can just be seen. As well as carrying the mail, the coaches also carried passengers. Usually four people sat inside a coach, sitting on two facing bench seats with just enough room for two passengers each side. Another passenger is sitting beside the coachman and yet another is seated behind him. At the back of the coach is the guard. Yes, even in those times there was a danger that the coach – which often carried valuables in the mail – might be robbed. The guard was always armed with a pistol.
The passengers in the coach paid more to travel in a Royal Mail coach than a normal one because it travelled faster. In the 1800s most coaching routes ran on privately maintained roads – known as toll-roads or turnpikes. The roads had toll-gates at strategic points along them because it was the users who paid for the upkeep of these roads. Not only did a normal coach have to stop about every 10 to 15 miles to change horses but they also had to stop to pay their toll at each point along the road. This all added to the total journey time. Mail coaches were free from paying tolls by law. In fact it was required that the gate-keeper open the gate in good time to allow the speeding Royal Mail coach to pass through unhindered. There were penalties on the gate-keeper if he was slow to respond. If reported he would face a heavy fine or even dismissal.
If you have ever stood on a station platform, waiting for a train in winter time, and felt you were freezing to death, then spare a thought for those in that coach. There was no heating and the coach only travelled at about 10 or 12 miles per hour. Even the journey from London to Brighton was likely to take five or six hours. Brighton is only 60 miles from London which means that non-stop would take at least five hours. Then add in the time to change horses every 10 miles and then possibly one ‘comfort’ stop and time to have a stiff drink, the total journey time could easily extend to six hours on the road. In a snow-drift speed would fall dramatically and travelling the Brighton Road might result in a journey of eight to ten hours on the road. At least the wind was not in your face if you paid to sit inside the coach but even so it must have been bitterly cold. For those ‘outside’, sitting on the roof, the cold must have been almost unbearable, especially with the winter wind in your face. If it snowed along the route, you were covered in snow as well!
Are you beginning to get the picture? Even a poor train service today, when the heaters are not working in the railway carriage, is infinitely better then stage coach travel in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Chances are that Charles Cooper Henderson had himself endured such a journey and he therefore had first hand experience to bring to this evocative painting. Perhaps modern long-distance travel today is not really that bad!