by Freya Folåsen, Cataloguer (Collections)
James Pollard was an artist and engraver working during the first half of the 19th Century. Pollard created prints of various sporting events such as fishing and racing, but he is perhaps best remembered for his many wonderful coaching prints, several of which are held in the BPMA’s prints and engravings collection. Pollard’s artistic career and the great coaching era coincided nearly perfectly and resulted in some of the finest depictions of that time in history.
The great coaching era lasted only a short time, from the early days of the 1800s until around 1840, but the history of travel by coach and of the mail coach in England goes back much further. In 1580 the first coaches were introduced to England from abroad. These coaches were without springs and made travel both slow and uncomfortable. The poor condition of the roads further reduced the comfort and speed, so in 1685 toll-gates appeared on English roads. These were to raise funds for road improvements and although they were an annoyance to coaching proprietors they were a necessary step in setting the stage for faster and more efficient road travel. Another 100 years passed before, in 1784, the first mail coaches were put on the road, an initiative started by John Palmer, Member of Parliament for Bath. Still, travel by coach would be tedious and tiresome for a few more decades, but by 1825 road improvements had made it possible for lighter and faster coaches to be made, significantly increasing the speed of coach travel. To fully take advantage of the new, faster coaches, mail terminals and coaching stations grew and needed to be tightly organised. Some terminals grew to resemble small towns, with coaching inns accommodating several 100 horses at one time. Important coaching inns sprang up in and around London, including the ‘Gloucester Coffee House’ in Piccadilly, portrayed by Pollard in ‘West Country Mails at the Gloucester Coffee House, Piccadilly’ from 1828.
It was during these thriving years Pollard made his most famous prints. He travelled along the routes of the mail coaches and showed both the dangers of the countryside and the hustle and bustle of the London mail coaches.
In ‘The Elephant and Castle on the Brighton Road’ he shows what was probably the busiest calling point for coaches in England.
The 1820s can be regarded as the high point for both James Pollard’s career and for the coaching days, but it would be short lived. The 1830s saw the introduction of the railway and with it, the decline of the stage coaches. For the mail it was the 1838 Act of Parliament authorizing the conveyance of mails by rail that ended the reign of the mail coach. In Pollard’s case, after the death of his wife and daughter in 1840 only one important print of his work was published and he spent the latter part of his life in relative obscurity. Regardless of this, Pollard and his coaching prints show us many different aspects of how the coaching and mail system once worked, and brings to life an era gone by.
Sources: Selway, N. C., 1957. The Regency Road: The Coaching Prints of James Pollard. London: Faber and Faber Limited.