Tag Archives: mail coaches

Horse-drawn mail

Horses have been used to carry messages from the very early days, when post boys would deliver messages by horse. In the 18th Century horse-drawn mail coaches were introduced, which cut mail delivery times by more than half.

But while efficient, mail coaches suffered many tragic accidents. In a previous blog we recounted the sad tale of a mail coach caught in a snow drift in Southern Scotland. We also found a lantern slide showing a coach in difficulty on a broken bridge. This and other images of horse-drawn mail from the Royal Mail Archive can now be seen on Flickr.

Accident, Lanark. Detail of a lantern slide showing a scene of a broken bridge where there central portion of the span has fallen into the river below. A coach is hanging off the right hand edge with two horses dangling in their harness. (2012-0139/1)

Accident, Lanark. Detail of a lantern slide showing a scene of a broken bridge where there central portion of the span has fallen into the river below. A coach is hanging off the right hand edge with two horses dangling in their harness. (2012-0139/1)

The advent of the railways in the 19th Century further sped-up mail delivery, and mail coaches were withdrawn from use. However there was still work at the Post Office for a good horse, and horses were used to pull carts, carriages and vans until at least the mid-20th Century.

Interestingly, horses were also entitled to sick leave. A note held in the Archives from 1898 states that:

Mr T C Poppleton’s horse of The Post Office is suffering from sore shoulders and unable to perform his official duties.

Horse's sick note, 27 October 1898.

Horse’s sick note, 27 October 1898.

Horses were not employed directly by the Post Office but were provided by contractors. A number of the images we have put on Flickr show scenes from the stables of McNamara and Co, who provided horses for postal duties in London.

Horse in the stables of Messers McNamara and Co., 1949. (POST 118/1988)

Horse in the stables of Messers McNamara and Co., 1949. (POST 118/1988)

By the late 1930s horses had largely been replaced by motorised vehicles, although they were used in remote areas on a limited basis. The last London post horse, Peter, left Post Office headquarters in the City of London on 23 September 1949.

The last horse drawn mail used in London leaves on delivery. (POST 118/1982)

The last horse drawn mail used in London leaves on delivery. (POST 118/1982)

View our images of Horse-drawn Mail on Flickr.

Dickens Coaching Prints

Today marks 200 years since the birth of Charles John Huffam Dickens, Victorian novelist and arguably one of the earliest ‘literary celebrities’. Dickens’ works remain popular today for their colourful characters, intricate plots and social commentary, and the anniversary allows me to highlight a couple of items from the BPMA’s collection; namely two hand coloured prints of Dickens coaching scenes.

The prints show scenes from two of Dickens’ novels; David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The artist, Albert Ludovici Jr. (1852-1932), had a particular fondness for the English ‘coaching age’ and these prints are part of a larger series of coaching scenes, probably made in the late 1800’s, featuring episodes from Dickens novels. At least 16 of Ludovici’s Dickens Coaching series were later acquired by R. Tuck and Sons of Bishopsgate, London who produced the prints in the BPMA collection.

David Copperfield arrives in London (2009-0055/1)

David Copperfield arrives in London (2009-0055/1)

In ‘David Copperfield Arrives in London’ the young David can bee seen standing at the back of a mail coach which has stopped in the street outside ‘The Blue Boar/ Posting Establishment’. The coach has a sign at back giving the main stops along the route – in this instance London, Ipswich and Yarmouth. The artist has captured the liveliness of the scene, including some suitably ‘Dickensian’ characters such as a dapper gentleman with an eye patch and an old woman getting off the coach by ladder.

‘The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard’ shows the adult Pip and Estella standing outside ‘The Crosskeys/ Coffee House’. Again, a red and black mail coach form part of the background for the scene.

The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard (2009-0055/2)

The Meeting of Pip & Estella in the Inn Yard (2009-0055/2)

Although today the term ‘Dickensian’ is often used to reflect the Victorian era in general, many of Dickens’ novels, including the two depicted here, are set somewhat earlier, before the development of the railways led to the end of the mail coach service. Certainly, the romance of the mail coach outlasted the service itself, as reflected in the artist’s comments about the series in his memoirs An Artists’ Life in London and Paris:

I cannot help feeling sorry for the present generation, who have no idea of these good old times, and my only regret is that I did not live in the coaching days, which I have so often tried to depict in my Charles Dickens coaching series of pictures.

Both prints have a copyright notice dated 1903 and their clarity suggests that they may possibly be facsimiles of the originals. The prints are lovely items in themselves, and it is arguable that continued reproductions of the images in the early 20th Century simply reflect the enduring popular appeal of many of Dickens’ well-loved characters.

– Sarah Jenkins, Assistant Cataloguer (Collections)

See larger version of these two prints on our Flickr site. Find out more about Mail Coaches on our website, where you can also see items from our collection related to Horse-Drawn Mail.

Morten Collection Object of the Month: September 2010 – Mail Coach jug

Each month we present an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

This month, Ian Cook, Librarian of the Communication Workers Union, has chosen an object from the collection which holds some fascination for him:

Like most schoolchildren of my generation I was aware of Rowland Hill and the Penny Black and was – almost certainly – given a toy post office as a present from an indulgent relative. However, it was not until I began working at the Union that I began to develop an interest in the wider aspects of postal history. The Library still holds its own archives and postal trade union journals from a century ago that show that the postal service was about people improving the lot of Post Office workers whilst maintaining a pride in their job and their organisation. I very quickly became acquainted with Mr. W. V. Morten and his postal history collection, as one of the first tasks I undertook was sorting postal material with the ‘WVM’ stamp which had come to light.

Mail Coach Bristol Ware jug from the Morten Collection

Mail Coach Bristol Ware jug from the Morten Collection

The object I have chosen from the collection is a Bristol Ware jug decorated with a mail coach. There is a note on the bottom, signed by Morten himself in 1913, giving the jug’s identification. Morten has no doubts, given the date (now obscured), its inscription “Quick Travelling”, the shape of the coach and the fact there are no outside seats, that this jug was made to commemorate the introduction of the Quick Travelling Mail Coaches invented by John Palmer of Bath in 1784.

A beautifully functional object, would these jugs have been available in coaching inns along the way for passengers, drivers and guards to assuage their thirst with water? Or maybe something stronger? How many people have handled it and drank from it over the last 200 years? How has a fragile object, presumably in daily use, survived in such good condition so that we can appreciate it today? Partly it is because of the efforts of collectors like W. V. Morten, who saw them worthy of collection and therefore salvation.