Wednesday 9 September 2015

Regency Travel with Rachel Knowles

It is a privilege to welcome Rachel Knowles to the salon today to chat about travelling in Regency England. A longtime friend of the Guide, Rachel is better known as the author of the marvellous Regency History blog. I'm pleased to announce that Rebel Hand won the giveaway of A Perfect Match!

Travelling choices

How easy was it for the relatively affluent, or indeed anyone, to travel from place to place in England in 1789? That was the question I needed to answer when researching my first novel – A Perfect Match – a historical romance set in late Georgian England.

Perfect Match

The book opens in the autumn of 1788 when Alicia Westlake arrives in London with her mother for the season. Later in the story, they travel from London to Weymouth, on the south coast of England, a distance of about 130 miles. What were their travelling choices for making that journey in the summer of 1789 and how long would it have taken?

Private carriages

The most comfortable and flexible way to make a long journey in 1789 was to travel by private carriage. Unsurprisingly, it was also the most expensive. It left the travellers in complete control of where their journey started and finished, when their journey took place and who they travelled with. Typically a private travelling carriage was postilion-driven, that is, the vehicle was directed by one or more men called postilions or post-boys riding one or more of the horses, rather than the carriage being driven by a coachman.

The post system

By making use of the post system, the journey could be accomplished as quickly as possible. The post system was a system of inns or posting houses where fresh horses and postilions could be hired at different stages along the post road enabling fast travelling speeds to be maintained. 

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when the wealthy Colonel Brandon is called to London on urgent business, he plans to ride to the town of Honiton, declaring to Sir John: “I shall then go post.” Later when Marianne Dashwood is ill, and he goes to fetch her mother, he sends “an order for post-horses directly”.

On the other hand, Willoughby, before he had secured himself a rich wife, had not wanted to incur the expense of travelling post, and commented: “My journey to town—travelling with my own horses, and therefore so tediously…”

Travelling chariots and post-coaches

Travelling chariot at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court
Travelling chariot at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court

The most desirable vehicle for two people making a long journey was a travelling chariot. It was designed with one seat facing forward with a glass window at the front. As the chariot was postilion-driven, there was no coachman to block the view of the road ahead.

When George III travelled from Windsor to Weymouth for his summer visits, he sometimes made the journey by travelling chariot, but sometimes he travelled in a larger carriage with other members of his family or household which was referred to as a “post-coach”. The main difference between a chariot and a coach was that a chariot had just the one seat facing forward, whereas a coach had a second seat opposite and could seat more people. 

Sometimes the King made this journey of around 113 miles all in one go and the Gentleman’s Magazine very usefully recorded how long it took. The times recorded range from about 11 to 13 ½ hours, presumably dependent on the length of stops en route and the condition of the horses rather than on the traffic. If these figures are accurate, even allowing for only very short breaks, it suggests that the King travelled at a speed of at least 8 to 12 miles per hour.

Georgian convertibles

Postilion landau at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court
Postilion landau at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court

Alternatively, the carriage could have been a landau or landaulet – the Georgian equivalent to a convertible. These vehicles had two folding leather hoods which could be lowered to make the best of fine weather and give better visibility. The landau had a body like a coach with two seats whereas the landaulet had just one seat like a chariot. 

Hiring a carriage

Model of stage coach at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court.jpg
Model of stage coach at National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court

If a traveller did not own his own carriage, he could hire a post-chaise – a public travelling chariot. Sharing the cost of hiring a post-chaise was another way to save money.

In Sense and Sensibility, Miss Steele is very quick to point out their mode of travel to London: "Not in the stage, I assure you," replied Miss Steele, with quick exultation; "we came post all the way and had a very smart beau to attend us. Dr Davies was coming to town, and so we thought we'd join him in a post-chaise; and he behaved very genteelly, and paid ten or twelve shillings more than we did." 

The next best alternative
Royal Mail coach at Red House Stables Carriage Museum
Royal Mail coach at Red House Stables Carriage Museum
If a traveller did not own his own carriage or have the means to hire a post-chaise, then the next best alternative was to travel by Royal Mail coach. This was a quick way to travel as these coaches were specifically designed to carry the mail from one town to another as quickly as possible. They had a special dispensation that meant they did not have to stop at turnpike gates to pay tolls. A horn was blown to let the toll-keeper know that the mail coach was coming so he could get the gate open in readiness. 

A mail coach was protected by the Post Office guard who was armed with pistols and a blunderbuss, making this method of travel relatively safe. However, there were drawbacks. Although working to a strict timetable made the mail coaches very reliable, they only ran over a limited number of routes and left from coaching inns, not a traveller’s front door. 

In addition, the mail was always the priority, not the passengers, and if there was an accident, travellers could find themselves stranded whilst the driver deserted them to deliver the mail on horseback. The other drawback was travelling with strangers, as anyone who could afford it could buy a ticket. However, as this was still quite an expensive way to travel, the company would most likely have been relatively select.

Cheaper ways to travel

Travel by mail coach would have been too expensive for many people and they would have been obliged to travel by stage coach or worse.

Stage coaches ran to timetables like the mail, but although they operated over more routes, they were not so fast or reliable. As well as inside passengers, they took passengers on the roof. These travellers were subject to the elements and could literally freeze to death in bad weather conditions. The coachmen also had a tendency to take too many of these outside passengers on their coaches, making them top heavy and likely to have accidents. As it was considerably cheaper than the mail coach, the company was less select and a traveller might be obliged to share their travelling space with all manner of persons and even livestock.

If a person could not even afford a ticket on a stage coach, their only option was to walk or to hitch a lift on a stage wagon. According to Google Maps, the journey from London to Weymouth would take approximately 43 hours to walk. A lift in a smelly wagon might seem a good option compared to this!

In case you were wondering, my character Mrs Westlake was a very wealthy widow and so I decided that she must travel post in her own travelling chariot. But as she and her daughter discover in my book, even having your own carriage does not protect you from unexpected adventures along the road.

Sources used include:
National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court
Red House Stable Working Carriage Museum
The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle (1789-1801)
The Postal Heritage website –

Rachel Knowles is the author of the Regency History blog. A Perfect Match is available as a paperback and an ebook on and

This post copyright © Rachel Knowles, 2015.


Unknown said...

What a wonderful article. I have always wondered how the characters I read about traveled in that time period. With this information, I know I will enjoy reading my favorite genre even more. Thank you for letting us be a part of this visit.

Nettie Bee said...

Thank you for such an interesting article. Xx

Sarah said...

Excellent article! I have to say I've come across some quite harrowing accidents in the newspapers when researching weather data!

Rachel Knowles said...

I am glad you enjoyed it. Knowing the relative costs of the different types of transport helps me to understand how wealthy a fictional character is.

Rachel Knowles said...

Judging by the number of accidents, I think it is amazing that anyone travelled any distance without mishap! Perhaps they didn't check over their vehicles as thoroughly as they should have done before travel as parts often seemed to break en route.

Unknown said...

Fascinating, Rachel, and thanks for explaining the different types of carriage.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Nettie!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for visiting!

Teresa said...

I have always wondered if people got their horses back from the first stage when they change horses. Or were the horses so interchangeable that it didn't matter. Does anyone know?

Sarah said...

I've always assumed they would either pay to have them stabled until collected or leave a groom to take them home. A matched pair could be hundreds of guineas, not interchangeable with any old pair for hire, and a matched four would be like handing over your Lotus and expecting to take home a Toyota. Horses hired out were subject to the abuses of idiots, and nobody lets Jack Lagerlout from Darkest Essex loose with a Mercedes. The hire horses had to do their job and be reliable, but they didn't compare with the sort of team anyone with two bob to rub together would buy. Of course the wealthiest are supposed to have had their own teams stabled at post houses on the roads they used most, but for everyone else there's garaging fees at the first stage. So logic suggests you got your own horses back...

Rachel Knowles said...

The horses were definitely not interchangeable! If they did the first stage with their own horses, they would leave their own groom or postilion to take them back to their stables. I guess they could stable them there until their return journey but I think this would have been unlikely, unless their trip was very short.

Rachel Knowles said...

I agree with you Sarah. Post horses varied considerably in quality and were generally far inferior to a gentleman's own horses. There is no way that a gentleman would hire out his horses to anyone else! As post horses were hired with the postilions who rode them, I think it is most likely that the horses would be left with the owner's postilion(s) to take them back to their own stables.

Sarah said...

that would make sense. And with postillions being common in this situation it does rather explain that old phrasebook phrase 'my postillion has ben struck by lightning' which used to so puzzle me until I discovered how often coaches and horsemen were struck by lightning in the days when they could be the highest thing in the landscape and there were very few lightning conductors!