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Friday, 22 December 2017

Christmas Wheels - Sepia Saturday

A Christmas themed postcard  is this week's Sepia Saturday's prompt, with smiling families shown amidst  the spokes of a cartwheel.   So I thought I would  continue the seasonal link with wheels.

One of the many beautiful wall paintings you see on the outside of buildings in Austria

When we look at the pictures of stagecoaches on Christmas cards,   they look colourful, dashing and rather romantic, but what was the reality like for our ancestors traveling over 170 years ago?

This image  of stagecoach travel has been   perpetuated by many writers including Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.  Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" published in 1850 painted a rather different picture of the reality of a winter stagecoach journey. 

"How well I recollect the wintry ride! The frozen particles of ice brushed from the blades of grass by the wind and borne across the face; the hard clatter of the horses' hoofs beating a tune upon the ground;  the stiff-tilted soil,   the snowdrifts, lightly eddying in the chalk pit as the  breeze ruffled it;  the smoking team stopping to breathe on the hill top and shaking their bells musically,.........."
 Stagecoaches were public service vehicles designed specifically for passengers and running to a published schedule.  Eight passengers could be packed inside, with others sitting at the back of the coach and the poorest passengers atop along with the luggage. A newspaper report  of 1846 (below) refers to a heavy coach of 18 to 20 passengers.  

A pub sign at Greenwich, near London 

The  driver was often the sole crew member responsible for the coach, the passengers, timekeeping and dealing with minor incidents.  Coaching inns acted as stopping  points for travellers and  were where  the ostlers changed and fed  the teams of horses   On the Edinburgh  to London journey there were twenty eight changes of a team of four horses. The hey day of stage coach travel was the early 19th century, with  improvement in road building techniques, the development of the turnpike system (where tolls financed  road construction),  and  increased comfort of the coaches themselves.  

For Mail Coaches the primary concern was the delivery of mail  although passengers were also taken.   In 1786 the first mail coach arrived in the Scottish capital from London. welcomed by the ringing of church bells,  and guns fired from the castle ramparts - even though on its inaugural run it was twelve hours late!

Contemporary newspaper reports of the time present a graphic picture of the perils facing passengers and  (and pedestrian) alike.
"The Border Watch" - 19 November 1846: 

“A SLOW COACH. – The Edinburgh and Hawick coach, which left Princes Street, Edinburgh on Saturday afternoon at 4pm  did not reach the Bridge Inn, Galashiels, until about 10pm; thus accomplishing the distance of thirty-two miles in the astonishing period of six hours!   

The pace was such that an ordinary pedestrian would have found little difficulty in keeping up with the coach. The road was by no means heavy, although in some places newly laid with metal. The coachman did his duty well with whip and voice, constantly urging forward his jaded steeds, and employing the box seat passenger to assist him with a spare thong.
But it was all of no avail. The animals would not move one foot faster than another. Up hill or down hill there was little perceptible difference, and several times the vehicle came to a dead halt, almost on a level.

The coach was full from Edinburgh, but a passenger having been let down on the road, another person was taken up. In spite of the loud remonstrances of the passengers, a second was buckled on behind, and a third was allowed standing room beside him. It appears there is now no restriction as to the number a stage coach may carry, and consequently three poor miserable horses were forced to drag, throughout a weary stage of fifteen miles, a heavy coach loaded with eighteen or twenty persons.

Image, Painting, Nuremberg, Middle Ages
Image courtesy of Pixabay

 "The Kelso Chronicle" - 16 June 1837: 

"ACCIDENT. – On Tuesday evening when the coach from Kelso had passed Ord, the reins broke, and the driver left his seat, and went along the pole to recover them. His foot slipped, and he fell between the pole and the horses to the ground. Fortunately, the wheels passed on both sides of him, and he escaped with no other injury than a slight blow to the head.The horses set off at rapid pace, and ran through Tweedmouth. The passengers kept their seats, and the horses while running furiously along the bridge, were stopped by a young man named Robert Robertson, who, with great personal risk, seized the horses’ head.Had they not been stopped, in all probability, from the speed with which they were proceeding, the coach would have been upset at the turn of Bridge Street.  The conduct of the young man deserves great praise.”
"The Kelso Chronicle" -  4 October 1844:
“WONDERFUL ESCAPE. – As the Defiance Coach was leaving the town on Friday last, a girl, about 10 years of age, daughter of Mr. Ferguson, tailor, who was hastily crossing the High Street, and not perceiving the coach, ran in betwixt the fore and hind horses, by which she was struck down, when the horses and coach went over her, to the horror of the spectators, who could do nothing to save her. The wheels on the one side passed over one of her legs, bruising it most severely in two places, while the opposite wheels went over the top of her bonnet, close to the head, but without doing any injury. The poor girl’s thigh was also much bruised, apparently by one of the horses’ feet. We are glad to state that she is recovering from the effects of her injuries.”.

We were on holiday in Warsaw when this stage-coach drove into a square  - but we  never found out what it was all about. 

But the iconic image of the stagecoach as a mode of travel still captures our imagination. especially at Christmas time. 

Two final images:

 Christmas is often the time to have a convivial drinkClydesdale Horses here are pulling the dray, advertising Vaux Brewery  Fine Ales -  at the Border Union Agricultural Show in Kelso, Scottish Borders.  

little horse and cart  which brings back memories of my mother - a talented stitcher who made this soft toy, filled with sweets at Chritmas time. 


Sepia Saturday gives an opportunity for genealogy bloggers  
to share their family history and memories through photographs. 

Click HERE  to find further Christmas tales from Sepia Saturday bloggers.



  1. Ah - the reality of coach travel. Not so romantic in actuality. I took a ride in an open coach round New York's Central Park once and was about shaken to death. Very uncomfortable! Hopefully some of those in your pictures were better sprung!

  2. How wonderful to hear all those news stories of real life with coaches and horses. Our lives are so different these days, it's great to be reminded of what it was like then. Not as romantic as many stories tell!

  3. A great take on the theme! I've studied early stagecoach history to learn more about the coach horn or post horn. The sound was imitated by many composers from the Renaissance to Romantic. The calls evoked sensations of anticipation, thrill, and especially speed as the coach was the fastest vehicle people knew (except when it was slow:-)
    I wish you and yours a very happy holiday and warm new year!

  4. The newspaper snippets remind us how precarious coach travel was - despite the romantic Christmas card images.

  5. Excellent post Sue. Great descriptions of what it must have been like.


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