Development of the Horse-Drawn Coach

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Development of the Horse-Drawn Coach


Although carriages were used in continental Europe as early as 1294, vehicles to carry passengers first appeared in England in 1555. That they did not appear earlier was due to the appalling condition of English roads, which were little more than cattle tracks and water courses. Winter was an especially treacherous time for wheeled transport. In England, in the twelfth century, wagons were used by distinguished persons for travel. Because they were comparatively more comfortable, litters supported by two horses (one in back, one in front) carried ladies of rank, the sick, and also the dead.


The earliest surviving carriages (from the 1500s) were four-wheeled, with an arched tilt (covering) of leather or fabric over a bent-wood hooped frame. Although the wooden body and tilt framework from earlier carriages also survive, the undercarriage and wheels are gone. These carriages are long, and were mainly used by aristocratic ladies. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, a new type of body—a box slung on wheels, or coach—was invented.

Passengers in early carriages could look forward to a jerky ride. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) suffered so much from her first experience riding to the opening of Parliament in 1571 that she never used that particular vehicle again. No one knows when exactly builders first used springs to soften the jolting caused by the rough roads the carriages had to travel on. But already in the mid-1400s, there is evidence to suggest that coach bodies were being hung on leather straps or braces connected to a wooden frame to take some of the dead weight of the coach body off the undercarriage.

The first coach to be made in England was made by Walter Rippon of Holland for the Earl of Rutland. It had a covered body and a pivoted front axle, unlike the rigid-axle carriages of earlier times, and was driven by a pair of horses. Queen Elizabeth preferred another coach brought out of Holland by William Boonen, who was made and remained her coachman to the end of the century. This coach had four wheels with seven spokes each. Each wheel had a thick wooden rim bound round it and was secured to the wheels with pegs.

The most common model of the first generation of coaches had a seat, called the boot, projecting outwards at either side, between the wheels. These seats were usually occupied by pages, grooms, or ladies in attendance. The boot was an uncomfortable seat because it had no covering of any kind and would have exposed those sitting in it to the wet and cold. The boot remained a feature of coaches until they became enclosed and supplied with glass windows.

The first coaches were drawn by two horses, but as coach travel over country roads became more frequent, additional horses were required to deal with the demands of the road surface. More horses also meant that the vehicles could travel at faster speeds, since the horses had to work less and were thus able to trot or to gallop.

In 1605, the first hackney coaches came into use. These were four-wheeled coaches drawn by two horses that could accommodate six people and were used for hire to transport people about the city. At first, hackneys remained in their owners' yards until they were sent for. However, by 1634 hackney stands had appeared in London, where drivers in uniforms called livery would wait for fares. A year later, there were so many hackney coaches on the streets in London, creating a nuisance, that Charles I (1600-1649) issued a proclamation prohibiting their use for journeys under three miles. In France, hackney-like vehicles were called fiacres, and they performed a similar function.

Carriages with glass windows first appeared in 1599 in Paris, where they created a scandal at the court of Louis XIII (1601-1643). Glass was first used in the upper panels of the doors, but soon covered all the upper half of the sides and the front of the body. Although in England glass windows were common in houses before 1650, the kind of plate glass needed to withstand the rigors of carriage travel had to be imported from France. From 1670, it was also made in England.

The stagecoach came into vogue in England in about 1640. These coaches were constructed like a hackney coach but on a larger scale, and were intended to take passengers between London and towns between 20 and 40 miles away. Journeys to further towns such as York, Chester, and Exeter took four days and were accommodated by so-called flying coaches. Stagecoaches carried eight passengers inside, and provided a large basket behind, over the axle, for baggage and as many passengers as could fit in what space was left. Passengers inside were protected from the rain and cold by leather curtains.

As early as 1625, Edward Knapp was granted a patent for suspending the bodies of carriages on steel springs. Steel springs were hard to make, and his design failed, but 40 years later, others took up the problem more successfully. Soon after its founding in the mid-1600s, the Royal Society, too, took up the question of improvements in carriage design.

Ever-increasing road traffic led to a demand for smaller vehicles for general use. The gig, a light, two-wheeled carriage, was invented in France in 1667. A later version was called the cabriolet, and proved enormously popular there, and in England. The gig had a curved seat set on two long bending shafts that were placed in front on the back of the horse and behind on the two wheels. Like other carriages of the period, its springs were constructed of leather straps.


Although carriages were important to the Romans, as is evident from their excellent roads, with the fall of the Roman Empire, carriage technology suffered. And without the incentive to maintain repairs for the passage of vehicles (horseman required less well maintained roads), the roads disintegrated. In Western Europe, accounts from England and France describe roads damaged, decayed, and hindered by brooks, stones, brambles, and trees.

Carriage building enjoyed a renaissance in the sixteenth century, owing to the growth of trade, and increasing mobility among people. But the technology was not embraced whole-heartedly. In the thirteenth century, for example, as part of a bid to stamp out luxury, Philip the Fair of France forbade the wives of citizens to ride in carriages—though at this time, carriages were little more than baggage carts. By the fourteenth century, more luxurious carriages had evolved in England from the four-wheeled wagon, and were used to transport wealthy ladies (the men rode behind). In England, as well, by 1580 coaches were so usual among the wealthy classes that they became associated with degeneracy. Those who chose to ride in coaches instead of actively riding on horseback were seen as lazy. Critics called the carriages "upstart four-wheeled tortoises." Nonetheless, so popular did coaches become that in 1601 a bill was passed in Parliament to "restrain the excessive use of coaches." The bill was never enforced, and in any event, coaches were little used outside of London and large towns, owing to the bad condition of country roads.

The success of hackney coaches had a dramatic effect on the livelihood of the watermen who until then had monopolized passenger traffic across the Thames River. Some chalked passenger preference up to a taste for novelty, but in fact, at the time, crossing the Thames in a boat was a risky proposition. One waterman complained of seeing his fares dwindle from eight or ten in a morning to two for the entire day.

Just as hackney coachman were accused of taking bread from the mouths of Thames watermen—and in fact, the profession of waterman was scarcely heard of after 1662—so stagecoaches were accused of robbing licensed hackney coachmen of their livelihood. Moreover, stagecoaches were believed to be destroying the breed of good horses, the profession of watermen, and lessening royal revenues formerly brought by saddle horses. They were also accused of encouraging simple folk to make idle visits to London, where they would be exposed to vice. On the positive side, stagecoaches were believed to have provided the first incentive to improve country roads, though the truth was the other way around. As long-distance coach travel flourished, prohibitions were put into place to prevent existing highways from being ploughed up by carriage wheels carrying heavy loads.

Early carriages often had to be driven across fields and through ditches. It was symptomatic of the attitudes of the times that between 1684 and 1792, 10 patents were granted for devices to keep carriages from overturning, though few thought to work on improving roads so they did not cause upsets in the first place. In 1663, the first turnpike gate was erected on the Great North Road to collect tolls to repair the highway in the surrounding region, but it proved so unpopular that it took a hundred years to erect the next one. Repairs to highways were made by forced labor, only when the roads absolutely required it.

In 1677, Charles II (1630-1685) founded the Company of Coach and Coach Harness Makers, illustrating the importance and favor coaches had taken on at the time. When England was at war with France in 1694, a new system of taxing hackney coaches provided revenues for defense. Although roads and highways were slow to improve, the diversity of vehicles ensured that Europe would dominate technological development in transportation until the eighteenth century.


Further Reading

Gilbey, Walter. Early Carriages and Roads. London: Vinton, 1903.

Piggott, Stuart. Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbol and Status in the History of Transport. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Straus, Ralph. Carriages and Coaches: Their History and Their Evolution. London: Marin Secker, 1912.

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Development of the Horse-Drawn Coach

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Development of the Horse-Drawn Coach