August 2, 1784
A new era for the British postal system took place when the first stagecoach to officially transport mail left Bristol for London. A regular mail-delivery service had already been in place in England for nearly 150 years by that time, with carriers riding horses in what was essentially a “relay race” format. One carrier would ride his horse to a stopping point known as a “post,” and the postmaster there would grab up any letters intended for distribution in that part of England. The postmaster then took the remaining letters from that carrier and handed them, along with additional mail collected at that post, to the next carrier for his own segment of the route.
This method for transporting the mail had several time-consuming and even dangerous drawbacks. One frequent drawback was that a carrier, traveling by himself on a horse in the British countryside, was an easy target for robbers lying in wait along the route.
It was John Palmer, an enterprising theatre owner from Bath, who came up with a potentially safer and more time-efficient means of delivering mail over long distances. As a key part of his work, Palmer made extensive use of stagecoach services to transport actors and stagehands as well as props and various other theatrical items to cities throughout England. It eventually dawned on him that using stagecoaches for long-haul mail delivery could yield similarly successful and fast-paced results. The stagecoach journeys he arranged between Bath and London were typically completed within a single day, for example, while it took a series of mounted carriers an average of three days to cover the same distance.
Starting in 1782, Palmer lobbied senior postal officials in London for the adoption of his “mail coach” idea. He initially met considerable resistance, with officials insisting that the existing postal transportation network could not be improved upon and should stay intact. Palmer persevered in his efforts, however. William Pitt, who served as both British prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, was ultimately persuaded to approve Palmer’s idea on an experimental basis.
Palmer himself paid for the inaugural test run for this mail coach service on August 2, 1784. That stagecoach departed Bristol for London at four o’clock that afternoon. A journey that took mounted carriers up to 38 hours to finish was completed as scheduled in only 16 hours.
This experimental run impressed Pitt so much that he authorized the creation of other mail coach routes. The use of stagecoaches for mail delivery soon fanned out across much of England, with a total of 42 routes in place by 1797. Palmer’s pioneering role did not go unrewarded; he was made surveyor and comptroller general of the British postal system.
The introduction of mail coaches proved to be a major milestone in the history of England’s postal transportation network. Among other things, the use of multiple horses instead of just one horse at any given time throughout a route significantly reduced the hours for delivering mail. Another advantage of a stagecoach was that there was ample space for an armed postal employee to ride on board to help fend off and discourage possible robberies. With the advent of railways during the 19th century, trains increasingly became the preferred means of delivering mail over long distances in England. The nation’s remaining mail coach runs were phased out altogether by the 1850s.
For more information on British mail coaches, please check out https://www.postalmuseum.org/discover/collections/mail-coaches/.
Additional information on postal innovator John Palmer is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Palmer_(postal_innovator).