A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 24

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[ 325 ]



What are known as the "palmy days" of the coaching era began about the year 1820, and lasted until 1836. By 1820 the improvements in road-making of Telford and McAdam had led to quicker travelling and the running of far more coaches, at greater speeds, than had previously been the case. By 1836 it was evident that coaching had reached the climax of its popularity, and could not hope to maintain its position against the competition of the railways which were spreading so rapidly throughout the land.

Over 3000 coaches were then on the road, and half of these began or ended their journeys in London. Some 150,000 horses were employed in running them, and there were about 30,000 coachmen, guards, horse-keepers and hostlers, while many hundreds of taverns, in town or country, prospered on the patronage the coaches brought them. From one London tavern alone there went every day over eighty coaches to destinations in the north. From another there went fifty-three coaches and fifty-one waggons, chiefly to the west of England. Altogether coaches or waggons were going from over one hundred taverns in the City or in the Borough.

Big interests grew up in connection with the coaching enterprise. William Chaplin, who owned five yards in London, had, at one time, nearly 2000 horses, besides many coaches. Out of twenty-seven mail-coaches leaving London every night he "horsed" fourteen. He is said to have made a fortune of half a million of money out of the business; but when he began to realise what the locomotive would do he took his coaches off the road, disposed of his stock before the railways had depreciated it, joined with Benjamin Horne, of the "Golden Cross," Charing Cross, who had himself had a large stock of horses, and founded the carrying firm of [ 326 ]Chaplin and Horne, which became exclusive agents for the London and Birmingham Railway. When the London and South-Western Railway Company found themselves faced with serious difficulties he devoted alike his means, his experience and his energies to helping them out of their trouble, rendering services so invaluable to the company that he soon became deputy chairman of the line, and was raised to the chairmanship in 1842. Another coach proprietor, Sherman, who had had a large number of coaches running between London and Birmingham, threw in his lot with the Great Western Railway as soon as it was opened, and did much of the London carrying business in connection with that line.

Other coach proprietors there were who, less far-sighted, or less fortunate, held on to their old enterprises, influenced, it may be, by the views of such authorities as Sir Henry Parnell, who, in the second edition of his "Treatise on Roads" (1838), declared in reference to railways:—

"The experience which has been gained from those already completed, and from the enormous expense incurred on those which are in progress, has led to a general opinion that there is little probability of more than a few of these works affording any ultimate return for the money expended upon them.

"The heavy expense which is proved by experience to be unavailable in keeping the railways and engines in repair, where great speed is the object, will in numerous cases soon make it evident that no dividends can be paid to the shareholders, and the cheaper method of using horse-power will be adopted....

"The attaining of the speed of 25 or 30 miles an hour, at such an enormous expense, cannot be justified on any principle of national utility. The usefulness of communication, in a national point of view, consists principally in rendering the conveyance of all the productions of the soil and of industry as cheap as possible.... But a speed of 10 miles an hour would have accomplished all these purposes, and have been of great benefit to travellers, while it could have been attained at from one half to one third of the expense which has been incurred by the system that has been acted upon. It is no doubt true that travelling at the rate of 25 or 30 miles an hour is very convenient, but how it can be made to act so as [ 327 ]to contribute very much to the benefit of the country at large it is not easy to discover. Economy of time in an industrious country is unquestionably of immense importance, but after the means of moving at the rate of ten miles an hour is universally established there seems to be no very great advantage to be derived from going faster."

It is true that an acceleration had been effected in the rates of speed attainable on improved roads, under the stimulus of mail and "flying" coaches. But these results had only been secured with consequences for the unfortunate horses which no one possessed of a spark of humanity could fail to deplore. Several coach proprietors, each owning between 300 and 400 horses, informed a House of Commons Select Committee in 1819 that those of their horses which worked within fifty miles of London lasted only three or four years, in which period the entire stock had to be renewed. Mr Horne, of Charing Cross, who kept 400 horses, said he bought 150 every year. On some roads, it was affirmed, the mortality of the horses, due in part to the bad state of the roads and in part to the accelerated speed, was so great that the average coach-horse lasted only two years. On certain roads around London it was necessary to have six horses attached to a coach in order to drag it through the two feet or so of mud which, in wet weather, was to be found on such roads as the one across Hounslow Heath.

In accounting for an increased demand for coach-horses in 1821, a paragraph from the "Yorkshire Gazette," quoted by the "Morning Chronicle" of December 27 in that year, declared that it arose out of the new regulations of the Post Office, which caused the death of two horses, on an average, in every three journeys of 200 miles. "The Highflyer of this city," the paragraph continued, "lately lost two horses, and it has cost the Manchester and Liverpool coaches seventeen horses since they commenced to cope with the mail and run ten miles an hour in place of seven or eight.... Several horses, in endeavouring to keep time, according to the new Post Office regulations, have had their legs snapped in two on the road, while others have dropped dead from the effort of a ruptured blood-vessel or a heart broken in efforts to obey the whip."

On one of the southern roads a coach was put on which [ 328 ]was run at the rate of twelve miles an hour; but seven horses died in three weeks, and the pace was then reduced to ten miles an hour. An average speed even of six and a half miles an hour was declared to be scarcely possible on some of the roads. "It tore the horses' hearts out."

One cannot wonder that, when the fact of trains on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway doing an average of fifteen miles an hour with the greatest ease, and attaining to double that speed when necessary, became known, humanitarian considerations were, in themselves, sufficient to win preference for rail over road transport.

There was also a practical as well as a humanitarian side to this appalling death-rate among the coach-horses. Thomas Gray, in the course of his "Observations on a General Iron Rail-way," showed that, reckoning the number of coach and postchaise horses at no more than 100,000, and allowing for renewal of stock every four years, keep and interest on capital expenditure, the outlay would amount in twelve years to £34,700,000; while a like calculation, for the same period, in regard to the 500,000 waggon, coach, and postchaise horses employed on the main turnpike roads of the country, gave a total of no less than £173,500,000.

While, again, fair-weather travellers may have enjoyed the scenery and the poetry of motion when seated on the top of a coach going across country in the summer-time, there were possibilities of great discomforts and dangers having to be faced, as well. Accidents were so frequent that it was usual for the coaches to carry a box of carpenters' tools, supplemented in the winter by a snow shovel. Sometimes the coaches stuck in the mire; sometimes they upset. They passed through flooded roads, they were detained by fog, they got snowed up, or their passengers might run terrible risks from frost. On the arrival of the Bath coach at Chippenham one morning in the month of March, 1812, it was found that two passengers had been frozen to death on their seats, and that a third was dying. In the winter of 1814 there was a prolonged fog, followed by a severe snow-storm which lasted forty-eight hours. In one day thirty-three mail-coaches due at the General Post Office failed to arrive. At Christmas, 1836, there was a snow-storm which lasted nearly a week. On December 26 the Exeter mail had to be dug out of the [ 329 ]snow five times. The following day fourteen mail-coaches were abandoned on different roads.

So, in proportion as the railways spread, the coaching traffic declined. In 1839 a London coach proprietor, Mr E. Sherman, of the "Bull and Mouth," told the Select Committee on Turnpike Trusts that the persons then being carried by coach were mostly timid people who did not like to go by railway, though every day it was found that the timidity was lessening, and that many individuals who formerly would not have travelled by train for any consideration were doing so in preference to going by coach.

The severity of the railway competition with the coaches was, indeed, beyond all question; but the coach proprietors considered that their difficulty in facing it was rendered much worse by the heavy taxation on their enterprise.

The earliest stage-coaches, patronised mostly by the poorer class of travellers, were not taxed at all; but when the "flying coaches" and the "handsome machines with steel springs for the ease of passengers and the conveniency of the country" were put on the road and attracted passengers of a better class, the owners of private conveyances began to complain of the unfairness of their being taxed while the owners of public coaches were not. Wanting more money to meet the heavy expenditure on the American war, North met the complaints of the private-carriage owners by putting a tax on the stage-coaches; and the precedent thus established, in or about the year 1780, was followed by later Chancellors of the Exchequer, the taxation being subsequently extended alike to every class of vehicles used for coach traffic and, in 1832, to all classes of railway passengers.

In 1837 a Select Committee appointed to inquire into the taxation of internal communication reported that the taxes then in force in respect to land travelling by animal power were as follows:—

1. Assessed taxes on carriages and horses kept for private use.

2. A post-horse duty.

3. A duty on carriages kept to let for hire, being £5 5s. on each carriage with four wheels, and £3 5s. for each carriage with two wheels.

[ 330 ]4. A license duty paid by each postmaster, being 7s. 6d. per annum.

5. Mileage duty on stage-coaches.

6. A license duty on stage-coaches, being £5 on each coach kept to run, and 1s. on each supplementary license.

7. An assessed tax on coachmen and guards.

8. An assessed tax on draught horses.

There were many variations in the mileage duty on stage-coaches. In 1780 it was one halfpenny for every mile travelled; in 1783 it was raised to a penny; in 1797 it was twopence, while subsequent increases led up to the highest rate of all—one of fivepence halfpenny per mile for coaches licensed to carry more than ten passengers inside. It was, in part, to moderate the pressure of this tax that Shillibeer introduced the omnibus into London,[1] his first conveyance being a huge, unwieldy conveyance which, drawn by three horses, spread the fivepence-halfpenny mileage duty over twenty-two inside passengers.

The yield from the mileage duty was £194,559 in 1814, £223,608 in 1815 (when there was an increase of one halfpenny per mile for every coach) and £480,000 in 1835.

So long as the stage-coaches were well patronised, little or nothing was heard about all this taxation, which was, in effect, passed on to the traveller, who either paid without grumbling or else grumbled and paid. But when the railways began to divert more and more traffic from the roads, the duties in question fell with special severity on the coach proprietors, who then divided their maledictions pretty equally between the railway companies and the tax-gatherers.

The mileage duty was especially burdensome under the new conditions. Being assessed on the number of persons each coach was licensed to carry, and not on the number of passengers actually carried, it remained at the same amount whether the coaches ran full, half full or empty. The fact that the railways, which were depriving the coaches of their patrons, then paid their halfpenny per mile only on every four passengers actually conveyed became a grievance with the coach proprietors, who thought that the railways should be taxed on the same basis as themselves.

[ 331 ]That the taxation pressed heavily on a declining business was beyond all possibility of doubt.

A petition drawn up in 1830 by proprietors of stage-coaches employed on the turnpike roads between Liverpool and various Lancashire towns showed that the taxes they paid to the Government worked out for the year as follows:—

Duty on 33 coaches 8,455016008
Assessed taxes for coach servants 261000000
Mileage duty 5,779003004
Total 14,496000000

In addition to this they had to pay £8005 13s. 4d. a year for turnpike tolls, while their general expenses, including horses (renewed every three years), harness, hostlers, rent of stables, hay, corn and straw, etc., but allowing for value of manure, came to £64,602 13s. 4d., their total annual expenditure thus being as follows:—

Government duty and taxes 14,496000000
Turnpike tolls 8,005013004
Expenses 64,602013004
Total £87,104006008

W. C. Wimberley, a coach proprietor of Doncaster, who gave evidence before the Select Committee of 1837, said that the Government taxation on a single coach, the "Wellington," running between London and Newcastle, for a period of 364 days, was as follows:—

Duty for four passengers inside and
eleven out, sixpence per double mile,
that is up and down 278 miles

Stamps for receipts on payment of ditto 1012006
Four licenses (four coaches being used
successively up and down)
Assessed taxes on coachmen and guards 17010000

[ 332 ]The coach also paid, in the same period, £2537 7s. 8d. for tolls.

Another coach proprietor, W. B. Thorne, told the same Committee that on five coaches to Dover he paid for mileage duty alone in the previous year a total of £2273. On his coaches to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham he paid £7017 in the twelve months, and the total amount of duty he paid for all his coaches in the year was £26,717. He did not think, however, that relief from taxation would save them from being annihilated by the railways, except as regarded certain roads where the railways did not directly operate against them.

Still another coach proprietor, Robert Gray, admitted to the Committee that he did not think it would be possible for the coaches to compete on the Bath road with the Great Western Railway even if all the duty were taken off.

There was no doubt that the coaches could not have held their own permanently against the railways even if they had been relieved of taxation as soon as the success of their rivals became assured. On the other hand, if the coaches could have been afforded such relief that, while not attempting to compete with the railways on main routes where competition was hopeless, they would have been encouraged to cater for business on routes not then served by the railways, an advantage would have been gained, not only by the coach proprietors themselves, but by the public. The early days of the railway undoubtedly brought serious inconvenience to people who found themselves set down at a station ten, fifteen or twenty miles distant from their home, with no chance of their getting a coach because rail competition and Government taxation combined had made it no longer possible to run a coach on that road. If the taxation had not, as was often the case, made all the difference between profit and loss, many of the coaches would probably have held on a few years longer, by which time the railways would have been more generally developed. As it was they were withdrawn in larger numbers, at an earlier period, than would otherwise have been the case, and there were many instances of great hardship to travellers whose means did not allow of their supplementing an incomplete railway journey by hiring a vehicle specially for themselves.

[ 333 ]The report presented by the Select Committee of 1837 admitted the inequalities of the taxation on land travelling as between the coaches and the railways; but, instead of recommending, as the coach proprietors had wanted, that the demands on the railways should be increased, the Committee expressed strong disapproval of any tax at all being imposed on internal communication. They said, among other things:—

"Very valuable evidence was submitted to your Committee by Sir Edward Lees, secretary to the Post Office at Edinburgh, as to the increased speed, security and cheapness with which the post might be conveyed over the cross-roads of Scotland by the establishment of mail cars similar to those now in use in Ireland, thereby increasing the Revenue and opening up districts now altogether destitute of any mode of public conveyance; the same remarks would necessarily apply to many cross-roads in England. The grand obstacle, however, to the establishment of these cars is the heavy taxation on travelling, which utterly deters individuals from engaging in such speculations; while in Ireland, where the roads are decidedly inferior, but where none of these taxes exist, cheap and expeditious public conveyances are everywhere to be found."

The ultimate findings and recommendations of the Committee were summed up in the following emphatic declaration:

"Your Committee earnestly recommend the abolition of all taxes on public conveyances and on carriages generally at the earliest period consistent with a due regard to the financial arrangements of the country."

Unfortunately, the financial arrangements of the country never have allowed of this recommendation being carried out, and a further period of thirty-two years was to elapse before even the moribund stage-coach business was relieved altogether of the obligation to pay mileage duty.

The burdensome nature of these duties on internal communication led to the formation of a "Committee for the Abolition of the Present System of Taxation on Stage Carriages in Great Britain"; and in some "Observations on the Injustice, Inequalities and Anomalies of the Present System of Taxation on Stage Carriages," by J. E. Bradfield, issued by this Committee in 1854, a strong case was made out in favour of such abolition. Bradfield based his main arguments on the [ 334 ]contention that by removing restrictions placed upon the freedom of communication the general welfare of nations was promoted. The taxation of the stage-coaches conferred, he said, no advantage on the coaching enterprise, since none of the money raised in this way was expended on road improvement, while the amount of the taxation often formed an abnormally large proportion of the receipts. He mentions the case of one coach-owner in the Lake District, thirty per cent of whose receipts in the winter had to go to the Government for the duties imposed, not on the amount of business he did, but on the seating capacity of his coaches. In another instance the duties paid were forty-five per cent of the takings. Bradfield thought a fair average for the country in general would be fifteen per cent. The existing system of mileage duties enforced, he declared, an average tax of £80 per annum upon every stud of eight horses employed in stage-coaches, as against £30 for the same number used for postchaises, and £11 8s. in the case of those for private carriages.

Bradfield further quotes a Windermere coach-owner as being of opinion that there was "still great scope for coaches as feeders to the railways if only they were given greater relief in the matter of duties." He expresses his own opinion that "coaches are legitimately the streams by which the traffic should be conducted to the railways," and asks, "Why tax the stream more than the river?"

The steady decrease in the yield from the stage-coach duties was in itself sufficiently significant of the changes in travel that were then proceeding. In 1837 the revenue from the duties was £523,856; but it began to decline steadily as the "palmy days" of coaching came to an end, and in 1841 it had fallen to £314,000. In 1853, when, after various modifications, the mileage duty was three-halfpence a mile, the yield was only £212,659. In 1866, after further modifications, the duty was reduced to a farthing; and in 1869 it was repealed altogether; though by that time the locomotive had supplanted the stage-coach except in a comparatively few localities where it still lingered, mainly, however, as a feeder to the railway.

The recent revival of coaching comes under the category of sport or recreation rather than under that of internal transport and communication.

  1. See p. 63.