It was not until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that regular coaches were introduced into England. The 16th Century saw the establishment of private coaches. The 17th Century saw the introduction of stagecoaches and the 19th Century that of the railway. The early roads were in such an appalling state that the centre was the only firm surface; there were deep ruts full of mud or dust on either side. Before the introduction of coaches, the Thames was the chief highway to London and the coach was looked at with very unfavourable glances by the watermen as later was the steam-engine by the stage-coachmen, who used to sing 'Let the steam pot hiss till it's hot, Give me the speed of the Tantivy Trot.'
The journey by coach from Oxford to London took two days, but even then, after the first experience of the mode of travel some preferred to return to the saddle horse. In 1700, it took a week to travel from London to York by coach and to Exeter two days less. Delays on the road were of course frequent for the coachman or guard wanting a shave or haircut, or to settle a private argument by a fight would leave the coach unattended for any length of time while he went about his business.
Faster coaches, which were better sprung, appeared later, and we read of the Reading stagecoach at the time of Charles II. However, this mode of travel was regarded as being rather effeminate for a man, compared with the usual journeys made on horseback.
Another objection to the stagecoach was that it presented an opportunity for 'country cousins' to travel to London. This was undesirable in many cases, and there were people in London who would have preferred to be without the stagecoach so that the country cousins would stay in their own homes!
By the reign of George III, the vehicles themselves had also improved. The front and hind boots were incorporated in the design of the coach proper, and took the place of the huge baskets, which had formerly been attached to the rear of the coach. The speed was increased to six to eight miles per hour.
In 1786 the Stage and Mail Coaches began to run regularly and were kept to a timetable. Any passenger not on the coach at the starting time was left behind at the stage. Better bred horses, including ex-race-horses, were brought into use. They were well fed and cared for.
Amateurs learned to drive on the stagecoach, and then took up driving and coaching as a hobby or sport. Would-be drivers made a habit of tipping the driver who would then allow them to take control for part of the journey, much to the dismay of the proprietor and of the passengers. However, the coachman was a law unto himself and was the idol of any village, which had the luck to be chosen as a stage, where the horses were changed. For a kiss from a pretty maid, the coachman's would convey a love letter to her beau, and he could bribed with country produce such as bacon to deliver parcels en route. Some coachmen could not resist the temptation of carrying a passenger not entered on the waybill, and in those cases the fare found it's way into the coachman's pockets.
An equally important person was the coach-guard, who in the days of
highway robbery was armed with a blunderbuss whenever his coach was
carrying the mail. His duty was to see that the coach kept to the set
timetable by blowing his horn to clear the road ahead. This warned hostlers
waiting with the fresh team of horses of the approach of the coach.
It was also useful for the purpose of waking up the toll-keeper, or
warning a barmaid to prepare rum, brandy and coffee for the passengers.
(Extract from Summerhays' Encyclopaedia for Horsemen.)