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1948: Looking back to the 1900s - 'Royal Mail coaches ended in a blaze of glory'

Sussex County Magazine 

Volume 22 May 1948 


Peter J. N. Habens writes on the last days of the coaching era which finally finished in the summer of 1905 

Royal Mail coaches ended in blaze of glory 

In those long ago days when the railways' iron roads first began to oust the stage and mail coaches from the highways of England, Brighton was one of the first towns to lose its mail coach link with the capital. A few stagecoaches did remain on the route in the early 1840s, but theirs was a losing battle. By the end of the decade the roads were almost deserted, long distance passenger traffic now being the exclusive preserve of the new railway companies. 

Unlike some diehard private coaching companies, the General Post Office made no attempt to enter its mails in competition with the railways. As soon as a line was opened over an old mail coach route the Post Office immediately took the coach off the road and transferred its business to the railway. Railway expansion in England went ahead rapidly and, by the end of 1846, England's roads had apparently seen the last of the black and maroon Royal Mail coaches with their resplendent guards and coachman. 

For many parts of the country this was certainly to be true, but not for Brighton nor for a number of the other towns in the region, including Guildford and, further afield, Oxford. 40 years after what had been thought to be the last journey by a royal coach, the mail was once again being carried to Brighton by four horse teams and the coachman's horn was again to be heard along the Brighton road. This second lease of life for the coaching era, about which so little is generally known, began in the spring of 1887 and continued without a break for another 18 years. 

Since the withdrawal of the Royal Mail coaches they had become almost a part of English folklore and had inspired an enormous bulk of sentimental literature. But it was nothing to do with the sentiment that led to the re-introduction of the Royal Mail. 

Up until 1883 parcels have been handled entirely by the railway companies, the GPO insisting only on its right to handle letters and letter packets. In this year, however, the GPO announced to the railway companies that henceforth it intended to include parcels in its own service. The companies protested strongly, for they would be losing a profitable part of their trade  but protests cut no ice and the GPO put its intentions into practice. Not wishing to lose all the benefits of the parcel trade, companies retaliated by pushing up the parcel rate. The fees were extremely high and the GPO officials came to the conclusion, with some reluctance, that on some routes it would be cheaper to send parcels by road. 

They decided to reopen some of the shorter Royal Mail coach routes from London, not only for the carriage of parcels but for general mail as well. Only these short routes were to be reopened, be cause only over relatively short distances could the GPO hope to offer a delivery service comparable to that which could be given by the railways. It says a lot for the efficiency of the mail coach department of these later years that they managed in all respects to equal the service the railways could have provided. 

Mail carriage crash in London c1900 (note the painted CUCKFIELD sign between those of BRIGHTON and LONDON)

Although the mail coach service along the Brighton road had been discontinued almost half a century earlier, the GPO managed to re-establish the route with remarkable speed. The GPO provided the coaches and contracts were arranged with job masters along the route for horsing. The route was covered in seven stages and more than fifty horses were required to operate the two way service. The old form of operation was adhered to in relation to coaching staff, for the guard being an employee of the GPO, directly responsible for the running and safety of the coach. The coachman was in an officially inferior position comma his only responsibility being to see that the vehicle kept moving. 

There was little other traffic on the Brighton road at this time, which was probably just as well. In the earlier heyday of coaching the road had been 30 yards wide in places and well surfaced. Years with disuse and neglect had seen the workable areas of road shrink to half this width. The coachman were well pleased that they had the road almost to themselves. 

The Brighton mail ran throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s. Besides carrying letters and parcels it also carried passengers, so it can be seen that those picturesque Christmas card scenes of becloaked travellers passing through a winter countryside did not come to an end in the 1840s. They were still possible albeit in slightly different costume, at the beginning of the present century. 

Inspecting the damage to the London-Brighton mail coach c1900

It seems strange to realise that these mail coaches were still running at the time when motor cars were putting in their first appearance on our roads. Indeed by the time the Brighton mail was finally discontinued, the motor car and the motor truck had become quite commonplace.

It was not until the summer of 1905 that the Brighton horse-drawn Royal Mail coach left the General Post Office in London for its final run. The date was June the 1st and the following morning the service was continued by motor van. It was not until then that the coaching horn finally fell silent along the Brighton Road and the galloping mails really were no more. 

Visit Cuckfield Museum, follow the link for details

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