From the early 1800s, coach design was much improved and, in part, so were roads. By the 1820s coaches could travel at about 12 miles an hour with four horses rather than six as had been used previously. Coach drivers also were much smarter in their appearance and the government legislated that the names of the coach proprietors were to be painted on the doors of the coaches, with the exception of mail coaches.
There were strict rules about how many passengers could travel, both inside and out and the maximum weight of luggage. The law stated that stagecoaches were not to carry more than six passengers on the roof and no more than two on the box in addition to the coachman. For every passenger in excess, the coachman was liable to a penalty of 40 shillings, and if he was the owner or part owner this penalty was raised to £4.
The penalty for carrying excess passengers was severe and ingeniously contrived in order to totally suppress the practice. It was 5 shillings for every supernumerary passenger, to be paid to the toll-keeper at every turn pike gate. This was a sure fire way of making sure that an excess number would be instantly spotted by the toll-keeper who would be keen to have a chance to enhance their income.
The guard of a stagecoach who fired his pistol unnecessarily, or for anything other than defensive purposes, on the road or in any town, forfeited 20 shillings, a penalty which was increased to £5 in 1811.
The height to which luggage might be piled on the roof was also carefully set. From 1 March 1811, it became unlawful for any driver, owner or proprietor to permit luggage, or indeed any person, on the roof of a coach, the top of which was more than 8 feet 9 inches from the ground, or whose gauge was less than 4 feet 6 inches.
Turnpike keepers and others were given powers to have luggage measured and driver’s refusing such measurements to be taken were to be fined, on conviction, of 50 shillings.
Intoxicated coachmen came in for a maximum of £10 penalty, or the alternative, a term of imprisonment not less than three months or not exceeding six, so being drunk in charge of a coach was not a great idea!
With the instigation of so many rules and regulations to be followed, a new breed of people a appeared on the scene ‘the professional informer’. These people were akin to a modern day ‘ambulance chaser’. They would pursue coaches checking that the coachman wasn’t breaking any rules and if they were, they would be reported to the appropriate authorities, for which these informers would receive a very handsome fee – nice work if you could get it.
Today’s story is about a less than careful coach driver. In July 1827 John Maule, the driver of the stagecoach, Celerity, that was travelling to Exeter was charged at the Coroner’s Inquest to appear before Chief Justice Best, with the manslaughter of Thomas Strange at Bulford on 18 June 1827.
The events surrounding this charge were, that there were two coaches, the Celerity and the Defiance, running from Exeter, on this day they were travelling in opposite directions. The Defiance on its way to Exeter from Andover, Hampshire. The Defiance had been operating for about three years and the Celerity, just one.
On the night in question, the Defiance was at the foot of a hill near Exeter, where the accident happened. The Defiance was going very slowly and it was just at that time that the coachman of the Defiance spotted the Celerity about 200 yards away, at the top of the hill and approaching him very quickly.
The coachman of the Defiance pulled off the road as much as he safely could to avoid the rapidly approaching Celerity, but it was too late, the near wheels of the Defiance found its two near wheels on the turf (the whole road from bank to bank being about 86 feet wide), when the stagecoach overturned and was entirely on the grass, closely followed by the Celerity, which threw some of its passengers.
In court the jury were told that there was strong proof of the side on which the accident really originated, this being that no-one was seriously injured when the Defiance toppled over, whilst several people in the Celerity were injured and others severely bruised, a gentleman, Thomas Strange died at the scene.
A Thomas Bradley Naylor, a student of Magdalen Hall, Oxford was examined by Mr Halcomb, and confirmed that he was seated on the box of the Defiance. He confirmed coach was about three miles from Exeter when he saw that another coach approaching as it was not especially dark, and the Defiance had its lamps lit.
The coachman of the Defiance shouted to slow the horse down, but it was too late, the carriage tipped onto its side. Naylor asserted that the Celerity also had its lights on and could therefore have clearly seen the Defiance, but that it was being driven too fast. He said his coach was going quite slowly, not more than six or seven miles an hour and that there was enough room on the road for the Celerity to safely pass, were he been going more slowly.
Joseph Cannon, guard of the Defiance, also confirmed how slowly they were travelling, although he estimated it to be at the rate of about four or five miles an hour. So, both the coachman, witnesses and his guard providing very similar accounts of the event.
Another witness, James Bridge, also a passenger on the Defiance was called to provide his account of events. Bridge was sitting on the back just behind the coachman when he saw the Celerity about 150 yards away. He estimated that it was travelling at about 11 or 12 miles an hour with a heavy load on it. In his opinion the horses hadn’t heard the command of the coachman. William Bound Rondle, another passenger who was inside the coach also supported that he had heard the coachman shout to the horses, but by that time it was too late, the accident had occurred.
The Celerity was laying across the road with its roof close to the bank, the luggage rack fell off and broke and the horses became detached from the coach. He stated that he helped to extricate two ladies who were underneath the coach, one of whom was later to die from her injuries. The coachman was called to give evidence and again said he’d called to his horses, but it was too late.
After lengthy deliberation by the jury and with help from the judge it was decided that the coachman, John Maule was not guilty, as he was not the regular coachman, and that it was an unfortunate accident.
The judge, however, gave notice that if another case of the same kind should come before him, and a conviction ensue, he would transport the prisoner for life; for it was absolutely necessary to put some check on this system of furious and negligent driving.
This of course, was not the only accident and many coachman drove furiously and had a reputation for liking a tipple or two whilst enroute.
Sun, 30 Jul 1827
Harper. Charles G Stagecoach and mail in the days of yore: a history of the coaching age