The recent Royal Wedding gave us a glimpse at some of the beautiful, ornate and priceless carriages that are housed in The Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace in London and that are used for special occasions by members of The Royal Family and others. With that in mind, I decided to dive a little deeper into transportation, driving, carriages and coaches in the Victorian Era which was from 20 June 1837 until the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January 1901.
Transport For the Masses
In 1829, English coachbuilder George Shillibeer launched London’s first ‘hail and ride’ bus service. From 1870, horse-drawn trams on rails challenged the supremacy of the horse bus. Trams ran earlier in the morning and were cheaper than buses, giving working-class Londoners access to affordable public transport.
The “Gondola” was invented circa 1771 in Paris and seated up to a twelve passengers. Later, the omnibus (created circa 1820-1830) carried several passengers just as omnibuses today carry many passengers.
The Railway Chugs Across England
By the 1860’s, the English were riding the rails en masse. The opening of the Metropolitan Railway, the first section of the underground (or tube as the Brits call it), made way for the era of the subway.
However, things had been changing in England for decades. Agriculture had been on the decline since the 1800’s and 80% of the population had moved to the cities with the hopes of a better life off the farm. London, Manchester and Birmingham had become sorely overcrowded and the subway was a pleasant change. Within months, the Metropolitan Railway was carrying more than 26,000 people a day.
The Hansom Cab
However, while the steam trains belched their way across the countryside, horse drawn carriages were still found on countless streets and laneways
in both city and country. Perhaps the most common cab was the Hanson cab named after its founder Mr. A.J. Hansom. This was a nimble 2 wheeled carriage with a low centre of gravity that was able to turn on a dime. Originally the design had the driver sitting on top of the carriage roof. Then the design saw him at the side but this idea was squelched as the extra weight on one side would mean an unbalanced load for the horse. Finally, the driver’s seat was placed at the back of the carriage behind the passengers where they sat inside. No doubt, those with a penchant for Dr. Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson in films and on TV shows will recall seeing them dash about the foggy streets of London in a Hansom cab, great for 2 people but a tight squeeze for three.
The driver really called the shots in a Hansom cab: he opened and closed the door with a lever that he controlled from his seat and fares were paid upon reaching a destination. However, if no fare was forthcoming through the hatch door, then the doors stayed shut. Instructions and directions were also given through the hatch as passengers and driver could talk to each other. The Hanson cab was considered a “racy” vehicle, a sort of gentleman’s sports car and it was not considered proper for upper class ladies to ride in them.
The Clarence was the best way to transport more than two people but its common name was the “growler” thanks to the noise its wheels made on the cobblestoned streets. In movies and TV shows depicting the Victorian Era, we will often see “growlers” waiting at railway stations picking up arrivals or holiday makers setting off for Brighton and Blackpool for their summer holiday. They carried loads of luggage and people with ease.
Only The Best: Personal Luxury
By the 1860’s, many people used the train to get to their destinations: a trip of a few hours by steam train was a lot more tolerable than hours and hours in a bouncing, poorly sprung carriage over rough roads and country lanes. However, the wealthy still enjoyed the splash and dash in their own carriages pulled by matching horses tacked up in the best harness complete with crests. The carriages too were painted in the family colours and crests and the ladies especially delighted in this display of wealth. Coachmens’ livery that matched the carriage interior, blankets, foot warmers, pillows, a clock, visiting list and cut glasses for drinks were “must haves”.
Gentlemen’s coaching gave driving its last hurrah in the 1890’s: wealthy gents took to driving large 4 and 6 horse coaches normally driven by experienced coachmen in the past and engaged in competitions amongst themselves.
Thanks to Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg and this memorial web site. http://www.estherlederberg.com/ for the photograph of the omnibus, the Hansom cab and the Quick Silver Royal Mail Coach.