The Coachman’s Story: who were they?

Painting of a stage coach

The original role of the coachman took many guises. He may have worked on the stagecoach, the mail coach, for a doctor, for other professionals, or for families of the middling sort, and of course for the upper classes.

It was a highly dangerous job: coaches were often overloaded with baggage making them prone to turning over; horses, who were in teams, were often skittish and in one incident, a horse freaked by sparks from a blacksmiths shop, caused an accident which killed the coachman. [1]

Occasionally there was not much choice other than to drive through flooded water. This could cause the carriage to flood and the occupants to float inside, leaving their blankets and zinc feet warmers as superfluous inconveniences. [2]

On the outside of the carriage, it was also uncomfortable in hot and inclement weather. For journeys lasting a day, the coachman and other passengers, sat in their sodden clothes or overheated under the strength of the midday sun.

Despite all the negatives, the coachman seemed to enjoy his lot and rued the day the railways came. To find employment in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the motor car was also snapping at the coachman’s heels, meant he had to seek work with prosperous families.

It also meant combining roles of coachman plus groom, gardener etc, and in early twentieth century job advertisements, having the ambition to ‘learn to drive [a] motor-car if required.’ [3] They were often expected to be married, well presented, and respectful in nature given their status as a servant.

Once in a position with a family, they may have been given their own livery uniform or as in one advertisement:

a ‘Dark green Overcoat, Undercoat and Vest, London made.’ [4]

A ‘spruced-looking coachman’ [5] was absolutely necessary, after all who wants to be driven around town with a dishevelled man-servant when the Joneses had an exceptional looking man behind the reins?

If the coachman was part of a large household, he would have been joined by a house steward, a groom of the chambers, a butler, a valet, a man cook, three footmen, another coachman, and two or three grooms. Smaller houses may have hired just a single-handed man-servant (an all in one), as well as a coachman, and a groom. Many newspaper adverts for the Edwardian era included the words single-hand coachman, so by this time the coachman was clearly expected to be a jack of all trades. [6]

English Coachman by Henry Bonaventure Monnier, 1822. Public domain image.

Before employment, the master and mistress would have interviewed their prospective servant. Was he married and in good health? With whom has he been living? Was he an early riser? What wages has he been receiving? If an interview was not possible then a letter from his previous employer would suffice.

Once he had been engaged, he would have been entitled to attend church at least once every Sunday or twice every other Sunday depending on work for his employers. He was allowed one afternoon a week for going out and a whole day and a half once a month. If he required to go out of an evening, he would seek permission which was in most cases granted, particularly for male servants. [7].

Duties

As he worked his way into his master’s confidence and become valued as a servant, he would have been entrusted with the role of engaging and dismissing the grooms should the household not employ a steward. And in smaller houses, where no footman was employed, it would have been his duty to leave his box and ring the bell for his mistress, when she paid an acquaintance a visit.

If his mistress happened to be Lady Dash, who spent her time being entertained in drawing rooms while the coachman quaffed his beer in the servant’s quarters, he would be notified when she was ready to leave. The drawing room bell was rung, a footman beckons to the coachman to drive up, and as she descends the stairs, calls out “Coming out” as a signal to her footman to open the carriage door. [8]

He was generally required to drive at a good pace, about seven or eight miles an hour and it was desirable to have a light touch:

‘The reins should always be held so that the horses are “in hand;” but he is a very bad driver who always drives with a tight rein; the pain to the horse is intolerable, and causes him to rear and plunge, and finally break sway, if he can. He is also a bad driver when the reins are always slack; the horse then feels abandoned to himself; he is neither directed nor supported, and if no accident occurs, it is great good luck… The true coachman’s hands are so delicate and gentle, that the mere weight of the reins is felt on the bit, and the directions are indicated by a turn of the wrist rather than by a pull; the horses are guided and encouraged, and only pulled up when they exceed their intended pace, or in the event of a stumble; for there is a strong though gentle hand on the reins.’ [9]

Other duties varied according to the coachman’s position. If there was a head coachman, he drove a pair of horses in the barouche or other open top carriage, while the second coachman in charge of one horse, drove a brougham. Any night work, such as driving the family to a ball, or escorting them to and from a railway station, was the duty of the second coachman. [10]

A head coachman, or if he was the only one in the household, was responsible for ensuring the horses were properly fed and groomed, that the carriage and harness were cleaned and that the stables and harness-room were orderly. There should be adequate ventilation in the stables, but they must be free from draughts. Each stall should be roomy and have sufficient drainage and any light, which must be good, should come from above or behind the horse, so as not to glare in the creature’s eye. The harness-room must be dry and airy, furnished with a fireplace and boiler, and have cupboards for the brushes, sponges, and leathers.[11]

Miseries of London, or a surly saucy Hackney coachman, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1814. Public domain image.

According to Mrs Beeton, in the coach house, there must be a sufficient supply of ‘coach-mops, jacks for raising the wheels, horse-brushes, spoke-brushes, water-brushes, crest and bit-brushes, dandy-brushes, currycombs, birch and heath brooms, trimming-combs, scissors and pickers, oil-cans and brushes, harness-brushes of three sorts, leathers, sponges for horse and carriage, stable-forks, dung-baskets or wheelbarrow, corn-sieves and measures, horse-cloths and stable pails, horn or glass lanterns. Over the stables there should be accommodation for the coachman or groom to sleep. Accidents sometimes occur, and he should be at hand to interfere.’

He may have to exercise the horses and has to budget for the hay, corn and straw which falls under his management. As Mrs Beeton explains ‘all horses not in work require at least two hours’ exercise daily; and in exercising them a good groom will put them through the paces to which they have been trained. In the case of saddle-horses he will walk, trot, canter, and gallop them, in order to keep them up to their work. With draught horses they ought to be kept up to a smart walk and trot.’

The coachman should also have attained a greater understanding of equine illnesses and be equipped to ‘apply simple remedies to trifling ailments.’

He was expected to go out once a day with the carriage and horses, however if he only has charge of one horse and one carriage, brougham, waggonette or victoria, he may be required to go out twice a day and not be overworked from maintaining the carriage and horses.

To maintain the carriage, he would have to gently wash away the sand particles, having closed the sashes to avoid wetting the linings, and then gone over the body with a soft mop. He would then lift the carriage with a jack under the axletree and wash the wheels and underside with the mop and water-brush. The carriage was wiped dry and varnish carefully polished with soft leather, and perhaps some sweet oil for the leather parts. [12]

Food

The coachman was allowed to eat alone or with his family in his cottage or room. If he dined with the other servants he could expect breakfast served at eight o’clock in summer and half-past eight in winter. Upon the table he would see cups, saucers, a slop-basin, a sugar-basin, a milk-jug, a teapot and a coffee-pot. There would be a knife, fork, and a plate for each person, a cruet stand, and a salt-cellar.

Typical fair for the prosperous family’s house servant in 1880 was cold meat such as ham, meat pie, cold roast or boiled pork. When there were plentiful eggs, they are given alongside fried bacon. If there was a butler, he looked after and carved the meat. In larger houses, lunch was prepared at eleven o’clock and was often cold meat and beer; in smaller households the coachman could expect bread, cheese and beer. [13]

One o’clock was the hour for dinner. A table-cloth might be laid as well as a knife, fork, dessert-spoon, and tumbler. Hot meat, once again carved by the butler, was served with vegetables. For economy, the mistress of the medium household might decide on Yorkshire pudding, suet pudding, batter pudding with a hot joint and sweet puddings with cold joints.

The beer allowance for male servants was three pints: one pint to accompany each meal of lunch, dinner, and supper. For the mistress wanting to save pennies, she might allow her servants beer-money as it was considered less wasteful and gave a limited incentive to idlers ‘to hang about the house in expectation of beer.’ Such allowances were known to backfire on the mistress. If servants were not steady or principled, they may spend too much time at the public-house. [14]

Wages

As for the coachman’s wage, it should be remembered that wages fluctuated immensely and was influenced by the position of the employer and the experience of the servant. In towns and cities, the wages were higher than in the country.

A head coachman may receive £25 to £60 yearly and two suits of livery. A second coachman could receive £25 to £35 yearly and two suits of livery. To this one may add in kind allowances for tea, sugar, beer and washing or extra wages might be allowed for these. If tea and sugar are in kind, the usual quantity allowed to each servant was 1lb of tea per month, and 2 lbs of loaf sugar. When beer money was given, it varied from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. per week. When money for washing was provided it varied from 1s. to 2s. 6d. per week. [15]

In addition, coachmen were allowed rooms over the stables, or a cottage, rent free, and a fire in the harness-room when required.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the coachman’s role morphed into that of a chauffeur. A young chauffeur mechanic may have received £2 per week including board wages, or £1 10s. per week and board wages which were 12s. per week. If he was formerly a coachman, he may have received 30s. a week. And similarly, to his coachman’s role, he would have been supplied with livery, consisting of a coat, waistcoat, breeches and gaiters, an overcoat, cap, dust-coat, and overalls for when he cleaned the car. [16]

The sources below revealed this general picture of the coachman and were created during the course of some sixty years. In the interim, the economy and nature of the household, whether it was middle or upper class, would have changed. The coachman adapted, evolved, and was finally superseded by the chauffeur. And it can be said without further qualification, that not every family coachman’s story has been outlined here, but as a guide perhaps the above can reveal something of the coachman’s life.

(c) 2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.


Sources

[1] Birch-Reynardson, Charles Thomas Samuel. (1875) ‘Down the road’: or, Reminiscences of a gentleman coachman. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. https://archive.org/details/downroadorremini00birc/page/n14 : accessed 02 August 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cheshire Observer. (1904) Groom-Coachman. Cheshire Observer. 19 November. p. 4f. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 02 August 2019.

[4] Northwich Guardian. (1909) To be sold – Miscellaneous. Northwich Guardian. 20 February. p. 4b. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 02 August 2019.

[5] The servants practical guide 1880. London : Frederick Warne & Co. https://archive.org/details/b21528147/page/n3 : accessed 02 August 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Beeton, Mrs. Isabella Mary. ( 1863) The Book of Household Management. London: S. O. Beeton. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=d9QBAAAAQAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PP1 : accessed 02 August 2019.

[10] The servants practical guide 1880, op. cit.

[11] Beeton, op. cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The servants practical guide 1880, op. cit.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The duties of servants 1890. London : Frederick Warne & Co. https://archive.org/details/b2152810x/page/n7 : accessed 02 August 2019.

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