The Bristol Royal Mail
The mail service was carried on chiefly by means of postboys (generally wizened old men), who continued to travel on worn-out horses not able to get along at a speed of more than four miles an hour on the bad roads. On the London and Bristol route, indeed, it had been found necessary to provide the postboys with light carts, but that method of conveyance of the mail bags brought about no acceleration in time of transit,—from thirty to forty hours, according to the state of the roads. A letter despatched from Bristol or Bath on Monday was not delivered in London until Wednesday morning. On the other hand a letter confided to the stage coach of Monday reached its destination on Tuesday morning, and the consequence was that Bristol traders and others sent letters of value or urgency by the stage coach, although the proprietors charged 2s. for each missive. [Pg 19]
At this period John Palmer, of Bath, came on the scene. He had learnt from the merchants of Bristol what a boon it would be if they could get their letters conveyed to London in fourteen or fifteen hours, instead of three days. It is said, however, that it was the sight of Ralph Allen's grand place at Prior Park, and the knowledge of how Allen's money had been made, which first suggested to Palmer the attempt to bring a scheme for a mail coach system to the notice of the postal authorities. John Palmer was lessee and manager of the Bath and Bristol theatres, and went about beating up actors, actresses and companies in postchaises, and he thought letters should be carried at the same pace at which it was possible to travel in a chaise. He devised a scheme, and Pitt, the Prime Minister of the day, who warmly approved the idea, decided that the plan should have a trial and that the first mail coach should run between London and Bristol. On Saturday, the 31st July, 1784, an agreement was signed in connection with Palmer's scheme under which, in consideration of payment of 3d. a mile, five inn-holders—one belonging to London, one to Thatcham, one to [Pg 20] Marlborough, and two to Bath—undertook to provide the horses, and on Monday, the 2nd August, 1784, the first "mail coach" started. On its first journey it ran from Bristol,—not from London as generally supposed,—and Palmer was present to see it off. A well-armed mail guard in uniform was in charge of the vehicle, which was timed to perform the journey from Bristol to London in sixteen hours. Only four passengers were at first carried by each "machine," and the fare was £1 8s. The immediate effect was to accelerate the delivery of letters by a day. The coaches were small, light vehicles, drawn by a pair of horses only, but leaders were subsequently added, and four-horse coaches soon became the order of the day, and more passengers were carried. An old painting represents the Bath and Bristol mail trotting along close to a wall, the guard receiving one bag and handing another to the postmaster without the coachman pulling up. One coach left Bristol at 4.0 in the afternoon, reached Bath a couple of hours later, and arrived at the General Post Office, London, before 8.0 the next morning. The down coach started from London at 8.0 in the evening, was at the "Three Tuns," Bath, at a few minutes before [Pg 21] 10.0 the next morning, and pulled up at the "Rummer Tavern," Bristol, at noon. Palmer gave up his theatrical enterprises and entered the service of the Post Office as Comptroller at a salary of £1,500 a year, and certain emoluments, which, after a year or two, brought him in an annual sum of more than £3,000. Before Palmer's mail coaches were at work the post left London at all hours of the night, but it was part of his scheme that the mails should all leave at the same time, 8.0; and as the number of mails increased so there was more and more bustle in the vicinity of the General Post Office at that hour. In London the arrival of all the mails was awaited before any one of them was delivered; and this led to the delivery sometimes not taking place until 3.0 or 4.0 in the afternoon, or even later. Palmer, with his regard for the Bristol coach, occasionally had the Bristol mails distributed immediately on reaching St. Martin's-le-Grand, but all other mails if behind were kept waiting as before.
The Bristol Royal Mail