Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Carriages: a quick run-down for the historical novelist

by Sue Millard

I was such a horse-obsessed child that, for the whole year when I studied A level Art, my teacher had to ban me from including any in the work I produced for her. At home, I drew horses doing all sorts of things, from enjoying wild freedom on the hills or grazing in a field, to riding holidays or racing or jumping. The only discipline that didn’t interest me at all was horses being driven, in harness. That wasn’t just because of the intricacy of the harness itself – though a set of “straps” as the gypsies call it, when thrown on a bench, looks like nothing so much as a heap of leather spaghetti – no, it was the fact that horses pulling carriages or agricultural machinery wore bridles with blinkers. And the fact is that blinkers (winkers or blinders) conceal the horse’s most attractive features, its beautiful, deep, liquid eyes. The child artist that I was, therefore, chose to dismiss carriage horses entirely.

However, I developed an interest in driving horses quite by chance, when the equestrian author Clive Richardson asked me to provide a few line drawings for his book “Driving:  the Development and Use of Horsedrawn Vehicles”. When I expressed curiosity about the material I was producing, and mentioned that my Fell mare had been trained to harness before I got her, he was kind enough to lend me a set of harness and an exercise cart so I could try the discipline for myself. And the rest, as they say, is history. (See what I did there?)

Carriages for the historical novelist

For our purposes as historical writers, carriage driving needs to be understood because it’s an important form of transport. In the eras before steam and internal combustion we had an almost symbiotic relationship with the horse – though also with the donkey, mule, ox and even the dog, who were all pressed into use at our need. However, since Debbie has asked me to deal with carriages, I am going to leave the other species out of this article!

You’ll need to be clear on a few phrases and their meanings. Here’s a short list!

Traces – the long leather straps that join the horse’s collar to the carriage he is pulling. Even mainstream edited novels can get that wrong: Alexandra Ripley when writing “Scarlett” clearly thought that traces are another name for reins for controlling the horses. They aren’t.

Collar – the roughly oval, leather-stuffed-with-rye-straw thingy that goes round the horse’s neck. It pads his shoulders from the pressure of the hames, long brassplated or silverplated arms to which the traces are attached. The hames are fastened onto the collar at top and bottom by hame straps. The horse pushes into the collar and the hames take up the strain, then the traces which are slotted onto the trace hooks (on a carriage for a single horse) or looped over roller bolts  (on a pairs carriage) tighten and pull the carriage forward.

Whip – to encourage the horse/s to go forward, or sometimes sideways if he is jumping away from a scary object and you don’t want him to. A carriage whip is LONG. A holly stick (often also called the “stock”) is between 4 feet 6 inches and 5 feet long. The thong is made from 4, 5 or 6 finely plaited strips of “white leather” (ironically it’s traditionally made from horse hide). That is fastened to the stock using a tube of split goose quills “whipped” with black linen thread, to give the whip a nice curve from whipstock to thong. For the driver of a single or a pair of horses, the whip thong is also 4 or 5 feet long with a 6 inch lash of whipcord on the end, so a driver should be able to flick it forward to touch the horse some 10 feet ahead of his own shoulder. A four in hand whip has a lash up to 10 feet long. Hence the other meaning of “whip” – a driver good enough to be able to use a whip efficiently without taking off his passengers’ hats! Also, a great way for you or your servant to break the top of your whip is to put the carriage away through a low stable doorway with the whip standing upright in the whipholder beside the seat!

Tyre – the metal rim of a carriage wheel, fitted as a red-hot hoop by the local blacksmith and his boys, and immediately doused with water to cool it to a tight fit without burning the wood. Old, poorly maintained wheels could sometimes lose the tyre, which would then go bowling down the road ahead of the carriage – and sometimes the wheel, deprived of its support, could collapse. Some carriages from the mid-19th century onwards had rubber or “caoutchouc” tyres which were solid (pneumatic tyres for carriages were a very late invention and only really took off in modern times on metal competition carriages). Coachbuilders described rubber tyres as “invaluable for invalids” because they had a slight cushioning effect and were very much quieter than iron on stony surfaces. Rubber tyres were held in a U shaped channel by two lengths of wire, which on an old carriage might rust through and allow the tyre to fly off – again, forwards, which wouldn’t help the driver controlling his horse!

Carriage – this is a trick question! Strictly the “carriage” is what we’d now call the “undercarriage” or chassis – the suspension of the vehicle. “Carriage” also tended to be the overall term  for a 4-wheeled private vehicle, such as a phaeton, landau or brougham, while public 4 wheeled vehicles were “coaches”, and from the mid-19thC included omnibuses and cabs or “growlers”. There were many different styles of carriages, often with subtle differences due to customer preferences, intended usage, and (of course!) fashion. A good starter list of carriage names can be found on Wikipedia.

Carriage types and construction

Your historical characters, especially the menfolk, might well be carriage experts, as men often try to be with cars today. They would know the age of carriages in part by the type of suspension they have: the oldest coaches have the body slung on leather straps from wooden or metal posts – see the Gold State Coach built in 1762. Even quite early coaches had glass in their windows – Samuel Pepys’ coach needed a window replaced in December 1668 and it cost him £2 (40 shillings).


Spring suspension to relieve the jolts of metal tyres on stony roads was introduced from about 1700 onwards, with the “whip spring” and “cee spring”, both still using leather straps. The elliptic spring invented by Obadiah Elliott in 1804 did away with the need for a leather strap, and by increasing the number of springs to 4 for each axle and the number of metal “leaves” in each spring, even heavy coaches could provide a modicum of comfort for their passengers. 

At the other end of the scale, 2-wheeled vehicles were the cheapest to make and needed only one horse. Early gigs date from the late 18thC and might have been little more than a plank with a seat and shafts set above the wheels; in North America the “riding chair” and in England the “whisky” (nothing to do with the drink but referring to its lightness and speed). Gigs had either elliptical or semi-elliptical springs and seated two people side by side without provision for a third party – so your young unmarried ladies had better not ride in one beside a gentleman driver, because being unchaperoned, they risked acquiring the label “fast”.  On low-class country vehicles which saw a lot of use down narrow roads with scratchy hedgerows, it was quite usual not to paint the woodwork but to varnish it because damage could easily be touched up with fresh varnish without being noticeable, whereas paint needed to be colour matched by an expert.


English carriage-builders used oak for the spokes of the wheels, elm for the wheel hubs, and ash for shafts and poles and vehicle bodies. A gentleman’s carriage would be painted to a very high standard, with the grain of the wood filled and rubbed smooth, covered with many layers of undercoat and then several of the top coat of paint. Seating was durable and constructed like indoor furniture, with horsehair stuffing held in place by cloth, sometimes topped with felt, and then upholstered. The interior of a private carriage might be very luxurious, trimmed in morocco leather, silk, and lace. Parts of the exterior were also of hard leather, for instance dashboards to keep dirt from flying up off the horses’ hooves, and mudguards above the wheels for the same reason.


One of the reasons why a man who “keeps his carriage” was considered to have plenty of money was that he needed servants to look after his horses, to “put the horses to the carriage”, to drive (if he didn’t drive himself) and “take them out of the carriage” afterwards. It was a big job to maintain the equipment. Harness had to be wiped down and cleaned with saddle-soap and then oiled or greased to keep it supple, while the buckles (whether brass or silver plated) had to be polished and the buckle tongues kept greased – otherwise metal salts or rust could corrode the leather and cause it to break in use. Steel bits needed to be cleaned with sand to keep them bright. Carriages had to be washed with generous amounts of water to remove the dirt of the road, then dried and polished, and the cushions and floor mats needed to be brushed.  The coach-house in an English climate had to have a fire kept going most days, to keep woodwork and harness from deteriorating with rust, mould and damp.

And now a little something for your estate owners

A conscientious estate owner would take an interest in the horses his tenants used to manage his land. The phrases “works in chains” and “is good in all gears” mean that the horse is trained for farm work.

Pairs of horses, who work either side of a pole, and plough horses, pull by chains, in the case of ploughing, very long ones. A single horse in a cart, however, draws the load by short chains. There’s one over the big heavy saddle on his back, to hold up the shafts; two from his collar to the shafts, to draw the load; and two from the breeching round his bum, to the shafts, to prevent the cart running him over on downhill stretches and to let him back it up to an unloading dock. The reins are more likely to be long plough-cords than leather.

Wains, wagons and carts which are agricultural or used for commercial heavy transport have heavy-duty everything – big, thick shafts, heavy wheels with iron hooped tyres, iron banded hubs. The harness is also wide, heavy leather, and it doesn’t have a shiny finish. The buckles are often iron or steel rather than brass.

There’s no brasswork on cart shafts like there is on a gentleman’s carriage. Brass is a relatively soft metal that will not take stress. Those work-chains are dealing with weight, so the staples on each shaft that carry a hook for the chains, are blacksmith-forged iron, 8 to 10 inches long with sharpened, bent-back points hammered into the wood. No screws or nails could be stronger. I have a cart shaft-staple that I found on our farm; I don’t have a farm cart, but it’s still being used, because I hammered it into the wall outside my stable. That’s where I tie up my pony while I put her harness on before we go out for a sunny drive along our Cumbrian roads.


Richardson, C, 1985: Driving: the Development and Use of Horse Drawn Vehicles. (Batsford.)
Walrond, S, 1974: The Encyclopedia of Driving. (Country Life.)

Sue Millard looks after the web site of the North West Driving Club,, having also been its secretary, treasurer, press officer and chairman at various times over the past 30 years. Her historical novel, Coachman, is available alongside several other genres from her Jackdaw E Books site,


  1. Thanks very much for this really helpful information!

  2. Very helpful, Sue, and a good checklist of reminders. I'm so glad I got the traces right in my Agents of the Crown trilogy....Whew!


  3. I just found this site.what great info. you have on history.thanks for sharing the pic.also

  4. Don't forget the phaeton and even more daring, the perch phaeton, which looks like almost certain death on four wheels!
    Driving carriages could be hair raising. I live in Lewes, an historic town in Sussex near Brighton and one of our oldest streets, Keere Street, entertained the Prince Regent and his carriage and four. It's a cobbled way, very narrow and incredibly steep (Lewes is built on the side of the Downs). For a wager, he is supposed to have driven a carriage and four from top to bottom at speed and without stopping. Amazingly he survived and so did the horses.

  5. I hope the whip you broke wasn't holly.
    Expensive, if it were :(

  6. Such a useful post for writers like me dealing in the early 1800s. Thank you. anne stenhouse


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