Monday, December 12, 2016

Coaching Inns in Early 19th Century England

by Julie Klassen

Stage and mail coaches were the primary means of long-distance travel in England for about 200 years, from approximately the mid-17th century until the advent of trains in the mid-19th century. These coaches stopped every 7-10 miles (depending on terrain) at a network of coaching inns along various routes stretched across England.

Coaching inns provided vital support for the Royal Mail and stagecoach companies throughout Britain. (Some towns had multiple inns that competed for coach business.) The inns’ main function was to provide fresh horses, though they provided other services as well, like hiring out post-chaises to allow travelers to continue on to outlying areas. In many ways, coaching inns were restaurant, hotel, “Grand Central station,” travel agency, livery, repair shop, and sometimes post office, all rolled into one. I think it’s wonderful setting for a book, providing a backdrop for a cast of regulars who work in or frequent the inn, as well as new people traveling through to add interest—like royal mail guards and coachmen, traveling performers, aristocrats, and men (and sometimes women) of business.

Coaching inns stabled many horses, ready to replace tired teams with fresh, rested ones. These horses were contracted to stage lines or the Royal Mail, or were available to be hired by individuals. Trained horsemen or hostlers (“ostlers”) could change a team of four in as little as two-three minutes, and prided themselves on besting the times of competing inns. Quick turnovers were especially critical for the Royal Mail who rigorously adhered to delivery schedules. (Fines were levied for delays!) Occasionally, stops lasted a few minutes longer, giving passengers time to take refreshment or a hasty meal, requiring innkeepers to work quickly.

The domestic services of an inn were overseen by a housekeeper, often the wife or female relation of the owner. Some inns were famous for their fine service and good food. Others were known for taking advantage of passengers by providing undercooked meat, soup too hot to drink, or meals served too late to be eaten before passengers had to hurry back onto the coach for the next stage of their journey. Wealthy people traveling in their own carriage or post-chaise would often eat their meals in a private sitting room. In earlier times, more humble travelers would eat with the landlord in his parlour or even in the kitchen. But by the turn of the 19th century, common dining rooms or “coffee rooms,” as they were called, became more common.

Coaching inns were generally built around a central courtyard with a tall coach gate or archway leading from the open road into the yard within, where passengers were let down and horses changed. In more rustic inns, guests might share beds with strangers as in former times, while in better inns, more private quarters became available. Some traveler accounts of the period extol clean, spacious bedchambers with good furniture and immense four-post beds, piled so high with feather mattresses that one needed a step to climb into them. But even in the better inns, it must have been difficult to sleep with coaches arriving at all hours, horns blowing to announce their comings and goings, and horse hooves clattering on the cobblestones. Because of this, travel guides often advised coach passengers to spend the night at a hotel in town, rather than a bustling coaching inn.

Some inns were small, family-run establishments, and others were large operations with twenty or more staff, including blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and booking clerks. Some were grand “Posting Houses,” which catered exclusively to the wealthy who traveled in their own carriages or in post-chaises. Common coaching inns, meanwhile, accepted passengers from mail and stagecoaches, and some would even accept wagon passengers and travelers on foot.

As part of my research, I had the pleasure of visiting several historic English inns. I’ll highlight just a few of them here:

The George in Southwark is the last surviving galleried coaching inn in London, immortalized by Charles Dickens in his novel, Little Dorrit.

The Old Crown in the market town of Faringdon, Oxfordshire is a former coaching inn that dates back to at least the16th century. It retains several original features, including a cobbled inner courtyard and fountain.

The Red Lion in Salisbury was a stopping point for the renowned “Quicksilver” Royal Mail Coach on its route from London to Devonport, Plymouth.

The railroad ended the coaching era by around 1840, except in outlying areas not serviced by railway lines. After that, coaching inns declined or closed altogether. When leisure travel by automobile became popular eighty or ninety years later, many old inns began to revive. Today, travelers can visit numerous coaching inns in the beautiful English countryside to enjoy a pint, a meal, or a good night’s sleep in historical surroundings. In fact, doing so is a highlight of many visits to England, including my own.

Perhaps you have a favorite coaching inn to share as well?

Further Reading:
Historic Inns of England by Ted Bruning
The Romance of the Road by Cecil Aldin
Royal Mail Coaches by Frederick Wilkinson
Stagecoach Travel by Louise Allen


Author Bio

JULIE KLASSEN loves all things Jane--Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Julie worked in publishing for sixteen years and now writes full-time. Her books have been honored with the Christy Award for Historical Romance, the Minnesota Book Award, and the Midwest Book Award, among others. Julie and her husband have two sons and live in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, visit

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  1. A most enjoyable post, thank you. There are a lot of old coaching inns here in Devon - the one in my Village here in North Devon, The Exeter Inn dates back to the sixteenth century (at least) We're actuallu 30 odd miles from Exeter but the road used to be the only one from Barnstaple (about 15 miles away) to Exeter. So a natural stopping point. Good luck with the tour!

  2. Thank you, Helen. I've set 2 novels in North Devon (The Painter's Daughter and Lady Maybe). Love it there! Hope to return in 2017.

  3. The Coaching Inn sounds both intriguing and like a great place for a story. Through in a hotel with no vacancy, a stormy night and a dead body and, well . . . the rest is a great book. LOL

  4. Thanks for the excellent post, complete with images. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. You are very welcome, Linda. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. Very interesting and informative. I really enjoy learning historical facts as they relate to British life and culture in the former centuries. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. Researching historical facts and weaving them into my novels is an enjoyable part of my writing process.

  6. Coaching Inns came in all shapes and sizes. The ones in towns and cities were, as has been said, large, bustling places but the ones in the countryside were often little more than a pub with stables and rooms. Often, the stables were actually better than the rooms!

    Sadly, there are few real examples left untouched as we haven't needed them for over a century and most have been converted into hotels or homes but, if you want to stay in some real country inns, during a tour of this beautiful country of ours' do drop me a line.

  7. Thank you for a valuable lesson fin History.

  8. I read a great fiction book a long time ago about a British company which hauled freight and I can't remember the title! Can you help? It was about several generations of coaching and how they grew the business.

    1. God is an Englishman series? R F Delderfield

  9. My favourite coaching inn is, without doubt, the George at Stamford in Lincolnshire

  10. Who painted the image at the top of your post? I have a print of it but can’t figure out who the artist is! Thank you!

    1. "Hi Scott, the print is The Olden Time, from 'Fores Coaching Recollections', Engraved by J. Harris Giclee, Print by Charles Cooper Henderson."

  11. Julie
    I am using your information on coaching for my regency Monopoly game. Instead of railroads I am substituting coaching inns. Thank you for all of your "help".
    Nancy Duell NY CAPITAL REGION Jasna


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