Royal Mail coach with VR insignia

Miniature Royal Mail coach.
Miniature Royal Mail coach.

Written by Jeannie Swales

With its striking red, black and gold livery, the Royal Mail coach must have made for a dashing spectacle as it took letters and parcels from Scarborough to Hull and back.

The VR insignia on this model in the Scarborough Collections dates the coach it depicts to Victorian times, so after 1837 – but mail coaches were established in the late 18th century by a theatre owner from Bath, John Palmer.

Clearly something of an entrepreneur, Palmer recognised that the system of mail delivery at the time was slow, inefficient and dangerous. From the mid-1600s the post had been carried by mounted men who rode between established ‘posts’, dropping off and collecting mail. Highwaymen and other felons were a regular hazard of the job.

In 1782, Palmer had a remarkable brainwave – using the coach system that he operated between his theatres to carry the mail. He suggested the idea to the Post Office, but met resistance. Eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, intervened, and Palmer organised an experimental run between Bristol and London. Under the old postal system this journey took up to 36 hours. Palmer’s coach did it in a third of that time.

An impressed Pitt authorised the creation of new routes, and by the late 1780s, most of the country’s major cities were linked by mail coach routes. By 1797 there were 42 routes, including that from Scarborough to Hull.

The era of the ‘flying coach’ ended fairly abruptly with the coming of the railways in the mid 1800s – but in its day, the mail coach was a crucial part of the most efficient and speedy transport system in the world.

There’s a lovely little story about the mail coach that ran on the Scarborough to Hull route. In the early 1800s, a pair of local brothers, John and James Donkin, ran a regular stagecoach along the same route. In 1811, they overtook the Royal Mail coach near Beverley and beat it into Hull. They were fined 20 guineas for their crime – a huge amount in those days. A festively decorated jug – now known as the Donkin Jug, and also part of the Scarborough Collections – was made to commemorate their feat.

The model mail coach is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.