16.08.19 Past Master Michael Kimber

A visit to Fenix Carriages


A party of Liverymen and guests made the journey to Devon to visit Mark & Jo Broadbent to inspect the wonderful coach and carriage collection at Fenix Carriages. After a welcome coffee, Mark gave an interesting and informative talk on the history of the Royal Mail service in the 18th and 19th centuries, with special reference to the Vidler mail coach, Quicksilver, which had recently been unveiled at the Annual Banquet.

Vidler’s Quicksilver mail coach

Mark gave an excellent history of the postal service, which had started with the use of post boys riding horses between various towns. They were not very reliable and the speed was not good. However, in 1784 a Member of Parliament called John Palmer thought he could improve the postal service using coaches with four horses. On 2nd August 1784 the first mail coach run took place and a journey that the post boys used to do in 50 hours took the coach just 15 hours, so a new service had begun.

John Besant designed a special coach, which was accepted by John Palmer and it was decided all mail coaches should be the same so the service could be recognised wherever it operated. After a few years, John Palmer joined up with John Vidler and after Besant died, Vidler bought the business from his widow for the vast sum of £30,000, which goes to show how valuable the postal service had become. But this purchase gave Vidler the control of the coach building business and he then was instrumental in the design of the mail coaches that dominated the postal service for many years.

Those who ran the coaches also in many cases owned the inns where the horses were changed. The coaches were in the main still owned by Vidler and leased out for the postal service. By 1835 the average number of coaches licenced in Britain was more than 3,000. Millions of pounds were tied up in inns, coaches and horses. The postal service created a lot of employment and there were more than 16,000 coachmen as well as the ancillary workers needed, such as coach and harness makers, farriers and whip makers. One of the greatest coach masters was William Chaplin, who had a huge business owning five coaching inns in London including the Swan with two Necks in Lad Lane north of Cheapside. He stabled 1,400 horses in London and another 400 in Hounslow, and employed nearly 2,000 people and used 200 coaches. Half the mail coaches that left London each night were horsed by him and these included the Bristol Mail and the Devonport Mail, the Quicksilver.

Quicksilver was the fastest and most reliable of all the mail coaches on the road in the early 1800s. The coach left Gloucester Coffee House at 8.30pm and set off for Devonport. It crossed Salisbury Plain in the dead of night, and arrived in Exeter by midday. The coach stopped there for 10 minutes and reached Devonport at about 5pm. The average speed between London and Devonport was 10mph, and a distance of 215 miles and took just 21.5 hours including the stops to change horses and take on and off mail bags.

Unfortunately Vidler fell out with the post office and when the contract for building mail coaches came to an end, he was told not to bother tendering for the contact again. Those who did tender were Joseph Wright and Walter Williams in the south of the country and Robert Croall in Scotland. He was the ancestor of Past Coachmaker Master Robert Croall. Vidler was upset and took all his coaches off the road. Not many survived and the Quicksilver is one of them.

Mail coaches had right of way and the guard would blow his horn when approaching an inn to warn them to have the change of horses ready. Horses were changed about every 10 miles. Usually the guard and the coachman would not get off the coach during changes of horses. Passengers also had to stay either on top or inside the coach. If they needed food, then there may a quick stop at an inn. The guard was in charge of the mail, which would be in a box in front of his seat at the rear of the coach, and he would have a blunderbuss and a pair of flintlock pistols to protect the mail.

Mark’s interesting talk was illustrated with slides and he explained the detailed work involved with the restoration of Quicksilver – the last remaining mail coach built by Vidler. We then enjoyed a tour of the workshops to see where Mark and his team build modern competition vehicles and the carriage specially designed for disabled drivers, which received the Coachmakers’ Award to Industry in 2016. He also showed us the work being carried out restoring old carriages to a high standard.

Bob Elliott, a highly respected guard, spoke to us about the role of the guard on mail coaches. He also demonstrated the techniques of horn blowing with their various call signs, which were used to warn the inns that the coach was approaching and to have the new team of horses ready. The coach horn was also used to warn other road users to clear the way for the Royal Mail as the mail coaches had the right of way over other road users. On some journeys the guard would play the horn to entertain the passengers on top and inside the coach.

Jo Broadbent then harnessed a pair of horses to a body break so Mark could show us the various competition courses he has built.

He also described the various coaches he has in his museum, together with other horse drawn carriages. It was an excellent day with luncheon and a first class Devon tea to end the day. Coachmakers are recommended to make the effort to visit Mark and Jo Broadbent in Devon to see their excellent museum of coaches and carriages.

To watch a video from the day please click here: https://coachmakers.co.uk/visit-to-fenix-carriages-video/