Gail Thornton
a pictorial archive of horse drawn vehicles


Horse Drawn Vehicles

In ancient times waggons were considered to be the vehicle of wealth and ceremony, and symbolic of riches.

Throughout the Middle Ages the preferred method of travel was on horseback and in the 14th Century persons unable or unwilling to ride, invalids, children and ladies commonly made use of litters, sometimes referred to as whirlicotes, as these ere more comfortable than the standard chariot.  The whirlicote was described as a cot or bed on wheels, and was used as early as the time of Richard II.  The main use of horse drawn vehicles was for the laborious process of carting goods from place to place due to the poor state of the roads, in most cases being little more than rough tracks. Vehicle design progressed little from the 11th to the 15th Century due to the poor condition of the roads and also due to the lack of what we now know as ‘leisure’ time that was available for the art of invention.

Initially there was a stigma that came with the use of horse drawn vehicles by men, as there was a suggestion of effeminacy, which often restricted their use by men. By the end of the 17th Century however, the situation was reversed and carriages were the favoured vehicle, litters were obsolete and horseback was seen as a strenuous mode of travel.  Fundamental to this change was an improvement in the design of carriages, and paramount in this superior construction was the widespread adoption of suspension.

Though road improvements began around the 13th Century it was not really until the late 18th and early 19th Centuries that great progress was made in relation to road construction.  The bad conditions of Britain’s roads was epitomised by the impassable stretch of mud between Kensington and London, where in 1736 one nobleman wrote that the road 'is grown so infamously bad that we live here in the same solitude as we should do if cast on a rock in the middle of the ocean, and all the Londoners tell us that there is between them and us a great impassable gulf of mud'.  In an Ipswich paper of 1769 it was reported how a man had fallen from his horse and died, but his death was due to drowning in the mud and filth on the road rather than as a result of his fall. From these times a large number of vehicles derived, both for commercial use and pleasure, including the stagecoach and state coaches.

Horse drawn vehicles can generally be divided in to three main categories; those used for public transport, those used for private transport and those used by tradesmen to transport their goods. 

The first passenger vehicles were in regular use by the end of the 15th Century, though it was not really until the 1600s that the demand for coaches brought about the great improvements to the basic design in relation to shape, weight and suspension. The stage waggon was the predecessor of all public vehicles, however it was slow, covering as little as two miles per hour on average and in addition was uncomfortable, as it was un-sprung.  On the positive side, it was inexpensive and available to the majority of people. It was drawn by four, six or even eight horses, seating up to 20 passengers plus their luggage. Driven by waggoners, the stage waggon was colloquially known as the ‘snail of the highway’ and the name ‘stage’ was acquired due to need for horses to be changed at regular intervals along the route.  Stage waggons helped make passenger transport more socially acceptable and did away with the old idea that to travel in a vehicle rather than on horseback was degenerative, effeminate and even lazy.  It was not until the royal patronage of Elizabeth I that the acceptance of carriages began to gain real momentum. 

An unwieldy postillion driven coach was in use by 1663 that had interior seating as well as seats on the outside. The exterior seats faced sideways with the passengers legs handing over the doorway, and as this position was so uncomfortable their legs and feet were fitted into boxes commonly called ‘boots’.  It is from this that the term ‘boot’ was derived in reference to the area of a car with space for putting things in.  The passengers using these seats were mostly those of low rank.  A postillion driven coach had no coachman but a rider seated upon the near side horse who was hopefully in control of the team of horses. 

By the 1600s there was a great increase in the use and ownership of coaches, although at first they were restricted to towns and cities because of the state of country roads. Though most were privately owned there were plenty for hire.  Most public hackney coaches had been private town coaches that had become too shabby and worn for their fashion conscious owners.  These were sold to hackney coach proprietors for a nominal sum.  The term ‘hackney’ comes from the French word ‘haquenee’ which means ‘horse for hire’. In 1634 the first hackney stand, predecessor of the modern taxi rank, was established by a retired mariner Captain Butler, who had four specially built Hackney coaches stationed for hire in the Strand.  Men who drove hackneys and stage coaches earned themselves bad reputations because of their vulgarity and intimidating behaviour.  One historian wrote “every ragamuffin that has his hands in his pockets, rolls his gait and talks slang is the embryo coachey”.  Often treating passengers with little respect, if they were not tipped generously, they were also liable to bombard the customer with abuse.

The golden age of coaching was between 1815 and 1840 due to the great road improvements during that period by MacAdam and Telfor.  However, after 1840 the decline in this form of transport was mostly due to the invention of the railway.

By the mid 19th Century a carriage painted in the customer’s choice of colour, even with their own coat of arms emblazoned on the carriage, could be hired from as little as £30 a year.  It was also possible to hire carriages for special occasions, such as weddings, social events and race meetings.  Though the first private vehicles were town coaches they were heavy and cumbersome and required a team of horses to pull them.  In the 18th Century improvements were made in the art of building not only waggons but also private carriages and tradesmen’s vehicles. By 1790 driving was looked upon as a leisure activity suitable for young gentlemen and as a result a variety of light sporty vehicles were designed.  One of the most popular vehicles for the ‘Regency Bucks’ were Phaetons.  These were high, open topped, four wheeled carriages.  Due to their high centre of gravity they were dangerous to drive, being easily tipped over, but this element of danger made them more exciting, adding to the driver’s pleasure.

It is thought that the Phaetonss gained their name from Greek mythology as Phaeton was the son of Helios, the Sun god.  He drove his father’s Sun chariot and the horses bolted, almost setting the world on fire.  Just as Phaeton was reckless in the driving of his father’s chariot, so were they young bucks reckless in their driving about town.  These vehicles were often referred to as ‘high-flyers’, which could be where the term originated that is now used to describe aspiring business executives.

Private carriages can be divided into those in which passengers drove themselves, and those driven by coachmen.  The first private vehicles were always driven by coachmen, as it was considered a lowly occupation to drive, but when driving began to be perceived as a sport, the situation soon altered.  Even notable personalities such as the Prince of Wales (later George IV) took to keeping a carriage and pair.  A gentlemen’s skill with the reins came to be regarded as a measure of his social status and to be a good driver was a mark of the highest breeding.  Those who excelled at controlling their horses and vehicle were often referred to as a ‘whip’.

 The first gigs were built around 1780; these were simple two-wheeled light vehicles drawn by a single horse and seating two people, though driving tandem - one horse in front of the other, became popular later.  Towards the end of the 18th Century their name became synonymous with cheap and roughly made vehicles.  Some gigs were so roughly built that the seat was little more than a plank of wood without even the refinement of a cushion.  If the vehicle cost less than £12 to buy the tax was only 12 shillings a year, but the more stylish gigs, as well as other two wheeled vehicles, were obliged to pay the standard tax of £3-17 shillings a year.  However later types of gig such as the Dennet, Stanhope and Tilbury were of a far superior level of construction and far more elegant, reinforcing to some degree the standard of the gig as a desirable vehicle.  Gigs were mainly used by businessmen or commercial travellers and rarely by ladies, who worried about being referred to as ‘fast’.

Dog carts derived directly from gigs and were either four or two wheeled vehicles.  As their name suggests they were originally used for the transporting of sporting dogs, which were carried under the seat.  They often had louvered or slatted sides to provide ventilation for the dogs, when on their way to hunts, shoots or country matches.  However dog carts, particularly the four wheeled versions, became popular on country estates for general use, such as collecting luggage or transporting the family to church or market.

In 1814 there were around 60,000 private vehicles in regular use and by 1900 this figure had risen to 500,000.  By the 1930s this form of transport was beginning to be phased out due to many differing factors, not least the popularity of the ‘new’ motor car.

Now, in 21st Century, there is a great move to collect and restore any original vehicle found hiding away in barns, sheds and garages.  It is also good to see many more people taking up driving as a hobby and even competing in country shows in the different vehicle classes.  Long may this continue.