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Royal Mail Coach 'Quicksilver'
Coachwork by Vidler
Until the mid 1830's the Mail Coach system in Britain was the world's fastest means of transport. The introduction of the improved mail coach system began in the late 1700's when John Palmer, a theatre manager from Bath who regularly travelled to London, realised that the coaches and roads in use at that time were not fit for the age. Using his established business connections he approached the Post Office with a number of improvements to the system of delivering the 'Royal Mail'. These improvements would eventually lead to the construction of specially designed 'Royal Mail Coaches' that would have right of way over all other means of transport of that time.
By the late 1820's the Coaches had reached the height of their development. The Royal Mail Coaches were built by the Coachbuilder 'Vidler' who had workshops at Millbank. They were never owned by the Post Office. Instead Vidler's built, maintained and then leased the Coaches back to the Post Office. The Coaches featured a lightweight ash frame, covered with softwood panels over which leather was then stretched. This gave a strong but light body. Externally there was a seat for the Guard, who was employed directly by the Post Office and it was he who was responsible for the timekeeping of the Coach and the security of the 'Royal Mail'. To this end he was equipped with a horn that he would sound so that when approaching a toll road the gatekeeper would open the gates and allow the Royal Mail Coach through without stopping and a Mortimer blunderbuss to ward off potential highwaymen. At the front of the Coach there was a roof seat and Coachman's seat. The undercarriage was built for strength, for although the road surfaces were improving, breakages were common place. With the invention of the 'Mail Axle' by John Beasant it was possible to keep spare wheels and other interchangeable parts along the Royal Mail Coach routes at strategic posts. Unlike all other Coaches the wheels were fitted with small external oilers that allowed the axles to be lubricated on the road and no brakes were ever fitted. Instead a drag shoe would have been employed on the steepest of descents.
Every evening the Royal Mail Coaches left London from the Old Post Office at St Martins-Le-Grand and this event was watched by large crowds, by the 1820's Royal Mail Coaches had by now established themselves as the 'Kings of the Road'. Upon their return to London each Coach was taken back to Vidler's workshops and any necessary repairs were carried out in order to ensure that the Coaches were kept in pristine condition. All Royal Mail Coach routes were numbered, with the exception of one; number '209', the 'Quicksilver'.
The Quicksilver ran from London to Falmouth and it became the fastest ever Royal Mail Coach, covering the ground at an average speed of just over 10mph. This included stops for fresh horses at staging posts, new Guards and Coachmen and delivering the Royal Mail at the main Post Offices along the route. The Royal Mail Coaches established an almost legendary status amongst the public, town clocks were set by the arrival of the Mail Coach, Guard's would be fined by the Post Office if the Coach was a minute late. People flocked to see the Royal Mail Coach as it passed, guards infamously struggled with the Mail bags when Coaches became stuck fast in snow and today many of our Christmas cards still show Royal Mail Coaches. In one famous incident the horses pulling the Quicksilver were attacked by a Lion that had escaped from a local zoo.
With the coming of the railways the Royal Mail Coaches were retired from service and almost every Coach was scrapped. However the famous Quicksilver was saved and for many years it was displayed in the Hull Transport Museum. Eventually the owners of the famous Coach decided to sell the Quicksilver and the Coach was sold to a private collector.
Today the Quicksilver is a very rare surviving Royal Mail Coach, there are possibly only two other Mail Coaches in existence. Built C.1828 by Vidler's to the standard Royal Mail Coach design. Over the years the paint and fittings have suffered but the Quicksilver is in good overall sound condition. The main body panels are leather covered and the doors bear the Royal Crest. To the rear of the Coach there is the single seat for the Guard and just ahead of this is the storage box for the Mortimer Blunderbuss, coach tools and oil. The mail would have been stored in the rear boot under the Guards feet. Inside the sparsely upholstered body of the Coach there is seating for four passengers and at the base of each door there is a brass makers plate engraved 'J Vidler'. The roof seat could carry additional passengers if required. To the front of the Coach there is the Coachman's seat and finally alongside this the 'Box seat'. This seat was the most sought after position on a Royal Mail Coach as it allowed the passenger to witness the Coachman drive the Coach and a team of four horses at speeds approaching 20mph. The upper black body panels are adorned with the Royal Star and Garter, whilst the rear boot panels display Quicksilvers number '209'. The front boot panels display the initials of the King 'GR' in gold leaf.
The wheels and undercarriage are finished in a deep red and again despite the condition of the paintwork they are in sound condition.
The Quicksilver presents a unique opportunity to own the fastest ever 'Royal Mail Coach'. The unique appeal that the Royal Mail Coaches had amongst the public during their short reign is still strong today. The 'Quicksilver'.