Nicola here, fresh back from a trip to North Devon and the National Carriage Museum at Arlington Court. I’ve always wanted to visit the carriage museum because although I have read a lot about 18th and 19th century carriages, and seen lots of pictures, nothing compares with the experience of seeing a carriage or riding in one. The other reason I wanted to go to Arlington is because of the connection to Ashdown House, as the Craven State Chariot is one of the stars of their collection. So here, for those of you who also have a love of elegant carriages (and fast cars!) is a quick run down of the main types of early to mid 19th century carriage in the collection and how they compare to today’s vehicles, with thanks to the National Trust at Arlington for providing me with extra information and photos. If you want to see larger versions of the pictures you can click on them for a bigger image.
The state coach or state chariot
At the top of the pile as far as carriages were concerned was the state coach or state chariot. This was used only by the nobility. Frank Huggett in Carriages at Eight comments that in the 19th century, wealthy aristocrats needed seven or eight carriages to preserve their distinction from the rising middle class and provide a suitable carriage for every aspect of their social life. The state coach was used for important occasions such as the state opening of parliament or society weddings and grand occasions. This is the equivalent of the Rolls Royce with chauffeur.
The state coach could carry four passengers in the body, the chariot two. These coaches would be pulled by a pair of horses and driven by a coachman. Two footmen would stand on the footman’s
cushion, the padded platform behind the body of the coach. A state coach or chariot would have exceptionally fine decoration. The Craven chariot (pictured), for example, has silver-plated axle caps, a
silver plated family crest and other carriage “furniture.” It also has a sumptuous blue damask interior. For formal occasions the coachman wore full livery with powdered wig, tricorn hat, braided livery coat, white plush breeches, white silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes. The footmen wore similar livery except that they wore bicorn or cocked hats. The Cravens also had the ultimate carriage decoration of “matching footmen,” identical twins who rode on the back. The footmen carried silver topped staves known as wands, which were used to keep the crowds at bay. They were expected to keep completely motionless except when needed for crowd control! The Craven state chariot was absolutely gorgeous inside, the last word in elegance and comfort. That said it was also very cosy. I had imagined that there would be more space. However if one wanted an intimate chat on the way to the state opening of parliament then it would be just the thing!
The barouche was the equivalent of the family car, albeit a very plush family car. The barouche could hold four passengers and it is mentioned a number of times in the writing of Jane Austen as the type of vehicle owned by a rich family – the Bertrams of Mansfield Park, for example. It was something to aspire to. Mrs John Dashwood hankered after one in Sense and Sensibility. Originally known as German Wagons because they were first made in Germany, the early barouches were heavy vehicles. They were also the ultimate in elegance and the chosen vehicle in which to show off in the park.
On a more practical note, though, a travelling barouche was very comfortable for those long journeys between your country estates or even abroad. The travelling barouches needed to be sturdier than the town ones. It could be coachman or postillion-driven and required four horses, with the horses and postillions hired at the inns en route. The team would be changed every ten to twelve miles. If you used postillions they would ride the two nearside horses and a footman rode on the hind boot – the rumble seat – and it was his responsibility to apply the brake when travelling down hill. It was in a travelling barouche or travelling chariot that the young sprigs of nobility made the Grand Tour of Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
This particular travelling chariot (above) belonged to Gibbs Crawford Antrobus who used it in his career as a diplomat. He was a junior secretary under Lord Castelreagh at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 and subsequently Envoy Extraordinary and State Plenipotentiary for George IV to the kingdom of the two Sicilies. Isn't it gorgeously plush inside!
Many travelling barouches contained a “dormeuse boot” (which my auto correct changed to dormouse boot) with panels inside the coach that would fold down to allow the passengers to stretch their legs at full length in order to sleep (see picture on the right). Even so it looked pretty cramped and I wouldn’t have fancied trying to sleep in it.
One of the details that I loved in the travelling chariot was the sword case that was built into the back of the coach and accessible only from inside, a necessary precaution when one was travelling through uncharted or bandit ridden countryside!(pictured).
The phaeton was a four-wheeled carriage driven by the owner and never by their
professional coachman. It could be drawn by two or four horses and given its relatively small size I imagine it would be pretty fast with four. The high perch phaeton was very popular at the end of the 18th century and is mentioned a lot in the books of Georgette Heyer, for example, as a fast and fashionable carriage for young men to drive and show off in. However as you get into the 19th century the phaeton became lower, safer and more practical. Lady Catherine De Bourgh drove her own phaeton in Pride and Prejudice. There were bigger, tougher versions of the phaeton that were for the country sportsman rather than for town driving. The Mail Phaeton (so called because it used the same springs that a mail coach did) was built for country driving and was the vehicle of choice of the sporting gentleman – a Land Rover equivalent or SUV.
The name phaeton, is of course derived from Greek mythology, named for Phaeton the son of Helios, the Sun God, who drove his father’s chariot. The horses bolted and almost set fire to the earth before they were stopped, a rather neat metaphor for some of the driving we would surely have seen on the Regency streets had we been there!
Ah, the curricle! The racing car equivalent of the Regency period! There are no curricles in the collection at Arlington, perhaps because they were so light, fast and fashionable that they did not survive. Elegant and with a skeletal structure, curricles were drawn by a pair of horses, the aim being to show off your driving skills and your perfectly matched horses.
One thing I especially loved about Arlington was that it is still a working stables. You can go into the tack room and smell the leather of the harness and watch the carriage horses at work, or take a drive around the estate. You can even take carriage-driving lessons if you really want to get hands on experience.
I hope you have enjoyed this canter through the Arlington carriage collection. For more details on carriage interiors and decoration, check out the excellent blog post by Lesley-Anne McLeod here and to see the Arlington collection click here.
Do you fancy driving your own Regency phaeton or curricle, or would you prefer to travel in a coachman-driven carriage? What about travelling long distances with a dormeuse boot to sleep in? And have you enjoyed any historical romances that feature road trips or fast carriages?