Impact of Steam on Horse Transport

The Songs

Most of the songs in this category were printed on broadsides. Most share the view of people employed in the business of horse-drawn transport and naturally consider steam power a bad thing. However a significant minority celebrate the demise of stage coaches. 

Main Themes and Motifs

  • Much faster travel brought by steam power
  • Unemployment and destitution of those employed in horse powered transport
  • Anticipated economic benefits of the railway


1825-29     267
1830-34     378; 544
1835-39     141; 199; 416; 626
1840-44     549
1850-54     306
1860-64     473
1865-69     545

Uncertain   202

Historical Background

The 1841 census counted 55 thousand people directly employed in driving coaches and wagons; looking after the travellers that rode in them; and caring for the horses that drew them.
To them can be added many of the 47 thousand sellers of food and lodging for whom travellers were important customers.
The first threat to the coach trade came from steam powered carriages which took to the roads in the 1820s. (see bar271 New Steam Carriage Blown Up) Coach roads were maintained by Turnpike Trusts - organisations dominated by men who profited by the coach trade and who used their influence to price steam carriages off the road. But the victory of the coach trade over steam power was short lived.
The success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway inspired the construction of the less celebrated - but more significant - Liverpool and Manchester which opened in 1830. Within three months - half of the 26 stage coaches running between those cities ceased operations


End of the coaching era. (The train in the background looks very like one used on the Manchester and Liverpool)
Science Museum/Science Museum and Society Picture Library

Coaching inns lost trade. The Duke of Wellington said that 'before the steam invention' he had stopped six or eight times a year at The Fountain in Canterbury but since using the railway he never went there. Some inns became ticket offices for the railways. Others fell into decline and - for lack economic incentive to modernise them - survived into the twentieth century to become a treasured architectural feature of cities such as Chester, Devizes, York and St Albans.
But - contrary to expectations - the demand for road transport increased and with it the number of horses - especially in towns where they pulled short-haul vehicles ferrying people and goods to and from the increasing number of railway stations. Many coachmen kept their connection with horses; running stables, letting out horses and carriages or becoming horse dealers

In the countryside the slow stage waggons also disappeared a process well under way during the 1840s when bar549 When This Old Hat Was New was worked up from an older song. Remembering the 1880s, Flora Thompson wrote

"At that time [the main road] was deserted for hours together. Three miles away trains roared over the viaduct, carrying those who would, had they lived a few years before or later, have used the turnpike. People were saying that far too much money was being spent keeping such roads in repair, for their day was over;… Sometimes the children and their mother would meet a tradesman's van….. or the doctor's tall gig, or the smart turn-out of a brewer's traveller; but often they walked their mile along the turnpike without seeing anything on wheels.

References and Notes

[i] Drink and the Victorians The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872