The Vidler mail coach

Coachlines - April 2020

18.04.20 David Honour

Quicksilver and the Vidlers

It may not occur to most people with a casual interest in mail coaches, that there were a lot of Quicksilver coaches over the years. This lone survivor represents the apogee of the development of the Vidler mail coach. The Devonport Mail had been run for many years before various improvements in the route and the road allowed a speed that was considered extraordinary and by the late 1820s it had gained its title Quicksilver.

The mail coaches were built by various members of the Vidler family from 1792 until 5th January 1836 when the contract, divided into districts, was taken over by Joseph Wright and Walter Williams, John Croall and Patrick Wallace.

The principle of the mail coach service had been proved to work by John Palmer in an official trial in August 1784 from Bath to London. By public demand the mail coach spread its routes across the country very rapidly and in 1785 a triumphant Palmer became Comptroller General of the Mails.

One problem became apparent very quickly. The coaches were sourced by the mail contractors, who generally being intent on making money and cutting corners began to ruin the service with frequent breakdowns of their coaches. Palmer began to search for a purpose built coach to run the services and also to find ways of strengthening his control over the supply of mail coaches.

In 1785 John Besant, an inventor, presented his ideas for a purpose built mail coach to John Palmer. He and his deputy Charles Bonnor, a coachmaker by training, saw a great deal of promise in Besant’s idea and were soon ordering them in numbers. Besant rushed to patent his coach ideas and between 1786 and 1788 the ‘patent’ coach was developed and presented to the public as the preferred coach to carry the royal mail.

Success meant that Besant had to rapidly create a coach building business to keep up with demand. To achieve this Besant, who was not a coach-builder, went into partnership with John Brooks a coachbuilder in premises on Long Acre. As still more resources were needed, Charles Bonnor, Thomas Willson – a coach contractor – and John Vidler became investors in the business.

A clash of these personalities provoked a series of complicated machinations in which all the partners tried to gain as much benefit from the business as possible. Palmer didn’t help in squeezing Besant financially as hard as he could. Brooks was dumped from the business after a mental breakdown and Besant died suddenly of an illness worsened by stress. This left Charles Bonnor secretly trying to take over the business and John Vidler trying to protect his investment and get rid of Bonnor.

John Vidler won the initial battle, even turfing Besant’s common-law wife out of her house on Millbank Row, Westminster where he had encouraged Besant to move the coach manufactory. He was then faced with having to turn the mail coach manufactory into an efficient functioning business and to persuade the Post Office to grant him a formal contract to build the mail coaches.

John Vidler was not a coachbuilder, he was a stonemason. This fact probably saved the mail coach. He had a great talent for business and he was ruthless and acquisitive. He analysed the mail coach business and every detail of the construction of the coach with the aim of making it a success and also of building his fortune. He took what could be seen as a modern approach to the mails, they were constructed using templates and everything that could be was made interchangeable from one coach to another. He employed a manager to run the factory on a day-to-day basis and set it up to manufacture complete coaches from the ground up.

In 1810 John Vidler died and the business passed to his son John with another son, Finch becoming a sleeping partner. The business continued to prosper. The mail coach contractors who horsed the mails had at first resisted using Vidler coaches but at last everything fell into a routine. Over time the Post Office introduced various changes to the coaches, which the Vidlers always resisted and always grumbled about. The coaches slowly evolved into the mail coaches that began to be celebrated by the public in general and also forced change and competition onto the ranks of the stagecoach contractors.

In 1827 John Vidler the younger died, leaving the running of the business to his son-in-law Edward Parratt via his daughter Eliza. This began a period of confusion and decline as Edward Parratt was not a good businessman. Eventually Finch Vidler, John’s brother moved into a house on Millbank Row to keep an eye on things and by the early 1830s had taken over complete control.

Finch Vidler would have overseen the manufactory when the existing Quicksilver was built. He had begun to change the design of the standard Vidler mail coincidental with the Post Office requesting changes. The stagecoaches of the time had improved to such an extent that they threatened the favoured position the mails held with the public. The last vestige of the patent mail coach, namely the rear three springs, were replaced by telegraph springs with adjustments to the perch. Our Quicksilver had appeared.

The contract for building the mails was due to end in January 1836 and a campaign began in Parliament and the press to put it out to tender, something which had not happened since the mails were introduced. Finch Vidler took this very badly.

Evidence about coach design was collected and both coach models and full size coaches shown to Post Office officials. During 1835 the Post Office belatedly realised that if Finch lost the contract they would most likely have no mail coaches to start a new service in 1836. During unsuccessful negotiations to avoid this, Finch refused to help and he was eventually banned from tendering for the new contract. The mail coach manufactory on Millbank and the Vidler’s business closed early in 1836.

The mail coach went on, for a huge effort on the part of the new contractors meant that enough mail coaches were built to start the new service in January 1836. Ironically they were, at the Post Master General’s instruction, based strongly on the old mail coaches with “any necessary improvements”. The Quicksilver went on with new coaches looking much as they had before.

Finch Vidler never knew of the compliment which the Post Master General Lord Lichfield paid to the Vidler coaches, “His Lordship was of the opinion that taken as a whole the present mail coaches were superior in appearance, workmanship & comfort, to any that were shewn against them”.

Quicksilver as an icon

The Quicksilver mail coach comes from a period when world news travelled to and from this country by ship. The Quicksilver mail served Devonport and Falmouth, its speed coupled with the work done to improve the roads of the time shows the importance of these ports. At the beginning of the 19th century Falmouth, a Royal Mail Packet Station (since 1688) is said to have been second only in importance to London in the transmission of news.

In 1833 Quicksilver was half an hour per mile faster than most mail coaches and described as, “one of the miracles of the road.” In May 1834 (when the restored Quicksilver coach was at work), a newspaper tells us, “The King’s Messenger was carried from Plymouth to London by the Quicksilver carrying the ratification of a treaty from Lisbon.”

Also in 1834 a letter could be sent by the Royal Mail on Quicksilver from London to Falmouth and then on to Lisbon, The Mediterranean, North America, The Leeward Islands, Jamaica, Mexico, Madeira, Brazil etc. Perhaps there needs to be a journey today from London to Falmouth to remind us of what this handsome coach represents.