Carriages in the Victorian era (1837-1901)
By the 1860s, the English were riding the rails en masse. The opening of the Metropolitan Railway, the first section of the tube or London underground ushered in the era of the subway.
It was a brave new world Victorian England. By the end of the 1800s, agriculture was on the decline and eighty percent of the population lived in cities. The underground was a welcome innovation in places like London, Manchester, and Birmingham, which had become sorely overcrowded. Within a few months of its launch, the Metropolitan Railway was carrying more than 26,000 passengers a day.
The Hansom cab
The Tube did not sound the death knell of the horse drawn carriage. Well into the 20th century, hansom cabs were being hailed throughout the United Kingdom. These nimble two-wheeled carriages featured a low center of gravity perfect for navigating narrow streets they were said to be able to turn sharp corners on a shilling.
Sometimes called "London's gondola", the hansom cab fit two riders fairly comfortably, three in a pinch. Two of the most renowned hansom cab fans are the fictional Dr. Watson and his sleuthing friend Sherlock Holmes. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective series, the pair is regularly seen leaping into a hansom cab, hot on the trail of a mystery. Upper class women, on the other hand, were rarely found in a hansom cab ”particularly not alone”as it was not considered a respectable form of transportation.
The driver sat behind the vehicle, on a seat from which he could only see the horse's head. He exercised considerable power over his fares. Not only did the driver hold the reins. He also controlled a lever that released the doors when passengers reached their destination. A hansom cab driver made sure their clients paid him through a trap door in the cab's roof before pulling the lever; riders used the same hatch in order to relay their instructions to the driver.
The Clarence or growler
The "growler" was the carriage of choice if you wanted to transport more than two people. Actually called the Clarence, the closed, four-wheeled vehicle held four passengers comfortably. The imaginative nickname arose because of the growling noise the glass-fronted carriage made when rolling over cobblestone streets.
The growler had plenty of room for baggage, so it was a common sight at railway stations where passengers were embarking on longer journeys, perhaps to a seaside resort such as Blackpool or Brighton.
By the 1860s, wealthy families began to rely on first-class railway carriages for long-distance travel. Ensconced in luxurious quarters, they enjoyed what would have been a fatiguing journey via carriage.
Despite this innovation, families of means aspired to own a smart carriage and handsome pair or team of horses. They used this vehicle for shopping, making calls and outings to destinations like the theatre or the British Museum.
While the many people lived in poverty, for members of the upper class this was an era of conspicuous consumption. Ladies make sure their carriages were as lavishly appointed as their wardrobes. They often ensured that their carriage lining matched their coachmen and driver's livery, and foot pillows, rugs and hot water bottles ensured that passengers were snug during cold and inclement weather.
There was no shortage of carriage accessories on the market, from mirrors for checking your appearance to leather bound carriage cases with room for necessities such as the social register and visiting list, a clock and two cut glass bottles in case the travelers became thirsty.
During the Victorian era, progress was moving forward with the power of a steam engine, and the carriage was eventually fated to be supplanted by automobile. Even so, the horse drawn carriage enjoyed a last hurrah in the 1890s, just when automobiles began to hit the streets. Coaching became the sport a la mode, with upper class gentleman trying their hand at the large kinds of carriages usually driven by coachmen.
From hansom cabs to growlers, from showy personal carriages to gentlemen's "racecars", the horse drawn carriage was an integral part of Victorian life.