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Postilions, Couriers, Coachmen

The postilion

One of the most frequently berated figures in accounts of the tour is that of the postilion, a shady character but one who was indispensable at least up until the time when the use of block brakes on the rear wheels was introduced, well into the 19th century. It was only then that the role of the young postilion astride one of the horses hitched to the shaft began to be taken over by that of the driver, who controlled the pair of horses and the coach from his seat on the coach box or dickey.

The postilion was a much detested individual, whose recurrent traits seem to have been insolence and arrogance, not just in Italy but all over Europe. He had his own “uniform,” with close-fitting leather pants and jackboots, a fairly tight frock coat and a hat pressed down on his long hair, tied back in a dangling pigtail. One his most severely condemned habits was that of continually demanding exorbitant extra payments on top of the sum agreed. The portrait that emerges is always that of a greedy, dishonest and conceited figure.


For carriage owners, another indispensable figure was the courier. His job was to “run ahead” to get the horses ready and harnessed at each new post house so that no time was lost in the changes. A good courier was one who paid his employer’s bills, relieving him from run-of-the-mill tasks like changing money and haggling in unfamiliar languages, who knew what a town or city had to offer and was able to find an inn worthy of his master’s rank and who was informed about the monuments to be visited and what had to be done to get round prohibitions or unreasonable opening times. He also needed to be abreast of the latest developments so that he could guide his employer in making purchases, making sure the prices were to his advantage. At a time when guidebooks did not yet exist the courier, in short, «acted as a private Baedeker able to guess what it was the customer would like to see» (Brilli, 2004).

The coachman

For those who hired carriage and driver, it was necessary to deal with the coachman. Although, as we have seen, loud voices of protest were raised over the greed of his profession, his role was distinguished from that of the other people involved in the organization of the journey by the high degree of personal risk that it entailed. He was, in effect, an entrepreneur on a small scale whose professionalism and daring were acknowledged. As Cobbett (1821), a great advocate of travel by hired vehicle, reminds us: «the coachman’s trade is one that requires a great spirit of initiative, which means being ready at any moment to travel any distance and to head for any destination. He runs serious and continual risks. In fact if a horse should go lame or die when he is far from home, he can see his line of business ruined, especially if he has no capital with which to start over» (Brilli, 2004).


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