The Last of the Mail Coaches at Newcastle upon Tyne by James Pollard (1792-1867).
In the last quarter of 1849 Thomas De Quincey published two separate essays in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a leading Tory periodical.
These two essays, entitled “The English Mail-Coach, or the Glory of Motion” and “The Vision of Sudden Death,” were revised and amalgamated five years later to produce one of the author’s most memorable and idiosyncratic pieces.
“The English Mail-Coach” is at once a celebration of that form of transport and an elegy for its demise, since by the time De Quincey published his essay the railways had already spread across the country and shunted the mail-coach into the sidings of history.
As an exercise in technology nostalgia, therefore, the essay might be compared to someone recalling fondly the brick-like mobile phones of the 1980s while necessarily using a modern, lightweight smartphone and perhaps grumbling at the way it increasingly dominates their waking life.
“The English Mail-Coach” is in four parts. In the first, De Quincey explains his fascination with mail-coaches and recalls his delight in using them – insisting always, against the grain of class preference, on an outside seat – to go to and from Oxford in his student days.
He relates his obsession to the pleasures of unprecedented speed, with the thrill of “possible though indefinite danger”; the visual stimulation of “grand effects,” as deserted roads at night are momentarily lit up by coach-lamps; the sheer spectacle of “animal beauty and power”; the sense of participating in a great national system, akin to a living organism; and the additional excitement of bringing news, good or bad, from the battlefront (during the Napoleonic Wars) to local communities far and wide.