Readers of Regency romance novels are familiar with the ubiquitous figures of the jarvey and the Jehu on the box of one kind of vehicle or another. These two words are commonly used in modern writing interchangeably, as though they were synonymous. Yet, my reading of various Regency documents such as books, letters, diaries, newspapers and other periodicals over the years has led me to the conclusion that in actual fact these two words are quite antonymous. A jarvey is not a Jehu, nor is a Jehu a jarvey. Not to mention that a jarvey is not a coachman, but a Jehu might be.
So what is the difference between a Jehu and a jarvey?
Primarily, speed. Or the lack thereof.
But first, we must examine the origin and history of these two words and determine when they entered our lexicon as appellations for those who drove horse-drawn vehicles and the precise meaning of each. "Jehu" was the first to enter the language, it was in use more than a century before "jarvey" became common.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online (paid subscription required) records the first written use of Jehu in 1682, in the writings of John Dryden. This was a biblical allusion, from II Kings 9:20, which says " … the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously … ." This is not precisely correct, as in actual fact, Jehu was the grandson of Nimshi. But scholars generally agree that in the biblical sense, "son" simply meant "descended in the line of … ."
Jehu was a military commander in the army of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was noted for driving his chariot wildly, at high speeds, with little regard for those in his path. It is this behavior which was recorded in the Bible in II Kings. Jehu eventually received a message from a prophet that God had anointed him King of Israel. In his campaign to seize the throne he was responsible for the deaths of many in Israel, including Jezebel. His campaign was eventually successful and he ruled as King of Israel for twenty-eight years. But it is as a recklessly speeding charioteer that Jehu (pronounced yay hoo) has come down in history.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online (paid subscription required), jarvey first appeared in writing in 1796, in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. In this dictionary, "jarvey" was listed as a hackney-coach driver. There are multiple theories as to how this word came to be used for this meaning. Some say that there was a hackney driver named Jarvis who was hanged, and his brother drivers took the name in his memory. Others say he was hanged as a thief and the public then applied this name to all hackney drivers. Another theory is that it is a contraction of Geoffrey, because these hackney drivers called to their horses "gee-o" or "Ge’o." But the name George was also often contracted in this way.
I find the most plausible explanation to be that the name comes from St. Gervase, a saint martyred in the 2nd Century AD. He was said to have been beaten to death with a lead-tipped whip. Thus, his attribute, when he was depicted in most images, was the whip. He was also the patron saint of thieves, and as noted above, there were many who considered most jarvies dishonest.
By the years of the Regency, the word jarvey was used to refer to the hackney coach as well as the man who drove it. And yet, I wrote above that a jarvey was not a coachmen. How could that be, since he drove a coach? Because a coachman, from the eighteenth century through the Regency, was a very specialized profession. Coachmen were those men who drove the Royal Mail and the stage coaches. They were highly skilled and drove superior vehicles drawn by well-bred horses. In this same fraternity were those private coachmen who worked for the aristocracy. Not only did all of these coachmen drive first-class vehicles and blood stock, they also dressed well in the livery of their employers, either public or private. If you wished to insult a coachman, you would call him a driver. A driver was a man who drove inferior vehicles pulled by inferior horses, like carts, drays or hackney coaches.
The men of the coaching fraternity all took great pride in their work, in their appearance and that of their coaches and horses. Jarvies most certainly did not. Their vehicles were almost always second-hand, an old coach or carriage sold by someone who could afford a newer model. Their horses were certainly not blood stock. There was no uniform or livery for those who drove hackney coaches. They wore ordinary clothing, whatever they could afford, and most could not afford very much. The only garment jarvies had in common was their benjamin. This was a sturdy greatcoat in drab colors which typically had many capes. It is believed to have taken its name from the tailor who designed the first one.
Now you can see why during the years of the Regency, a jarvey was considered to be a slow and inelegant driver. A driver, not a coachman, regardless of the fact that the vehicle he drove was called a hackney coach. Nor was a jarvey a Jehu, as the defining factor of a Jehu was speed. Few jarvies could get any degree of speed out of their lumbering old vehicles or their usually tired and low-bred horses. In fact, a common joke during the Regency was about a jarvey offering his services to a man passing by. "No thank you," the man replied. "I am in a hurry. I will walk."
However, either a professional coachman on the box or a private gentleman tooling his own vehicle could very easily be a Jehu. The Royal Mail and stage coaches were expected to run on time, and many coachmen were known to spring their teams on the open road. Private coachmen might do the same if they had the ribbons and their employers in the coach were in a hurry to reach their destination. This might bring any of these coachmen into conflict with sporting gentlemen out springing their own blood stock. Jehus all around. And many a Regency novel has opened with the near-miss or full-on collision of some combination of these vehicles which often first brings the heroine and the hero together.
Now you know why a jarvey was neither a coachman or a Jehu, but a Jehu could be a coachman. The Prince Regent was a Jehu in his younger days, as were many other gentlemen who tooled their high-perch phaetons or racing curricles drawn by their high-stepping cattle though the streets of London or along the roads of England. Many young gentlemen aspired to the skill of a coachman and would do their best to wangle the opportunity to take the reins of a Royal Mail or stage coach. And given that opportunity, many would spring the team, thus becoming Jehus. But no self-respecting, aspiring Corinthian had any desire to take the reins of a hackney coach. There was no sport or glory in handling the ribbons of a tired, ill-bred horse while on the box of an old, lumbering hackney. It was fashionable to be a Jehu, but not to be a jarvey during the Regency.