A Treatise on Carriages by William Felton

In the course of some recent research, I came across a particularly useful book, first published in the late eighteenth century, which I suspect nearly every Regency author will want to add to their research library. The book was written by William Felton, a successful London coach and carriage maker. He thought that those who purchased carriages needed a basic guidebook to help them in choosing the right vehicle for their needs, and in maintaining it in good condition during the time they owned it. Felton’s book was so universally helpful that it was still a standard reference for many coach buyers and owners during the Regency.

The most popular carriage manual in Regency England . . .

William Felton was a coach-maker about whom not a great deal is known. He had premises at both 36 Leather Lane in Holborn and also at 254 Oxford Street, which was just off Grosvenor Square. His age is unknown, but records show that he lived and worked in London, probably between the years of c.1790 up to about 1803. One of his most notable achievements was accomplished in 1803, when he constructed the carriage for the first steam powered vehicle, the steam engine for which was built by Richard Trevithick. This vehicle was knows as the London Steam Carriage. It was the very first vehicle to carry passengers and to move without horsepower. Felton charged £207 to construct the body into which Trevithick installed his new steam engine, at Felton’s coach works in Leather Lane. Sadly, it would seem that William Felton’s work for Richard Trevithick did not attract enough business for his firm. A William Felton was recorded as having gone bankrupt in December of 1803. However, he, or perhaps his son, may have continued as coach-makers, for a W. J. Felton was listed as a coach-maker with premises at 6 Long Acre Street in Kent’s Original London Directory of 1823.

Long before he built the body for Trevithick’s London Steam Carriage, William Felton had already become a well-known name among English coach and carriage owners with the publication of his handbook on quality carriages and harness. The full title of Felton’s book was A Treatise on Carriages; Comprehending Coaches, Chariots, Phaetons, Curricles, Gigs, Whiskies, &c. Together with their Proper Harness. In Which the Fair Price of Every Article Are Accurately Stated. This treatise was first published, in 1794, in two volumes, in partnership with the noted publisher John Debrett of Piccadilly. Partnering with Debrett was a wise choice on Felton’s part. From the founding of the firm, by his predecessor, in 1769, Debrett had specialized in publishing various guide books for the British upper classes. This class was the ideal target market for Felton’s book, since quality carriages and coaches were quite expensive, both to acquire and to maintain.

Based on his Introduction, Felton may have gotten the idea for his treatise in part from another type of book which had become popular during the second half of the eighteenth century, house-builder’s guidebooks. These books provided details on how various types of houses were built, as well as the costs and types of materials that were likely to be used, in an effort to educate those who were comtemplating buiding a house so that builders did not take advantage of them. A coach or carriage was often the most expensive item a gentleman would purchase, with the exception of their house. By the end of the eighteenth century, with the widespread improvement of roads in Britain, more and more people who could afford it were acquiring their own carriages. And many of those people were very happy to have professional guidance for that costly acquisition, as well as the care of that vehicle once they had made their purchase.

However, Felton also wrote this book to protect the honorable and respectable members of his profession. He included details on legitmate pricing for all of the components of carriage and harness. In order to be fair to his fellow coach-makers, he sent a letter to the top twelve coach-makers of London, prior to the publication of his book, in order to give them a chance to weigh in on his pricing structure. He even included a copy of that letter in the front matter of the first volume of his book when it was published. Felton explained that the prices he quoted were reasonable, and would enable respectable coach-makers to make a decent living without overcharging their customers. By making this information public, Felton believed that honest coach-makers would be better able to retain their good customers, who would thereby understand that those coach-makers’ prices were fair.

At the same time, Felton intended that the information in his book would make it more difficult for dishonest coach-makers, and/or coachmen, to collude in fleecing carriage owners when it came to maintenance and repairs. He explained that careless coachmen would often ascribe any damage to a coach they drove to poor workmanship, thus shifting any blame to the coach-maker. He also exposed a practice in which unscrupulous coach-makers and deceitful coachmen colluded to increase the frequency of repairs to a coach or carriage as a means by which to line their own pockets. The coach-maker would charge a very high price for the repairs, then give a substantial kick-back to the coachman who recommened that his employer patronize that particuar coach-maker. Felton also included advice to coach and carriage owners on how best to care for their vehicles, including details on preventative maintenance in order to reduce the need for repairs. Felton even predicted in his introduction that he would be attacked for his work by dishonest and unscrupulous coach-makers and coachmen, which did occur.

In the first volume of his book, Felton explains that carriages should be built to be as strong, but as light as possible. He also explains how the different types of carriages are typically used and notes the differences in carriage styles and construction between those vehicles intended primarily for use in town and those that will be used mainly in the country. Felton makes it a point to provide details on how carriages were made, right down to the smallest parts, fittings and furnishings. That includes noting the materials which are used for each part. Felton devotes chapters to the carving, iron work, wheels, boots, coach boxes, linings, trimmings, brasses, lamps and even the decorative paint. Along with this information, he also includes the usual prices one should expect to pay for all of these items in order to enable a purchaser to estimate the cost of a carriage based on their choice of style and parts. More importantly, the volume is extensively illustrated with the components of each type of carrige covered, in various stages of construction. Felton even includes patterns for a number of ornamental cartouches for arms and crests which could be painted on carriages.

Felton used the second volume of his A Treatise on Carriages to provide both a "plain" carriage of each type, and one with all the extras, along with a break-down of the components for each, and all the appropriate prices. Felton made an interesting point in the text of this volume, that he considered a four-wheeled phaeton a much safer vehicle than a two-wheeled gig or curricle. This is counter to the fact that in many modern Regency romances, a phaeton is considered to be a rather dangerous vehicle. In this second volume, Felton also goes into great depth on the subject of the harness used with carriages, making a distinction between the fully functional parts of the harness and the ornamental portions which were decorative but not necessary for a buyer on a budget. The section of the book also includes a complete price list for all these harness components. The illustrations in this volume are of finished carriages of nearly every type, as well as images of horses wearing the various types of harness noted in the text.

A special supplement is included in the second volume of A Treatise on Carriages in which Felton provides specifics on carriage and harness maintenance and repairs. In addition, he also provides advice on hiring carriages for those who cannot afford, or who choose not to own one. He even includes the text of an agreement to be used for hiring a carriage. And for those of lesser means, suggestions are provided on how to purchase a second-hand or used carriage and/or harness. Felton includes a section on how to compute wheel wear based on their construction and the time they are in use in order to determine when new wheels will be needed. This supplement is not illustrated, but has numerous tables on the prices of all of the repairs called out in the text. To ensure proper maintenance of a carriage, Felton calls out the tools which every coachman or carriage driver should have available, and, of course, he provides the typical prices for all of these tools. Another useful section of this supplement includes information on the taxes levied on coaches and carriages, how they are assessed and the penalties for non-payment. In the "Advertisement" to the Supplement, Felton explains that many gentlemen who already own carriages, and therefore have no need for the full treatise, requested that it be made available separately, which he advises the public has been done.

One of the most valuable parts of Felton’s A Treatise on Carriages is the combined Glossary and Index which is included at the end of the second volume. This is a substantial list, in alphabetical order, of just about every part of a carriage or harness, with a definition, and in many cases, is followed by the volume and page number where the reader can find more detail. One of the main reasons why Felton provided this glossary was to enable his readers to fully understand a coach-maker’s bill, since in most cases, all parts used in the construction or repair of a carriage were itemized on the bill. He noted that in his experience many of those who purchased a carriage or had one repaired did not know the names and uses of the parts for which they might be charged. In such circumstances, a dishonest coach-maker would be able to defraud a customer by overcharging them for items of which they were unaware.

A Treatise on Carriages was reprinted in 1796, 1803 and 1805. However, there do not appear to have been any reprints during the decade of the Regency. Nevertheless, this book had been widely disseminated in the early years of the nineteenth century. Copies most likely could be found in the libraries of many upper class families. Though the prices quoted in those editions may not have been exact by the Regency, they would still have served as adequate guidelines for anyone planning the purchase, repair, or even the hire, of a carriage or harness during those years.

Fortunately for Regency authors on a budget, editions of A Treatise on Carriages are available online in digital format. Only the first volume of the first edition, from 1794, is available at Google Books. However, it is an imperfect copy and therefore not of much use for research purposes. However, both volumes of the 1796 edition are available for download at the following sites:

Internet Archive — Volumes I & II

Google Books — Volume I and Volume II

A Treatise on Carriages is a valuable reference for Regency authors, whether they need to determine the correct carriage for one of their characters, or the name of some part of a carriage or harness. However, it also offers a number of plot embellishments based on the information which William Felton provided in his Introduction. Perhaps a heroine of limited means has brought her beautiful younger sister to London in search of a husband. Will she refer to A Treatise on Carriages in order to hire a carriage for the season at a reasonable cost? Might she even use the sample agreement which Felton provided? Or, will a hero discover that his coachman is colluding with his coach-maker to require frequent, costly repars to his carriage? Or, might the devious coach-maker even be the ring-leader of a group of spies whom he funds by his dishonest business practices? How will the hero catch him out? Dear Regency Authors, how else might Felton’s revelations of business practices in A Treatise on Carriages serve the plot of a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to A Treatise on Carriages by William Felton

  1. this came to my notice a couple of months ago and is in the post as historic reprints [the ones that are facsimiles not with that awful predictive text!] as a Christmas present to myself, because I do always prefer dead tree format…. I’ve read the brief and very informative treatise in ‘All things Austen’ and other sources, but I confess, I couldn’t resist… and as it comes out of my royalties I can even offset it against tax! Yay!
    The plot bunny that sprang to mind immediately was that substandard harnessing breaks, stranding our hero in some out of the way place, and while he is trying to borrow a copy of volume two to instruct the local and bucolic saddler, who is more used to harnessing plough horses than a team of 4 matched Cleveland bays, he meets the heroine… who has a once famous whip for a father and who has just the book he needs in the country house library. [Queen Anne style, I think, smallish but comfortable with roses over the door, and a rose garden tended by our own heroine]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Interesting plot bunny. One hopes the saddler can read, otherwise the poor hero will have to read it all out to the poor man. I love the description of the heroine’s house! It sounds lovely, and very English!


      • You know how pictures of places pop into one’s head… the heroine has nut brown hair and is sweet rather than beautiful. Writing it into my book of plot bunnies now…

  2. Thanks a million for the links to the 1796 edition-downloads! It’s a real treat for me. I love carriages.
    May I be so bold and add a link to a mini-exhibition about the carriages most commonly used in the Romantic Age at my blog? You can find it here: http://regency-explorer.net/carriages/

    Thanks a again for sharing.

    • Anna has some amazing photos there, and a good brief explanation of each

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I thought of you when I ran across the book, as I remembered that you took some driving classes when you went to Britain a couple of years ago. The illustrations are quite good, and the text is very informative, since it was written by an actual coach-maker.

      Thank you for the link to your blog page on carriages. I am sure many will enjoy it.



      • Thank you, Kathryn. Taking a carriage driving class was great fun indeed, and it bred plenty of plot bunnies for novels. It havn’t brought carriage fever down at all, though :- ) . Mr. Fenton has a new fan since yesterday, 200 years after the second edition of his book.

  3. helenajust says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post, and for all your posts in 2015. I learn so much from reading your blog, in a most enjoyable way!

  4. Will Oswald says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this. William Felton is my great-great-great-great-grandfather, and you might be interested to know that he was born in 1761 in Hampstead, and died on 2 November 1829 in Islington; his parents were John & Elizabeth Felton, although I have no more details beyond this for them. He was married to Tremain White, and had 4 children: William John Felton (the W.J. Felton you mention, who lived from 1788 to 1854; his death was registered in St George, Hanover Square and he was married to Lydia Ward in 1823; in 1844, he was still on the electoral register in the St George Hanover Square area, on Halkin St West although his family was on Barnes in the 1841 census and, by 1851, they were living in Streatham, where he was still listed as a coachmaker), Charlotte Tremaine Felton, Harriet Felton, and Henry William Felton (1798-1876), my great x3 grandfather, who moved to the Falkland Islands in 1848.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! How cool to know you are a descendant of William Felton! Thank you for sharing what you know about his descendants and their professions. It is interesting to know that coach-making continued in the family through the generations.



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