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A coachman is the driver of a horse-drawn coach. In the era before automobiles, coaches were essential methods of transportation both within and between urban areas. Driving them was a special skill, and the driver of them played an important role in the society of the time. Coachmen also figure prominently in fiction and mythology prior to the 20th century. In modern times, travel by horse-drawn coach still exists, mainly as a romantic novelty.
Horse-drawn wheeled vehicles have been used around the world for thousands of years. In 15th-century Hungary, a new design made these carriages faster and relatively comfortable; these were called coaches, after the Hungarian town of Kocs. Towns such as Kocs became rest stops for those traveling long distances by coach; these stops were called stages, leading to the term stagecoach. By the 18th century, travelers around Europe could rent a public coach for short or long trips. Wealthy families who could afford to keep a private coachman on staff were sometimes referred to as carriage folk.
The coachman had a specialized skill set, not unlike the modern taxi or bus driver. He had an unusual position in society because of his important role in commerce, travel, and even mail delivery, often working directly with the rich upper classes despite coming from an impoverished, uneducated background. Some coachmen took pride in the speed of their service, and carriage racing remains a sport to this day. With the advent of trains and automobiles, the importance of the coachman began to fade. Horse-drawn coaches, now often called carriages to distinguish them from buses, are still available for rental in large cities, public parks, and Renaissance festivals.
The term coachman was mainly used in England and Europe. In America, the operator of a stagecoach was often called a stage driver. Other terms have been used in various locales around the world, such as jarvey, coachee, or simply driver. Modern coach companies use the term carriage driver, as it can refer to persons of either gender.
Ancient cultures such as the Greek and Hindu people envisioned the sun as a sort of cosmic coachman, driving a fiery chariot across the sky. Popular literature of pre-industrial Europe often depicted the coachman, sometimes as a victim of the highwaymen who targeted coaches in remote areas. In the story of Pinocchio, the coachman is a sinister figure who captures naughty boys so they can be transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. In Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, a coachman named John Netley is the sole accomplice to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. This character, who appears in other Ripper fiction, was based on an actual carriage driver who lived in Victorian England.