With Boris cabs are now becoming Public Enemy Number One and with ever more traffic flow restrictions, and councils trying to turn London’s roads back to Victorian times, an average speed of 8 mph is now still no higher than they were a century ago when we used Shank’s Pony. Nevertheless it is a mistake to imagine that London’s streets would have been more pleasant with four legged horsepower.
[B]y the end of the 19th century 300,000 horses were working in the capital, each producing four tons of dung a year, amounting to a total of one million tons a year which was good for roses, typhoid and dysentery, but little else. Horses were also involved in an average of 175 fatal accidents a year in addition to the deaths caused by transmitted diseases from the dung.
Horse power lasted well into the last century: Old Kent Road’s horse-drawn tram was taken out of service in 1913; incredibly by 1935 five per cent of transport some 20,000 horse-drawn carts were still to be seen in the capital; as nowadays cabbies were reluctant to any change, the last horse drawn cab, a Growler, this plied the Victoria Station rank only retired on 3rd April 1947.
Camden Market, now a shopper’s paradise for the weird and wonderful was once a horse hospital for the 1,300 horses employed in the environs of King’s Cross, treating among other injuries those caused by animals slipping on wet cobblestones.
London’s equine past is commemorated in several street names. Horseferry Road led to one of the few crossings across the Thames, this one from the 16th century was used until 1750 and owned by the Bishops of Lambeth.
Jacob the Circle Dray Horse, Queen Elizabeth Street: The famous courage dray horses were stabled on this site from the early nineteenth century and delivered beer around London, from the brewery on Horselydown Lane near Tower Bridge. In the sixteenth century this area was known as Horselydown which derives its name from Horse-Lie-Down, a thing that horses did here before crossing the river at London Bridge to enter the City of London.
Equine statutes litter London’s landscape, but one in St. James’s Square illustrates just how dangerous riding horses can be: this statute of King William III was erected in 1806 and there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow. William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic: King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”. The mole that killed a king. The saying “Dutch Courage” also comes from William III’s reign.