Horses for courses

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.

growlerHorse 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.

582px-Sculpture_Of_'Jacob'_A_Dray_Horse-Queen_Elizabeth_Street-LondonJacob 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.

molehill_thumbEquine 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.

2 thoughts on “Horses for courses”

  1. Another objection to the use of horses, which you didn’t mention, is that horses were frequently overworked and badly treated – as the classic 1877 novel, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, so graphically described for us.
    Horses are still used for transport in many parts of the world, though. On a recent trip to Flanders, we rode on a horse-drawn tram in Antwerp (admittedly a novelty ride, not part of the public transport system) and elsewhere in that country saw horse-drawn carriages doing brisk business with tourists. The problem with dung was neatly solved by attaching a canvas container to the carriage which prevented spillage onto the road.
    In Douglas, Isle of Man, the famous horse trams still run along the seafront and we travelled on them many times. The horses are well treated: they do two trips and then return to the stable. (Take Polo mints with you if you want to make friends with the horse!)
    If horse-drawn vehicles were involved in accidents in Victorian and Edwardian times, I doubt very much whether the number and gravity of accidents were on a level with the carnage on today’s roads. No matter what mode of transport you use, there will eventually be accidents. For that matter, people injure themselves in their own homes. Accidents are therefore not a valid argument against using horses.
    I have to admit that when riding the tram in Antwerp, I was a little concerned at how frequently I heard the horses’ hooves slip. Antwerp’s streets are cobbled and the horses wore metal shoes – possibly the worst combination. On London’s tarmac roads and with shoes made of modern materials, things might be rather different. Rubberized shoes would neither slip nor damage the road surface.
    To be honest, I do not see any likelihood of horse-drawn vehicles for transport and goods delivery returning to London (or any busy modern city) in the near future because the layout of the roads and the traffic congestion makes it more or less impossible for them to operate safely and efficiently.
    However (you knew there was going to be a “however”, didn’t you?), if we were to do what Boris should have done (and I hope the next mayor will do) and pedestrianize large chunks of central London, banning motor vehicles from them, how nice it would be then to have horse-drawn cabs for tired shoppers and the infirm. They could run in special lanes as those dratted bicycles do now, to separate them from pedestrians.

    We might even empty the garbage and dead plants from the cattle troughs and restore them to their proper use. How nice that would be.


    1. When in Egypt waiting at a “cab rank” was a line of carriages for the tourists to ride in, pulled by half starved horses. I refused to give them my custom preferring a terrifying ride in a rusty Mercedes.


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