May 1911: Disused harnesses hanging up in a stable after horse buses were replaced by motor buses. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)
I had some time to kill near Liverpool Street Station in London yesterday and remembered a quest I’d started to put together earlier this year, before it was cut short by health problems. In The Age of the Horse I’ve tried to write a sweeping, single-take overview of all the ways in which horses powered Britain in the nineteenth century. While some, like this cartoonist, thought that the advent of the railways would put the horse out of work,* in fact we used more horses than ever before once the tracks were laid (and how were they laid? Using horse power). More goods and people were in circulation thanks to the steam engine, and so more horses were needed to carry them to and fro from the stations.
The railway firms owned huge numbers of horses, and of course they had to be stabled near the stations and yards in the very centre of towns. These stables were impressive but functional buildings, and many of them are still standing in London. Yesterday I visited just one of them.
These are the former stables of the Great Eastern Railway on Quaker Street. Now known as Silwex House, it was until recently packed with artists, but now they have been cleared out, and according to Spitalfields Life, a Travel Lodge will move in. I did try the chipboard panel that had been nailed over the door by developers, but couldn’t get in. Someone else had had a good go at hacking through it. I’d read that the building still contains elevators for the horses – presumably carrying them up to the level of the raised abandoned railway just behind the building, although I couldn’t see a structure linking the stables to the viaduct.
If Travel Lodge get their way, three floors will be added, along with 250 bedrooms. English Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are objecting. Over the road, I found some street art showing the artist-horses running away from the police.
And just around the corner was what looked like another stencil of a workhorse:
On my way there I walked past the Bishopsgate Institute, where, according to the invaluable Spitalfields Life, the floor of a nineteenth-century livery stables can still be found intact – plus horse pee – in the cellars. Click through for images of the buildings, past and present.
I hope to visit the other old stable buildings in the future before they vanish, and to see what ghosts are left of the horses that made the city great.
* it did indeed make the coach horse all but obsolete – you can see the coachman in his distinctive coat bemoaning his lot on the right of the picture.
Merry Christmas to you all! Here’s my If Wishes Were Horses festive quiz: count the health and safety horrors committed by “Little Miss Fearless” in this short Pathé video from
I’ve spent most of 2015 slogging away to finish book two, The Age of the Horse, which will be out at the end of August. More exciting news to follow on this severely neglected blog.
All best wishes
*Thanks to YouTube commenter Antarch for pointing this out.
The following instance of animal intelligence is sent to us by Dr. John Rae, F.R.S., who states that the Mr. William Sinclair mentioned is respectable and trustworthy. The anecdote is taken from the ‘Orkney Herald’ of May 11:—”A well-authenticated and extraordinary case of the sagacity of the Shetland pony has just come under our notice. A year or two ago Mr. William Sinclair, pupil-teacher, Holm, imported one of these little animals from Shetland on which to ride to and from school, his residence being at a considerable distance from the school buildings. Up to that time the animal had been unshod, but some time afterwards Mr. Sinclair had it shod by Mr. Pratt, the parish blacksmith. The other day Mr. Pratt, whose smithy is a long distance from Mr. Sinclair’s house, saw the pony, without halter or anything upon it, walking up to where he was working. Thinking the animal had strayed from home, he drove it off, throwing stones after the beast to make it run homewards. This had the desired effect for a short time; but Mr. Pratt had only got fairly at work once more in the smithy when the pony’s head again made its appearance at the door. On proceeding a second time outside to drive the pony away, Mr. Pratt, with a blacksmith’s instinct, took a look at the pony’s feet, when he observed that one of its shoes had been lost. Having made a shoe he put it on, and then waited to see what the animal would do. For a moment it looked at the blacksmith as if asking whether he was done, then pawed once or twice to see if the newly-shod foot was comfortable, and finally gave a pleased neigh, erected its head, and started homewards at a brisk trot. The owner was also exceedingly surprised to find the animal at home completely shod the same evening, and it was only on calling at the smithy some days afterwards that he learned the full extent of his pony’s sagacity.”
Nature, May 19, 1881, quoted in George John Romanes’ Animal Intelligence.
Manhattan’s carriage horses aren’t the only ones whose livelihood is under threat. When the ritzy Claremont Riding Academy on West 89th Street closed down in 2007, many thought that it was the last riding school on the island. Not true. The New York Riding Academy was founded by Dr George Blair in 1988, and offers free lessons to local kids every summer in Randall’s Park in Harlem. Former governor Mario Cuomo gave Blair permission to use a scrap of wasteland he’d cleared of debris, and, five years and several hundred thousand dollars of his own money later, Blair had the stable up and running. For thirty years, the kids of Harlem have been learning to ride in the park. But.
all that changed this summer when the Parks Department blocked off access to a road that the couple used to bring supplies to the stables, stopped mowing their lawn, and took about 100 feet of the grazing land, Blair said.
The Parks Department asked for permission to use a bit of their land to install a container to store rental bikes, said his wife, Ann Blair, 74.
“When they asked for a small piece of land, of course without hesitation we said, ‘Sure it’s fine,’” she said. “But then we saw a large area that we cleaned up for the horses be gone and taken with the blink of an eye.”
Dr. Blair was furious that the Parks Department would take over land used to provide free services to children in order to store bike rentals that local children can’t afford and the park profits from, he said.
More about the subsequent negotiations can be found here at DNA Info, but it doesn’t look good.
Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, London and Stepney Bank in Newcastle are two community riding programmes that have found support and continue to make a difference to local kids, although it looks like the project working with Dublin “pony kids” has evaporated (if it hasn’t, I’d love to find out more). The Emilie Faurie Foundation provides riding lessons at schools across the country. Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre is (among other things) a Riding for the Disabled facility of long standing. Horses in the Hood works with youth in South Central LA. However, lately it’s seemed that many of the campaigns to ostensibly improve the welfare of urban horses seem to involve working against their owners rather than with them.
Most of the establishments targeted recently by campaigners and city authorities happen to be those run by people who are both poor and, often, not white: some Baltimore “street arabbers” lost horses earlier this year, Fletcher Street Riding Club in Philadelphia was bulldozed, and the Cedar Lanes Stables of the Federation of Black Cowboys was shut down. The Westway stables in London are underthreat of being replaced with a skate park.
Stables are not viewed as contributions to communities, perhaps because horses are still seen as the domain of the rich and the spoiled. And my goodness, the space they take up that could be converted into nice luxury apartments… AHEM.
To me there also seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the generosity of horselovers to rescues or therapy programmes, and the cold shoulder shown to potentially life-changing urban projects for kids. We horse-crazy people know just what gifts we were lucky enough to experience in our own horsey childhoods, and yet beyond charity appeals for great organisations like Riding for the Disabled, I don’t see much fundraising to help bring that joy to children who don’t have much else.
Go to any equestrian chat forum and you’ll see one familiar refrain come up among the battles over barefoot vs. shod and feeding regimens: other people don’t understand equestrianism. Why aren’t there more horse sports on the TV like there used to be? Why don’t cyclists and motorists slow down for horses? Are people really complaining about horse manure on roads? Why do people dismiss me as a posh idiot when I say I own horses? Why don’t people understand how important the issue of horse slaughter is, or what’s happening to mustangs? Why don’t they know how great equine-assisted therapy is?
And yet in cities everywhere there are projects that have the potential not just to improve the lives of locals, but to educate the world in general about what horses are, and what they can contribute. Stables that could give homes to rescued horses (look at Zig Zag, rescued by Redwings and now at Ebony Horse Club). That provide a place of comforting routine and daily escape for children in trouble. That could help bring fresh, healthy food to “food deserts“. That could be the heart of communities.
And all of these projects need our support.
Among all the sights of the docks, the noble truck-horses are not the least striking to a stranger. They are large and powerful brutes, with such sleek and glossy coats, that they look as if brushed and put on by a valet every morning. They march with a slow and stately step, lifting their ponderous hoofs like royal Siam elephants. Thou shalt not lay stripes upon these Roman citizens; for their docility is such, they are guided without rein or lash; they go or come, halt or march on, at a whisper. So grave, dignified, gentlemanly, and courteous did these fine truck-horses look – so full of calm intelligence and sagacity, that often I endeavored to get into conversation with them, as they stood in contemplative attitudes while their loads were preparing. But all I could get from them was the mere recognition of a friendly neigh; though I would stake much upon it that, could I have spoken in their language, I would have derived from them a good deal of valuable information touching the docks, where they passed the whole of their dignified lives.
Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849
What do horses like? Horses like food and being with other horses. Stallions are no exception – in the wild they are intensely social, but due to their high value and the way we keep our breeding stock, they are often kept in isolation, which works about as well for horses as solitary confinement does for people.
A few years ago the Swiss National Stud experimented by turning their stallions out together in the non-breeding season. This video shows what happened. Horse fights are generally of the “all mouth and no trouser” variety (featuring a side of “someone hold me back, Barry, or I’ll have him”), and these studs are no exception, but they soon settle down to synchrony, and harmonious grazing. Nobody got harmed, although one pair still seem unable to “leave it out, Barry” at the end of the film. But we all know people like that, don’t we?
PS. The sychronised prancing reminds me of the illustration in the banner of this blog. I’ve seen seventeenth and eighteenth century images of haute école horses performing all sorts of moves together at liberty in their fields – perhaps these illustrations weren’t so fanciful after all. Maybe the Duke of Newcastle et al just turned ’em all out together.