The Liverpool tradition of May Day parades began in the 1850s when drivers of working horses and their families took to the streets in holiday spirit. By the 1880s the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and various promoters of heavy horse breeds had turned the parades into not only a free show for Liverpudlians, but also a chance to reward the owners of well-kept, healthy horses and encourage higher standards both of equine welfare and breeding. Later parades flourished in many other British cities, although all but the London shows faltered and faded away after 1939. The Liverpool May Horse Parade was revived in 1985, but seems, apart from one brief flourish at the Millennium, to have fallen once more by the wayside.
In its halcyon days it must have been a wonderful sight. The horses were decked out in ribbons, braids and piles of flowers, as you can see in this brief, blurry piece of footage. The picture below shows Thomas Stopforth with one of his horses in Coronation year, and was lent by his granddaughter Julie Brown to the excellent Liverpool Retired Carters’ Association Archive here.
The carters’ archive is a superb resource which also documents the campaign for a lasting memorial to both the horses and the men who kept the city going not only in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but also through the bombings and devastation of World War Two. “Waiting”, a statue of a draft horse was unveiled on Albert Dock on May 1st 2010 on the anniversary of the old May Horse Parade.
Anthony Dent calls The Society of Horsemen “a unique institution”, a “friendly society” of grooms, drivers, ploughmen and waggoners in the east of Britain from Kent to Aberdeenshire. Their shared code and knowledge included a variety of magick, charms and recipes for assorted horse ailments, and East Anglian members took a ferocious oath not to share this know-how with “fool” nor “madman” nor “drunkard” nor “any one who would abuse his master’s horses” nor “any woman at all”. Brothers in the society were sworn to go to another’s aid “within the bounds of three miles except I can give a lawful excuse such as my wife in childbed or my mares in foaling or myself in bad health or in my master’s employment.”
For those who break their word, it ends in bloodcurdling terms:
“I to my heart wish and desire that my throat may be cut from ear to ear with a horseman’s knife and my body torn to pieces between wild horses and blown by the four winds of heaven to the utmost parts of the earth, my heart torn from my left breast and its blood wrung out and buried in the sands of the sea shore where the sea ebbs and flows thrice every 24 hours that my remembrance may be no more heard among true and faithful brethren. So help me God to keep this solom obligation.”
Quoted in The Horse Through Fifty Centuries of Civilisation by Anthony Dent.
Thank you to Slaminsky for sending me this sign which she spotted in the window of Le Grenier. The Institute of the Horse was the original name of the British Horse Society, from which the Pony Club developed as an off-shoot. I suspect that this was rather like a Les Routiers recommendation – should you be travelling across the countryside on horseback, there were good stables and fodder here. If only we still lived in this world!