London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

London: Horses, Survivors and Architecture

W G Gordon’s The Horse World of London is a remarkable book. Published in 1893, it’s an attempt to document not just the numbers and logistics of the army of horse power that kept the capital city functioning, but also to give a reporter’s eye view of the stables, horses and people involved, from the names of the horses in different jobs to the doses of whisky given out to those horses. It has an immediacy that’s kept me returning to it as a source.

Today I undertook a fan’s pilgrimage to a stable that features heavily in the chapter on carriers’ horses. I’ve used material about this stable in, I think, both If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse. Miraculously, it still stands between South Wharf Road and Winsland Street, right next to Paddington station. Built in 1873, it once housed 600 horses for the Great Western Railways, from vanners to shunters. It is now the Mint Wing of St Mary’s hospital, rather shabby but grade II listed.

My guess is that those two expanses of concrete fill in large doors that once let carts in and out. The building was refurbished extensively in the 1920s. The horses lived on multiple floors when it was still a stable. Here are some more stable-y windows on the South Wharf Road:

According to Gordon, there were four floors of horses originally, plus an additional stable near the goods station for 140 horses and a further infirmary for the sick. The stables were high tech for the time, with electrical lighting and good ventilation. An old army man was in charge when Gordon visited in the 1890s, and the horses were filed by colour. The walls inside were white, with varnished pine ceilings and blue brick ramps kept immaculately clear of kit or obstacles. The partitions between the horses were hung from the ceiling, with quick release should a horse kick and get a leg stuck.

Veteran horses were semi-retired but still used as extra muscle for particular loads (given that the horses in the stable generally only had a full-time workspan of five years, this wasn’t too bad a fate). The first horses went out at 2am.

Inside the yard, it’s oddly maze-like, with three smaller crooks of space. You can still see the ramps the horses used and, at the top, the old open walkways where horses were groomed have been glassed in.

The building is clearly still in heavy use but needs a makeover – hopefully its listing will mean it’s preserved as a rare piece of industrial heritage. Maybe one day we will have horse museums in places like this and not just in palaces like Chantilly and Versailles.

A short walk away, heading for Hyde Park, I saw a sign warning that horses used the nearby streets. We were yards away from the old Hyde Park Stables – a pony club centre and riding school in what must be one of the last mews used for its original purpose in London. I’d read that the stable had shut down a few months ago, but there was fresh horse poop on the road. So I went to look and got confused. It looks as though the Ross Nye stables closed but the Hyde Park stables are still open, although they seem to be on pretty much the same premises. Anyhoo, here’s a short of Bathurst Mews, complete with horses:

I rounded off my horsey day in London by nearly being run over by this fine pair of police horses, who appeared from nowhere on the Southbank as I was resting on a bench:

London is still a little bit horse powered after all.

Strange Scene – Funeral of a Horse

Screengrab via British Newspaper Archives.

Screengrab via British Newspaper Archives.

STRANGE SCENE – FUNERAL OF A HORSE
(Subject of illustration)
One of the most singular funerals took place a few days ago at Maryland. A wealthy merchant at his death, in addition to many munificent bequests and legacies, left a certain sum for the maintenance of his favourite horse – a fine old hunter – and at the death of his favourite the horse was to be buried with all the formality and pomp bestowed upon a Christian. A coffin was made of a peculiar construction, and in this the body of the dead horse was placed. The coffin was placed in a hearse, in which it was conveyed to its last resting-place, accompanied by bearers, mourners, porters, and a heterogeneous throng of followers.

Illustrated Police News, Saturday 24 March 1877, via British Newspapers Archive.

War Horses Week: Torpedoed in Transit

The steamer appeared to be close to us and looked colossal. I saw the captain walking on his bridge… I saw the crew cleaning the deck forward, and I saw, with surprise and a slight shudder, long rows of wooden partitions right along all the decks, from which gleamed the shining black and brown backs of horses.

“Oh, heavens, horses! What a pity, those lovely beasts! But it cannot be helped,” I went on thinking. “War is war, and every horse the fewer on the Western front is a reduction of England’s fighting power.”

U-boat commander Adolf von Spiegel relates an attack on a British steamer transporting horses. The rest can be found here, courtsey of the Independent’s A History of the First World War in 100 Moments series.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 8) terracotta horses, photographed by author at National Museum of China, Beijing, by author.

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 8) terracotta horses, photographed by author at National Museum of China, Beijing.

  • What the what? No, this is not breaking news, but something I discovered today. Lambourn will have the UK’s first “horse monorail” courtesy of Turkish industrialist and racehorse owner, Mehmet Kurt. As far as I can tell it’s a horsewalker from Tron (have a look at the photo here); apparently the “Kurtsystem” will be great for rehabilitating horses. You learn something new every day. (Newbury Today)
  • The NYT reports on the presentation by Turkmenistan of an Akhal Teke stallion to President Xi Jinping of China. There’s a little on the story of this “heavenly horse” in Chinese history and its current return. I was surprised to read that Genghis Khan rode one – curious to see what the Mongolians would make of that. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, someone’s riding lesson went very wrong when a saddled and bridled horse ended up galloping riderless around Beijing’s fifth ring road, chased by a dog. (Shanghaist)
  • Jalopnik on how Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome gets about now that he’s a champ. (Jalopnik)

Working Horse Welfare, Nineteenth-Century Style

Dandy cart at National Railway Museum, York. By Rosemary Forrest.

Dandy cart at National Railway Museum, York. By Rosemary Forrest.

While I’m housebound working on book two, Mum is filling in as our roving reporter on horse history. Here’s a “Dandy Cart”, snapped at the National Railway Museum in York. Working-horse history is intertwined with the history of the railways, so it’s no surprise to see a horse or two in this museum. According to the caption, it wasn’t just steam-engines that used railways. Sometimes genuine horse power was used for haulage. Of course, when the wagons were coasting downhill, there wasn’t much for the horse to do, hence the dandy cart. The horse would be loaded up for an easy ride down the slope, and recoupled to the freight wagon at the bottom.