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.

A Street Filled with 102 Horses


From Tom Crewe’s review of A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain in the London Review of Books:

“At 11am on 22 November 1827 Francis Place, the reformer and radical, stuck his head out of his bedroom window in Charing Cross and put down on paper the activity he could see outside:


8 – 2 stage coaches with 4 horses each

8 – 2 ditto standing at The Ship

4 – 1 ditto [standing] at the Silver Cross

2 – 1 dray delivering ale

6 – 1 wagon coming along loaded with Swedish turnips, drawn by six horses

14 – 7 hackney coaches and cabriolets…

It goes on, until he has counted 102 horses and 37 carriages in a single street. We have a semi-miraculous view of a vanished world about its business, watched without realising it, made visible just for a moment.”


Horses in the Wings


The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight


The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts


It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.

Horses in the Thames

The Thames at Lambeth, 1934. A barge is unloaded and the goods taken away by cart.

Embed from Getty Images
Horse-oil Gâteau and Pegasus Filet: a Hippophagic Banquet

Horse-oil Gâteau and Pegasus Filet: a Hippophagic Banquet


In the nineteenth century, vets, scientists, doctors, social campaigners, animal-welfare advocates and other prominent figures in Europe and America decreed that horsemeat was just the stuff for the working classes to eat. The proletariat lacked red meat, it was argued, and yet city streets were filled with horses that, once their working life came to an end, could provide nourishing food for humans instead of being turned into petfood. This would also be better for the horses, they argued, because the animals would be treated kindly and well fed if they were being considered for the table. The only obstacle was “superstition”, and this, the distinguished gentlemen believed, could be overcome if a good example was set.
And so the gentlemen threw elaborate banquets and invited journalists and still more distinguished men to attend and tuck into horseflesh. I’ve written more about the intentions and effects of these banquets in The Age of the Horse, but I wanted to share one of the menus in detail because they’re quite fascinating to take apart.
Firstly, they are classic, high-Victorian feasts, with more courses and dishes than we 21st-century folk can contemplate without rummaging through the nearest bathroom cabinet for antacids. Secondly, they are typically full of puns. As these hippophagic meals are always for male dinner guests alone, I guess the puns are at least partly a reflection of somewhat schoolboyish amusements in gentlemen’s clubs. They mock the modish obsession with French restaurants and also make it clear that they are all sophisticated enough to translate and enjoy the in-jokes. I’d guess also that the puns are meant to defray the anxiety involved in eating horseflesh. There’s something of the ogre’s feast to it as a result.
This meal, cooked at the Langham Hotel in London for 160 guests in February 1868, was prepared by the chef of Emile Decroix, a military veterinary surgeon who became one of France’s pioneering hippophagists. There is an obsessive – or is it hysterical – quality to the exhaustiveness of the menu. A cake made with horse oil instead of butter? Lobster dressed with horse? Hoof jelly? Could they really have thought that ordinary working people on little money and with little time or facilities for cooking would have gotten excited at the thought of all this fancy French stuff?

Horses eaten: three geldings (age 4, 20 and 22), two of them cart horses, one a carriage horse who’d drawn a brougham (a rather trendy and racy mode of transport) – a lot of horse but perhaps not when you’ve invited 160 guests.


Potages (soups)

Consommé de cheval (clear horse broth)
Purée de destrier (puréed warhorse soup)
Served with Amontillado

Poissons (fish)

Saumon à la sauce arabe (salmon in Arab sauce)
Filets de soles à l’huile hippophagique (soles served in horse oil)
Served with vin du Rhin


Terrines de foie maigre chevaline (potted horse liver with “the strong and unmistakable flavour of horse sweat”, according to The Field. Am guessing the fact that the horse liver is “maigre” or “lean” is a joke on the foie gras or “fat” liver of the goose)
Saucisson de cheval aux pistaches syriaques (dry horse sausage with Syrian pistachios)
Served with Xérès


Filet de Pégase rôti aux pommes de terre à la crême (roast Pegasus filet with potatoes in cream)
Dinde aux châtaignes (turkey with chestnuts, which have the same horsey double meaning in French as both a coat colour and those little vestigial nubs on the inside of horses’ legs)
Aloyau de cheval farci à la centaure et aux choux de Bruxelles (horse sirloin stuffed “centaur style” and served with brussels sprouts)
Culotte de cheval braisée aux Chevaux de Frise (horse rump – although this is a pun, as “culotte de cheval” means “riding breeches” – braised over a “Friesian horse” – another pun referring to a spiky medieval defence used against cavalry. Dutch or Friesian horses were thought slow, hence the stationary “Friesian horses” as a defence. What it means here I’m not sure – braised on a spit of some kind?)
Served with dry champagne


Petits pâtés à la moëlle-Bucéphale (shortcrust pastry topped with marrowbone and hardboiled eggs, “Bucephalus style”)
Kromeskys à la gladiateur (minced horsemeat rolled in bacon and fried. The French racehorse Gladiateur won the English triple crown in 1865)
Poulets garnis à l’hippogriffe (I’ve searched for this but can only come up with a notion of some kind of seasoned or spiced chicken “hippogriff style”)
Langues de cheval à la troyenne (Trojan horse tongues)
Served with Château peurayne


Rôts (roasts)

Wild ducks
Lobster mayonnaise with Rosinante oil (probably not actually made out of Don Quixote’s old nag)
Peas à la Française, cauliflowers in parmesan
Served with Volney

Entremets (desserts, in English)

Gelée de pieds de cheval au marasquin (horse hoof jelly with cherry liqueur)
Zéphirs sautés à l’huile chevaleresque (I believe these are “Zefirs“, which seem to be somewhere between a marshmallow and a meringue. Tossed in horse oil?)
Gâteaux vétérinaire à la Decroix (cake made with horse oil instead of butter; named for Decroix himself)
Feuillantines aux pommes des Hespérides (tarts with apples from the Hesperides, nymphs of Greek mythology who tended the goddess Hera’s golden orchard)
Served with Saint-Peray

Glaces (ices)

Crême aux truffes (truffle cream)
Sorbets contre-préjugés (sorbets against prejudice)
Served with liqueurs


Marmalade au kirsch
Gâteau d’Italie au fromage Chester, etc.
Served with fine Bordeaux wines, Madeira and coffee

Buffet (in case you were still hungry)

Collared horse-head (another pun, I believe. I think to “collar” a piece of meat meant to pot it, although the pun on “horse collar” was doubtless relished)
Baron of horse (sirloin and legs. Carried in by four men and accompanied by “Roast Beef of England”. It weighed 280lbs)
Boiled withers (definitely not hungry now)



The Horse Ghosts of East London

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.