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.