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:

Horses/Carriages

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.”

 

The Flesh of Foals

When the 2013 horsemeat scandal broke I was surprised and then realised I had nothing to be surprised about. By that stage I’d been researching the history of horsemeat on and off for seven years for The Age of the Horse, and I’d noticed a pattern going back centuries both to these episodes and to public reaction to it. It’s the same in America in the nineteenth century, in France in the seventeenth century, in England in the fifteenth century… and so on.

This Pathé news reel from 1948 is almost a checklist:

  • horsemeat passed off as “blackmarket steaks” and “veal” in cheap restaurants
  • the meat men or kill buyers are unconcerned with the welfare of the horses
  • “a traffic so alien” to the locals

I think Pathé and the British public of 1948 may be protesting a wee bit too much with their “veal, the flesh of foals” and “sinister trade”: horsemeat was eaten in Britain before, during and after World War Two – it was one way to cope with rationing. Yorkshiremen were even nicknamed “kicker eaters” because of their taste for chevaline. Pathé was, however, right that a tremendous number of horses were slaughtered in the late 1940s, and that the Shire and Clydesdale would be facing extinction in a few decades.

Horses were still needed by farmers at the time because we were still dealing with fuel shortages and the era of the tractor had not yet fully begun. They were also still important to the railway system – that same year, British railways kept 9,000 working horses. However, the urban market pretty much collapsed in the late 1940s and so we had a horsemeat scandal – only this time we ate them ourselves, rather than dispatching them to Belgium on “sausage boats” as we did in the 1920s.

Fast forward five decades and we still haven’t worked out what to do with unwanted horses, and we find ourselves eating them in lasagna.

Sparky the Pit Pony’s Days in the Sun

The last working horses at a colliery in Britain retired – astonishingly – in 1999. Here’s a story from The Mirror about one of the other “last pit ponies”, Sparky:

Since his retirement in 1988, Sparky has been taking it easy at the National Coal Mining Museum and has been looked after by Wendy and her colleague Bonnie Littlewood.

“When he first came out of the mine, he had to blink his way into the light,” says Wendy. “He hadn’t seen much sun and wasn’t used to it. The change in pace also took some adjustment.”

Now, Sparky’s life consists of staying out in a field overnight and spending his morning in the stable eating oats and barley, and meeting visitors.

The oldest pony in the museum, he is something of a living legend. “He’s a real charmer,” says Wendy. “It takes a while for him to warm to someone but once he does, he’s your friend for life. He’s stubborn and knows his own mind. He’s a real Victor Meldrew. But eventually, if you’re patient, he comes round.

“And he likes women. The gentle touch is what works with him. If you shout at him you have no chance.”