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.

The 2017 Horse Progress Days Begin Today!

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If you’re in Pennsylvania, stop by. I had a wonderful time there in 2014 when I was researching The Age of the Horse and marvelling at the ingenious use of horsepower and calm and beauty of the horses.

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.