Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The Miscalled "Horse" Market

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Up to a very recent period it was my settled opinion that the individual taken in over the purchase of a horse was, of all victims to barter and bargaining, least to be pitied.
    Again and still again, for the hundredth time, do such cases figure in the newspapers police reports, showing how that "in answer to an advertisement" or "in consequence of the representations of the prisoner, of whom he had no previous knowledge," the credulous prosecutor was induced to part with his money, receiving as its equivalent what to all appearance is a sound, serviceable quadruped, perfect in wind and limb, but which, soon as the vamping has worn off, appears a wretched imposition wrapped in horse hide: spavined, ring-boned, and a roarer, and afflicted with aches and incurable afflictions, numerous almost as the matchless qualities it was warranted the possessor of. Nevertheless, rascally as may be the Jeremy Diddler who swindles the poor man, the behaviour of the latter through the transaction of which he complains is so inconceivably stupid - (it is marvellous what an assistance towards detecting the short-sightedness of others is the spectacles of fact revealed astride our own acute organ of scent!) - as almost to provoke one to exclaim, "Serve him right." Serve him right, in the first place, for being so weak as to swallow the horse-coper's flimsy "reasons" for disposing of the animal at such a [-281-] ridiculously low price and in the second, for affecting a hole-and-corner method of dealing in the affair without the least excuse. Supposing that he wanted to buy a bullock instead of a horse, would he go hunting about in obscure places for one? would he listen to the rigmarole of a drover as to a bullock "he knowed the property of a grazier, who had no further use for it," or of a cattle dealer recently married and about to discontinue the keeping of it, his wife having objections? Not he. He would go straight to the public market where all is open and above board, and he would select from a thousand in broad daylight, and bid and pay his money in confidence and security. And why not adopt the same plain plan as regards a horse? Is there not a public horse market as old established and well-known as the market for sheep and horned cattle - subject, indeed, to similar regulations, tolled by the same toll-takers, officered by the same officers, who are constantly on the alert (assisted by the officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to see that order and decorum are preserved, and that unsound and diseased horses are not smuggled in for sale?
    Until recently such was my belief; and had I grown rich enough to buy a horse at the market in Copenhagen Fields, thither I should have gone straight. Such, however, is my belief no longer. I have been to see, and I have no hesitation in declaring that a horse market that is, a market where sound and capable horses of every degree are brought together for sale, as sheep and cattle are - has no existence. It is altogether a mistake to suppose that a man may go to the market at Islington on a Friday, which is called market day, and so that he has money enough in his pocket experience no more difficulty in the buying of a good horse than he would in the purchase of a heifer for killing. In a public horse mart it would not be astonishing to find rough customers as well as polite, just as there must of necessity be low as well as high-bred brutes on sale. [-282-] It would be manifestly wrong to debar the hawker of turnip-tops and carrots from the privilege of buying or selling a quadruped, but why the costermongerly element should prevail to the total exclusion of every other is a mystery altogether incomprehensible to an ordinary mind. Old Smithfield had a bad name. When people talked about its reform - about mitigating the ruffianism, rampant there twice a week - other people replied, "It is of no use laying clean straw in a filthy sty. Smithfield is Smithfield, and never can be made better. Stay until we are enabled to erect a genteel market in the suburbs - everything handsome and spick and span, commodious enough to make. jostling, let alone crushing and higgledy-piggledy uproar, inexcusable, well lit with gas, and with experienced officers in livery to enforce order and regularity. Then you shall see a difference."
    And there are folks - folks high in office at corporation councils, and who really should know what they are talking about - declaring that there is a difference. You may read their speeches on the subject, and gather from them that they regard the new market as a triumph and as a success beyond their fondest anticipations. According to recent testimony certain police magistrates share this opinion, and endeavour, by their tender dealings with hasty-handed drovers who happen in the heat of business to break a sheep's leg or gouge a refractory cow's eye out, to let meddling officials understand that the present condition of the market is all that can be desired, and that it would be better to wink at such trifling errors of judgment than drag them before a public tribunal.
    This much, at least, may be said, that if the condition of Old Smithfield was worse than that of the present market - (I am speaking of the character of its Friday market) - it is a wonder that the citizens did not combine and drive the abomination from their midst years and years before they did so. As before observed, it is not a horse market in the broad and proper sense [-283-] of the term at all. Creatures of the genus equus figure in it, it is true, but only of such sorts as are to be seen in the shafts of the vehicle that contains the stock of the small coal man, or of the night cab, or the harrows and "shallows" and "half-carts" of hawkers of fish and green stuff. That nobody expects to find in the market animals superior to these is sufficiently proved by the fact that nobody but costermongers and other gentry of the hairy cap and belcher neckerchief school finds attraction there.
    Such a melancholy show do they - the ponies and horses - make, poor creatures, that it is satisfactory to observe such a scant gathering of them. It may arise from my partiality for the animal in question, but to my mind there is something peculiarly distressing in the fact of an old horse tied up for sale. Tethered to the boundary bar of the alley, he hangs his head till his ancient rounded nose touches it; and you may easily enough fancy his thick-lipped, bit-fretted mouth puckered, and his eyes half closed in dismal cogitation. A penny for his thoughts, poor old fellow, would be a good investment. Is it the first time he has been here? It is doubtful. His back is saddle-galled, and it is plain where the ill-fitting collar has wrung his shoulder, in spite of the cunning brown ointment with which the wound is plastered. His legs are thick and clumsy at the hocks, he is pot-bellied, and worn out, worn out, is uttered from those cavernous jaws and hollow flanks. His mane is as thin and as painfully sleeked and plaited as that of a vain old woman, and it is a mercy that the respectable creature cannot see its tail, with its few remaining hairs ridiculously eked out with straw, so that the bald stump may not stare an intending customer out of countenance. "Woa, Merzepper!" exclaims a ruffian, fetching the old horse a clout with his whip-stock. " I should ha' thought as how you'd ha' married a poleaxe afore this, Merzepper. Who brought him to the market this time, Jack ?"
    "Blest if I think that anybody brought him," replies Jack. [-284-] "He comes here so reg'lar that if he found his stable-door open of a Friday, it's just as likely as not that he'd find his way here of hisself."
    And that Mazeppa might not lose his share of the joke, Jack made a scientific cut at the old horse's flanks with his stinging whipthong, causing it to rouse suddenly out of its reverie with a clatter of its feet upon the stones. " Woa, blood!" laughs Jack, and passes on with his friend.
    A little farther along was another animal of a totally different kind from the last-mentioned. The remnant of a high-bred creature this, with a small beach and a nose so accurately set in a long and direct line of good breeding that Time itself cannot bow it. But it is deaf, as its still earsindicate, and its nearly closed eyelashes reveal two dull white lines. But the sense of smell remains constant to the veteran, and its red nostrils quiver as expressively almost as a plebeian horse's hiving optics. But it is old, wofully old. A well-bred horse makes the most unfortunate of old horses, for his hide will bear as much "doing up" and polishing and dressing as a poor old lady's satin gown, and until its fiery blood chills in death, a goad or the lash of a whip will rouse it instantly. This is the sort of horse that is always "as good as coin," as Jack's friend expresses it, as he pauses before it, and as I was glad to see, doing homage to a more respectable animal than himself by abstaining from giving it a cut. "What'll it fetch ?" asked Jack's friend. "Under the 'ammer " replied Jack, showing by a ticket tied to the high-rnettled one's tail that it was to be disposed of at auction. "Why, under the 'ammer it'll fetch three quid (sovereigns)." "What's it good for ?" "Well, it ain't the season, else I know what it 'ud do clipping for it 'ud do for 'Ampstead 'Eath. He'd be as good as half a quid a day to a cove to let at a bob a our." Thank thy lucky stars, O "Lot 17-a brown gelding, faulty", that it is not the 'Ampstead 'Eath season, and that no uglier a customer than a man with a [-285-] badge and a caped coat cries "Three-pun'-five" just before the auctioneer's hammer falls.
    For be it known, the horses, and donkeys, and carts, and barrows are sold by auction as well as by private treaty, in the new market. The auctioneer's rostrum is a convenient canopied affair, with room within for the man of the hammer and his clerk. He is not a stuck-up, stiff-starched auctioneer, like many of his brethren, but is on familiar terms with the sinister brood that surrounds his pulpit, and he addresses as " Bill," the strong young man that runs, or rather drags, the poor unwilling brutes up and down that they may show their paces. "What twenty-seven and six for a strong and useful horse! run him up again, Bill." "It's only got three legs, mister," exclaims one of his audience. "Quite enough, too, if he can run like that on 'em, Charley; put it at three, and give ten shillings a leg for him. Going for twenty-seven six! Why, it isn't twopence a pound! Going for twenty-seven six! Just the horse for a little greengrocer, and twenty-seven six only! Thirty shillings! going for thirty shillings, for the last time!" After this I saw four other horses sold, and the highest price realised was four pounds fifteen, from which fact the reader may derive some sort of idea as to the quality of the steeds submitted for sale at the London horse market.
    It is a marvel that the owners of the wretched animals find it worth while to bring them there and pay market dues for their disposal - especially as, according to the beautifully bemuddled regulations, there is not the least occasion for their doing so - as, indeed, a considerable number of costermongers and barrow-men have been shrewd enough to discover. The broad road and pavement that surround the vast market place are to all intents and purposes as eligible ground for bargain-driving as within the gates, and there is nothing to pay for the privilege. There you may see them in long strings: horses, and donkeys, and ponies, and mules, with their heads and [-286-] shoulders projecting over the public footpath, which is further impeded by the proprietors of the mangy row, each raising his ungentle voice in the praise of his own goods amid in depreciation of his neighbours', which, together with the slashing of whips and the trampling of great boots out of the kennel on to the path - the roaring rage of unsuccessful negotiators, and the malicious laughter at and mockery of the rage - the yelling and shouting and mad "hi-hi-ing" of the rabble in the road by way of "encouragement" towards any unlucky quadruped who is being run up and down in behalf of a may-be purchaser, all conduce to make the outside of the market much more lively and business-like than the inside.
    But since the public take so unkindly to the horse market, it is a wonder that the authorities do not close it; they must be money out of pocket.
    Quite so, gentle reader but you do the corporation of the city of London less than justice if you suppose that they are so blind to their pecuniary interest as to let so much as a penny rust for want of turning. It is not the horse that pays ; it is the rag business, and the old iron business, that bring in the money. It is not a horse market that is held every Friday at Copenhagen Fields; it is but a "marine store market," and it would be only fitting if on that day the emblematic heads of bulls and calves were taken down from the gate, an d black dolls hung in their place. Petticoat Lane, Rag Fair, the New Cut, and Great St. Andrew Street, are invited to bring their various wares, and they accept the invitation. Whether more questionable characters find encouragement, and are granted space on payment, I would not like to venture to say, Anyhow, there were two of the gentry known to policemen as "duffers," each mounted on a stand, and plying his trade of humbugging the shillings out of the pockets of the milksops about him by sleight-of-hand trickery, in the open market, and in full view of the market officials, who took not the slightest notice.
    [-287-] It is hard to say what may not be bought at this vast ragshop, facetiously called a horse market. Old harness, and stable utensils of every sort, with old wheels, and springs, and axletrees, and lengths of chain, and bars and bolts, one might expect to find but beside these one may buy a blanket, or a bedquilt, or a bar of fancy soap, or a cock linnet, or a tinker's barrow (there were two of these), or a pair of second-hand boots or shoes, or a bed-wrench, or a pair of trousers, or "six white mice in a cage for a tanner!" or an entire suit of left-off volunteer uniform, or a goat, or a bulldog, or an accordion. If one's wants were of so extraordinary a nature as to lead to an inquiry after an admiral's cocked hat, here it may be found, or a second suit of livery, or a cowl for a chimney-pot, or a dozen of staylaces, or a smutty pot or kettle.