Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Our Poor Old Horses

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AT the time when the ancient market of Smithfield, with all its attendant abominations was abolished, the Corporation of London, as everybody is aware, expended a vast sum of money in establishing a handsome and commodious substitute at Islington. The new market was as comprehensive in all its parts as the old, and was carried out with every improvement that modern experience and enlightenment could suggest. There was ample accommodation for the penning of oxen and sheep, calves and pigs, with plenty of intermediate space for buyers and sellers. Particular attention was given to the horse market portion. It was notorious that in this last-mentioned respect filthy old "Smiffle" was a disgrace to everyone connected with its management. Its weekly hap-[-131-]pening served as an excuse for the assembling of scores of boisterous ruffians and so-called horsedealers, who, for several hours on market days, made the heart of the City hideous with their unruly uproar, their business being to palm on foolish persons as sound and capable cattle, the halt, the lame, and the blind of equine kind, so cunningly doctored and vamped and veneered that, for the time being, they were made to appear almost what they were represented to be. The character of the place was so bad, however, that it was only the Simple Simon family that visited Smithfield with the belief that they could there purchase a horse serviceable for riding or driving. It was well enough for costermongers and their class, who knew exactly the quality of goods they were buying, and paid for them accordingly, but respectable folk and those possessed of common-sense to guide them kept aloof.
    In a vast city like London, where so many thousands of horses are employed, this was a state of affairs little less than scandalous, and the popular hope was that, with the opening of the new market, the much-required reform would show as a conspicuous feature. There was really no reason why, under proper management, the market at Copenhagen Fields should not become the great Horse Exchange of the metropolis, where, just as first, second, third, and "inferior" qualities of oxen, sheep, and calves may be brought to meet the requirements of the various grades of customers, a gentleman might also provide himself with a pair of barouche horses or a park hack, while the humble crockery hawker or the retailer of vegetables with equal facility could be accommodated with an animal suitable to his means.
    As already remarked, there appeared no good reason why this happy state of things should not be brought about, but somehow or other it has not. It would not be fair to say that the market authorities are to blame. Careful provision is made for the convenient carrying on of the horned cattle trade, and there can be no doubt they would willingly have done even more than they have, had the general public evinced a disposition to avail themselves of the opportunity offered. But the general public are proverbially coy and unaccountable, and never to be relied onto see that their interests are identical with those of the promoters of social reform. From the first the new Horse Market was shyly regarded by those it was hoped would be its most substantial patrons, and the result is what anyone curious in the matter may see for himself in a single visit to Islington any Friday afternoon. With rare exceptions the spectacle then and there presented is scarcely one that recommends itself to a person suffering from depression of spirits and requiring cheerful change. And this remark applies not only to the space set apart for the barter of animals of draught and burden, but to another considerable portion that on the day mentioned plays a fitting accompaniment. The sculptured heads of bulls which adorn the massive piers of buttresses seem to lower more scowlingly on the observer on Friday than on any other day, and one might even imagine that the medallioned visages of the pigs wear a shamefaced expression that is not characteristic of their unfastidious nature. How such an eminently [-132-] shabby state of affairs began and gradually slid into common practice, is problematical. It is Petticoat Lane, the New Cut, Rag Fair, and Seven Dials all rolled into one, and spread out again over a whole division of the market space.
    It is a great rag, bone, bottle, old boot and shoe bazaar, with which are combined the businesses of the second-hand clothes dealer, the back-street furniture broker, the speculator in condemned army and navy stores, the cheap Jack, the dealer in "live stock," including poultry of all kinds, rabbits, rats, ferrets, and song-birds. Besides these are to be seen quack medicine vendors, dealers in secondhand tools, and singers and sellers of comic songs, together with purveyors of all manner of light refreshments-of hot baked potatoes and fried fish and pea soup at a "ha'penny the basinful." A medley market, if ever there was one, and when its motley multitude grows tired of exploring the "fair" they sally out of the covered avenues into the open, if the weather be favorable, and finish up the afternoon's delights in the horse-market, which is of course free to all comers, and where more solid enjoyment may be derived by those who are that way inclined than at an equestrian circus, where there is as much perhaps as six- pence to pay. At the latter there is riding arid clowning that may amuse the children, but for real whipping and slashing, prancing, plunging, and kicking up behind and before, the circus is not a patch, on what is here to be seen. Nor do the chief performers acquit themselves with less spirit and energy because they are volunteers in the service. Shorn of much of its ugliness, one feature of barbarous old Smithfield clings to its successor, and that is the unsolicited attendance of scores of men and lads who, judging from their mud-splashed and dilapidated appearance, have travelled miles that they may participate in the fun of driving the poor harassed horses, ponies, and donkeys well-nigh frantic with their howling and yelling, with the slashing of whips and the rattling of whip-stocks drumwise on the crowns and in the interiors of hard felt hats as the frightened creatures are run to and fro in the narrow avenues to show their paces. They take an undisguised and malicious delight in assailing the poor brutes. Yet there is but little in the aspect or the behaviour of the majority of the unfortunate quadrupeds to create anything but commiseration for them.
    Assuming, as is sometimes claimed for it, that the horse is endowed with as much sagacity and brain power as the dog, and with a memory for the past, it is not difficult to imagine how miserably conscious many of the wretched animals must be, having arrived at their present deplorable plight. There are some, perhaps, who do not mind it so very much - stolid and jolter-headed creatures, sluggish in breed and blood, and with never a thought beyond their nose bag. Plenty of this sort are here to-day, tethered to the rail and with their wisps of tails festooned with a knot of straw. Undisturbed by all the riot around them, they hang their heads and doze as unconcernedly as though in the stable. There are others who show themselves much more sensitive to the decrees of cruel fate.
    One in particular looked as much out of keeping with the quadruped [-133-] company present as an aged aristocrat of the bluest blood in the old men's common ward of a workhouse. Not but that it was as poor in estate as any of them; poorer in one essential respect, inasmuch as it was stone blind. Its flanks were ominously hollow; its ribs a bony row along which a stick might have been rattled as boys rattle a hoop-stick along area railings; its knees reminded one of an old boot, they had been so repeatedly broken and patched and broken and patched again; but, for all its age and its infirmities, it did not hang its head as the dull old carthorses did. It kept its blind head erect, and its small, thin ears were never for an instant still. There was an air of high gentility even in the way it carried its tail-which, like its mane, was but a threadbare remnant of what it had once been-and its hide, despite the bald patches and the unmistakable evidence in a dozen places of the handiwork of the "horse faker," still retained sufficient of its original fineness and gloss to denote the good society the creature had once moved in. At the present time its owner was an unwashed tipsy vagabond, with a black eye and a bristly beard, who carried in his hand the half of a waggoner's whip.
    "Buy him?" he exclaimed to a bystander, who was regarding the respectable old animal with the eye of a probable customer.
    "He's pretty well used up, ain't he?" replied the man addressed.
    "Used up! Bly me, no. He's one of the sort wot's never used up, bly me if he ain't." (He appeared to use the words "Bly me" in the nature of an appeal to his "word of honour.") "Look at his knees! Hah ; well, look at them. Look at his ribs, cracking through his skin, if you like. Bly me if I care what you look at. It ain't what you can look at, it's what you can't wot's the best part of him. It's his 'art. You Can't fake a horse's 'art, don't you know. It don't want no faking, cos it never grows old. Not if he's a reg'lar high-bred 'un. How old is he? Bly me if I know - call him as old as Methusalem if you like; wot odds, when you can strike fire out him as easy as a flint and steel? Woa, blood! Look here!" and the ruffian brought down the heavy old whip-stock he carried with such a stinging cut on the old hunter [-134-] that it sprang aside as a colt might, and with quivering nostrils tugged at the halter.
    "Woa, blood!" and the cruel whipstock descended again and again. "There's a sperritt for you. It's all his art, which is as sound as a apple if you could see it, I'll lay a wager. Why, that art of hissen would give him strength to draw a coal wagon, bly me if it wouldn't. Run him up and down, Charley." Charley was a companion of the tipsy brute - a lanky youth, with a hairy cap and hay-band gaiters - and he obeyed with alacrity. For fully five minutes the brave old horse had a bad time of it. As soon as the horse-whippers and those who drummed on their hats discovered the sort of stuff he was of, they warmed to their diabolical work with a will, and kicking and rearing, the poor old wreck of a high-mettled racer rattled over the cobble stones, striking fire out them, and lunging out now and again as though hoping to be revenged on one of the yelping pack behind him. "Now, what do you think of him ?" remarked the ruffianly horsedealer, when the goaded and terrified creature was brought to a standstill. "Isn't he the right sort? He maybe a old 'un, but he's a genelman, that's wot he is, and he'll never give in till he drops dead a tryin'. Price of him? A pound a leg, and not a farden less. I don't care what work it is you want to put him to - nothing ain't too hot nor too heavy for a horse that is what I call a genelman."
    "Oh, it's not hard work I want a horse for," replied the other; "it is only to turn a sausage-machine down in our cellar."
    There was a tremendous guffaw at the gallant old steed's expense at this.
    "Why," exclaimed the ruffian with the black eye, "he's just your mark, as though he was made to order for you. All you've got to do is to keep him at the machine till he drops down dead, and then shove him in and make sossidges of him."
    And I regret to say that such was to be, seemingly, the respectable animal's doom - not at a "pound a leg" but for twenty-shillings less. One reads in novels of human slaves bought just in nick of time out of the hands of brutal taskmasters and set free. It would have been an equally generous act to have paid down the three paltry sovereigns, and so bought the precious privilege of mercifully putting an end to the old horse's existence.
    As it was being led away, one of the volunteer horse-whippers could not resist the temptation to give it a parting cut.
    "I've knowed the time," said he, "when I'd a give a liver for him; he's like a jint of fust-class meat, a 'orse like that - he's good picking to his wery bones."
    He looked towards me as he spoke, and walked away; but feeling curious to learn the use to which the individual in question would have put the much-to-be-pitied old quadruped, I sauntered by his side and put the question to him. He replied, scowlingly, and after a glance at me, that if I didn't ask no questions I shouldn't hear no lies. And, further, that it was a pity I couldn't find anything better to do than come there, poking and prying into other people's business. To this I retorted courteously - feeling a sudden interest in the uncivil rascal, and wishing for a little [-135-] conversation with him - that I had something better to do, and that was to step into the nearest tavern and refresh myself with a glass of ale, and that I should feel it a pleasure if he would drink with me. The proposition was too much even for his instinctive animosity, and growling a sort of apology, he accepted it.
    "You'll excuse me," said he, "answering' you so crusty as I did when you first spoke to me. I thought you was a 'pocta.'"
    I did not clearly catch this last word, but thought it was "doctor."
    "And what is your objection to doctors?" I asked him.
    "I didn't say doctor, I said 'pocta,' " he replied ; "prewenshun of cruelty to animals, don't you see - the first letters of the words of it. It don't make such a mouthful of it. Do I think the society is a good thing for horses? Well, not in particular. It tells both ways on 'em. It puts a stopper on out-and-out cruelty, but their interfering sometimes leads to the animals getting it hotter than they would otherwise. I'm speaking of cab horses which the 'pocta' is most down on. I ought to know. I had years enough at it, both two-wheel and four, and night as well as day. What I mean is in this way. Say you're drivin' an old crock what's old and artful, and dont mind the whip no more'n beating a carpet. He'll go well enough when he's warm, but the joke is to warm him. It sets a fare against you if you keep 'ammer 'ammer at him all the way along, but you can't help yourself."
    "But what has the society to do with that ? " I asked. " It was just the same before its existence, wasn't it ?"
    "Not ezactly," grinned the dreadful old ex-cabman turned horse-whipper. "Before the 'poctas' come about no notice was took if a cab horse had a 'raw' -a raw place, I mean. It needn't be bigger than the top of your thumb, and it did not matter where it was, so that you could make a mark of it with your whipcord. It didn't matter if he was as tough everywheres else as a ri-nosserus so you kep' his raw from healin'. Just flick him on it sharp, and he was bound to pay out to the last ha'porth of all the go he'd got in him. Well, it was a good thing for all parties, don't you see. A man didn't have to go on wallop, wallop, and so put his fare out o' temper, and be money out o' pocket come the end of the journey; and the horse got it only once, short and sharp, one dose being generally enough for him, 'stead of miles of it milder and in contineration. What kind of horses do I think are hardest used ? Why, cab horses. There's no doubt about that. The poor and rickety sort I mean, of course, and there's more of them than the other. Talk about shelters for cabmen! shelters for cab horses is what is wanted. The cab stand is the wust thing that was ever invented for horses of the weak sort, specially in winter time. A animal is drove sharp for five or six miles, [-136-] say, and till he's in a muck of sweat, and then he's put on the rank, which is most likely in the middle of four cross roads, where he's sure to get the full benefit of whatever wind is blowing; and there he stands with the sweat chilling on him, getting cold and rheumatism just like a man does. Do horses have rheumatism? No doubt about it. I've slep' over 'em - in the loft over their stable I mean, and been kept awake with their groaning cos of the pain in their bones. But that's been when they're very old, and almost used up."
    "And it of course is worse for a weak horse, if its driver is a man fond of the public-house," I remarked; "he would be likely to forget all about his horse shivering on the stand while he is warm and comfortable in a taproom."
    "Well, that's true from one p'int of view," returned the disreputable Jehu, reflectively. "I don't know how they manage things now; but when I was a driver, so long as a man was not a reg'ler bad 'un, a master would rather have a man who took his pint or two than a teetotaller. It used to be a sayin' amongst the masters, 'a teetotal driver makes a groggy horse.' You don't see the sense of such a sayin'? Well, I'll explain it to you. So long as a master gets his contract money from his driver, it isn't no concern of his if he's got one shilling or five to take home to his family. While a man is taking his pint and his pipe at a public-house his horse is resting. But a teetotal driver, don't you know, is sure to be a fellow broad awake to the main chance, never stopping nowhere 'cept when he's 'bliged to, and screwing out of his horse every ha'porth of work he's got in him. When he takes it home at night it's so dead beat that it's hardly got a leg to stand on. That's the meaning of the sayin' I was speaking of. Don't I think there's more to be got out of a horse by kind treatment than by harsh ? Werry likely. I don't know much about that. A poor man can't afford to go trying experiments. A horse will do a lot for you if he gets to know you, of course, and some of 'em have got wonderful memories. I recollect - its many years ago - a friend of mine, a driver, what got the awfullest hiding through his horse having a good memory as ever wos laid on to a man. It came about in this way. There was an old major or captain, or something, who lived at Westminster, and he had a horse what he'd drove ever so many years, and he was very fond of it, and kept it until it went blind and so queer in the legs that he couldn't use it any longer, and he ordered his man to take it and get it shot. But the man didn't do it. He took it and sold it to a little cabmaster in Strutton Ground for three pun five instead. Well, the cabrnaster drove it of nights for about a year, and of course it went wuss, and then he sold it to another cabman for five and thirty shillings. It was reduced to a regler hobject by that time; but they wasn't so particular as they are now ; and the driver was rather a rough customer, and used to carry a whip that was all a 'persuader,' I can tell you. Well, one night a fare hailed him in Piccadilly, and he drew up to the kerb and took him up. But when the old gent got in the blessed brute couldn't stir a peg, but stood like a froze horse, its only movement being a trembling [-137-] of its knees. This naturally made Joe - Joe his name was - savage, and finding the thong was no good, he lost his temper, and took the butt-end of his whip to it. The old gentleman he banged out of the cab when he saw that. 'You inhuman scoundrel, what do you. mean by flogging a poor beast in that way?' ses he. And no sooner did the old crock in the shafts hear him than it turned its head, and begins to neigh and whinny just like talking. It knowed its old master again, though it didn't have any eyes to see him, and the old major looked at the horse and they knowed one another. I forget how old he was - the major, I mean - but he had Joe off the box and down on the pavement before you could say knife, and went at him with his bamboo stick till Joe roared murder, and brought a crowd round 'em. Joe was going to law to play Old Harry with the major, but his friends advised him different. So he squared the matter by getting a friend to take three teeth what the major had knocked out to his house, saying, in a polite note, that he wanted a couple of pounds a-piece for them, and that if the major would buy 'em, the old horse should be thrown into the bargain. That's how they settled it."
    Such were the curious confidences which rewarded me for assuaging the thirst of the ex-cabman.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883