Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 3 - The Carrier's Horse

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CHAPTER III

THE CARRIER'S HORSE

THE carrying trade of these days is in the hands of the railway companies, and the carrier's horse is for all practical purposes the railway horse. Of the 8l,000,000 tons of general merchandise hauled along the railroads of this island in 1890, the bulk was collected and distributed in railway vans.
    A railway company is obliged to keep several varieties of horse in its stables. It must have horses that walk for the heavy traffic, and horses that trot for the light; or, to put it differently, waggon horses, goods horses, parcels horses, horses for shunting, and horses for omnibuses in the cases in which its omnibuses are not horsed by contract. And, taking all these varieties together, we find that the companies collecting and delivering goods in the metropolis have amongst them a stud of 6,000. These we shall not be over-valuing at 60l. apiece all round, which means that railway share- holders have some 360,000l. invested in horseflesh in London alone, to say nothing of the vans and drays, which would be worth quite as much.
    The typical railway horse is the van horse, of which ten-thirteenths of the stud consist. He is not specially [-50-] bred for his calling; he is but a dray horse whom the association of certain merits has peculiarly fitted for railway work. There is no mistaking this horse; he is a Britisher to the backbone, but he is not so easy to get as he used to be, owing to the foreigners collecting so many specimens of him. He is as good a horse as we have, being power personified, with nothing about him in wasteful excess. Well-moulded in every muscle, standing not an inch too high on his well-shaped legs - 'give me legs and feet,' said the Midland superintendent to us, 'and I will look after the rest,' - broad and strong, with nothing of tubbiness in the barrel or scragginess about the neck and head, he is admirably adapted for the work for which he is chosen; and that work he does well.
    In these days, when a corn-chandler will forage your horse at threepence an inch of height a week - so many hands so many shillings - it is the inches of bulk that give a van horse his value, and some of the heavier horses in the four-horse teams will weigh nineteen hundredweight and be worth a hundred guineas, while the average horse working in a pair will weigh two hundredweight or so less, and cost proportionately less to buy, though very little less to keep.
    The Great Western prides itself on having as good a stud as any company in London, and the stables in which it is housed are admittedly excellent. In the new block in South Wharf Road there are four floors of horses one over the other, the top floor being almost as high as the hotel, with a look-out down onto the station roof. Sunday is the railway horse's day of rest, a day which all of them know, though they may not call it by [-51-]

[-52-] that name, and for seeing the horse at home, quiet and contented, under exceptionally favourable circumstances, there is no place better than Paddington. In the new stables there are about 500 horses; close by, nearer the goods station, there is another lot of 140, comfortably installed under lofty arches, which are sensibly ventilated and lighted electrically; and further on there is the infirmary, with three dozen stables for invalids. Altogether, the Great Western has about 1,100 horses working in London, the largest outlying detachment being in Goswell Road, just on the City boundary, where 200 answer the needs of the City traffic.
    The Great Western horses are under the superintendence of Captain Milne, and there is a certain army precision and smartness about the management which is not apparent in all railway stables. As much as possible the colours are kept separate, one stable being of greys, another of chestnuts, another of bays, and so on; and right well do the carefully groomed animals look, standing in their neat straw litter, with a glint of sunlight on them, clean as a picture against the white background leading up to the varnished pine roof overhead, while most of the smooth arched blue brick gangways are as clean as a man-o'-war deck, the only thing on them being the two fodder sacks, like a huge ottoman, at the far end.
    The railway spirit peeps out in the use of obsolete rails for building purposes, two together forming each of the roof pillars, and others laid end to end doing duty as channels, and having the great advantage over brick and stone gutters of being unbreakable. In some of the older stables travises are used, but as a rule the [-53-] horses stand between swinging bales, or rather double bales-for each has its kicker hung on to the chains with a slip-hook, so as to clear a leg immediately should it get over - and this Reliance hook, which is also on the harness, has proved itself of great value in cases of accident here, in the stable, and in the street.
    Over each horse's head is his number, answering to the number branded on his hoof, and behind him is his harness, all in due order as if it were a trooper's; but there is not a collar to be seen. When the Great Western horse comes home at night his collar goes not to the stable but to the drying-room, whence it comes in the morning ready for wear, warm and comfortable as a clean pair of socks.
    At two o'clock on Monday morning the week's work begins. The Covent Garden vans then go out. At eight o'clock the stables are in full bustle, and the runs that slope from floor to floor are alive with the descending crowd, as, to the jingle of the harness, they come cautiously down. Some of them, before the day is out, will have been as far as Woolwich Dockyard and back; some of them will be out for eighteen hours, to rest on the morrow, some of them for six, to take a longer turn next day. So many vans have to be horsed, and so much work has to be done, and somehow it has to be got through, or there would be an accumulation which it would be difficult to deal with. Early on the Monday morning the silent goods-yard surlily wakes to life, and it knows no rest till Saturday night. What the trains bring the vans must take, what the vans bring the trains must take, be it much or little. Of course there is an average; and provision is made for the tide which [-54-] begins to rise at Michaelmas and breaks its last big wave at Easter.
    The heaviest railway van weighs two tons, and will carry seven or more. Such a van, with its load drawn by its four-horse team, will be a moving mass of thirteen tons, one of the heaviest things going through the streets of London, as the railway parcels cart is one of the fastest. The team walks; the single horse trots, and is not supposed to go more than eight miles an hour, but he does, although it is not every one who would give him credit for the rate at which he slips along. There is no vehicle in the Great Western service worked with that most extravagant arrangement, a tandem team, but some of the heavy drays have three horses abreast, an economical device, giving almost the power of four horses in two-and-two, and having only the disadvantage of heating the middle horse rather more than the outsiders. Like the fours, and threes, and unicorns, the pairs are supposed to walk, and it is these vans which do most of the work. Their average tare is a ton. Like a train, they are fitted with a powerful brake, which eases the strain of the stoppages, but the starting pull is at times tremendous, particularly with thoughtless drivers, and it is this effort, as much as the constant jarring of the feet, which makes a horse's London life so short.
    The railway horse is a farmer's horse to begin with, and for the first two years does practically nothing but grow; in the next two or three years he passes into the regular routine of farm work, and gets into shape; and then he changes masters and comes to London. But as it would not do to take a horse direct from a [-55-] Gloucestershire field and place him in the thick of Cheapside, a gradual process of acclimatisation is begun, averaging about two months, during which he is trained to his surroundings and his full work. Sometimes the horse is older when he is bought, but no railway company now buys a horse over seven years of age.
    The horses last according to the traffic, the heavier lines with the heavier traffic wearing out their horses more quickly than the southerly lines, whose traffic is mainly in parcels. The Great Western average is five years; the Midland, over a stud of 1,350, is also five; but curiously enough, the Great Northern's, with a stud of 1,300, is but four. This average is, of course, to a certain extent, a matter of policy ; it may suit one company to cast its horses earlier than another in order to sell them better, and this consideration renders any comparison of company with company of little value. There is interest in it, notwithstanding, particularly in this case, for the Great Northern endeavours to work its trotting horses only four days a week, and its walking horses five, though both kinds are in harness twelve hours a day. When the Northern horse is done with be is sold for the country or less hard work, like the Midland and others. What he then fetches we do not know, but the Midlander averages 10l., and the Brighton cart horse averages 12l. 6s. The Brighton work is light and the life rate is high. In its stud of 225 horses the average service is just over seven years, and considering the chances of accident and disease, and above all things, the price obtained at the clearance, the Brighton horse seems to be as well looked after as the Brighton engine. The South Eastern does very similar work with its stud [-56-] of 275, but the average service is a year less. The South Western, with more of heavier work and just double the stud, makes its horses last for six years and a half -a remarkably good average.
    The Great Western does not send its old horses to the auctioneer. As many as possible it keeps in a veteran stable near its goods yard, and it uses them as helps in dragging the vans up the steep gradients at the station, which are steeper than any the teams meet with on their travels. If a team can pull a load out of Paddington it can take it anywhere in the streets of London.
    Weather will age a horse more than it will a man, owing to its affecting the work so much; and it will be quite as prejudicial to its health. In dry weather almost as many horses slip down as in the rain, and quite as many are run into but the dry weather has nothing to answer for in the way of the chafings by the wet harness .and the colds and sore throats which lead on to other troubles that make short work of the London horse of all sorts and conditions.
    If the railway horse could choose its track, it would never have anything else than good macadam, but the London traffic is far too great to admit of a macadamised road remaining in condition for more than a fortnight, and hence the many substitutes. There is an individuality about the most mechanical 'machiner,' particularly apparent in the way he wears his shoes, which, as usual with London horses in hard work, have to be changed at the rate of one a week, or, to put it more clearly, at the rate of a set every four weeks. It is rare for two horses, even in a four-horse team, to wear out their [-57-] 

[-58-] shoes in the same way or in the same order, and with regard to order alone, the twenty-four possible permutations of the one set of four shoes are all met with in London farriery practice. And as some horses will wear out their shoes far faster than others, so some will slip and some will fall oftener; and more human than all, some horses admirable in every other respect will meet with constant ill luck.
    The majority of London railway horses work about seventy hours a week; some, as we have seen, work less. The Midland system is to have a limit of fourteen hours for any one day's work, and owing to this, a third of its horses are in the stables every week-day, including, of course, the sick and injured, which, however, form a very small proportion of the stud. The London centre is in King's Road, St. Pancras, but the head-quarters of the department are at Derby, just as the headquarters of the provender department are at Wellingborough, from which the mixture of oats, maize, beans, hay, and bran, used as food, comes up to London. The Midland does all its own horse work; it even, unlike most other lines, horses its own omnibuses; but then the railway omnibus, like third-class expresses, Pullman cars, and a score of other improvements, was of Midland introduction, and these bus horses are the best and most costly in the world. But although the Midland scorns to be contracted for, it does not object to supply horse power on contract, and, as a matter of fact, ninety-six of its stud are at work on hire delivering Bass's beer to the publicans of London.
    Its work is more decentralised than that of other companies. It has over two hundred horses in King's [-59-] Road, at St. Pancras station there are four hundred, and some it has at Poplar, and some at Kentish Town, and some for the City at Whitecross Street; and in only one place are the horses on two floors, so that its stables cover a good deal of ground. Every sick horse goes to King's Road, and is there changed for a sound one, in order that the branch studs may always be in full efficiency. If an accident happens in the streets, the boy - that wonderful boy, whose lifting feats are often so painfully startling - goes off in a cab to the nearest depôt and brings the relief. And at that depot he frequently appears under other circumstances delightfully significant in these days of competition.
    The less a man knows of a horse the greater is his idea of its powers. If the stableman knows more than the driver on this subject, much greater is the driver's knowledge than that of the customer from whom he collects his goods. If a railway van is sent for, it is rare indeed that it is not expected to take away all the stuff that can be stacked upon it, quite irrespective of that stuffs specific gravity. There are some people who would pile on bag after bag of iron bolts as if they were pockets of hops ; there is no mercy in the London collecting trade; 'Take the lot' is the motto, and if a company's van once moves off without taking all the goods as requested, the reimainder will invariably be given to another company, who will get the chance of 'taking the lot' next time, and for as long afterwards as their driver is wise enough to stay at the warehouse door till he has loaded up all remainders. Here then it is that the judicious driver has his chance, and the boy is to the front. Off goes the boy to the depot for [-60-] help, and if the loading is over before he comes back, and the police interfere, the bystander will see the heavily laden van dragged off to linger in the nearest bye-street until the arrival of the expected relief.
    The average in the railway service is one man to every three horses; but this includes the driver and the boy, who do not properly belong to the horse department, and have nothing to do with the horse except when it is in harness. In the Great Western service the driver is as much as possible given the same horses day after day, but this practice is not general with the Midland men, owing to the way in which the working hours are arranged, and it is only the twenty big waggoners which are associated with particular drivers.
    The Midland own more horses than any railway company in London. The stud of the North Western is curiously small; but then the North Western does nearly half its work through its agents. Of its 650 horses three hundred and inure are under Broad Street Station, where they form not the least of the nightly attractions of that busy goods depot. The mention of the North Western agents - who are Messrs. Pickford & Co.-naturally leads us on to the carriers, generally so-called, who are still indispensable as railway feeders and distributors, and in what we may call the retail deliveries between the different parts of the metropolis.
    Pickfords do an enormous business, and have a stud of some 4,000 horses, of which about two out of ten pass through their stables in a year. The firm has a long pedigree, and dates back to the days of their old team waggons, the driver of which did not ride on the vehicle, but on a handy cob, from whose back he worked [-61-]

[-62-] the string of horses by means of a long whip. One of the first of these drivers was the founder of the oldest firm of shipping carriers in London, John Smither & Co.; and this reminds us that just as the goods-yards have their feeders and distributors, so have the wharves and docks. Some of these shipping horses are as good as those in the railway service, but as a rule they are of poorer quality. Some are doing their twenty-five miles a day, and in one stud there is a horse that is twenty-five years old, but their average London life is six years; and they are bought at six, when they can be got at a profitable price. All of them are English, for in this, as in all other trades where hard work has to be done, it is the old story of no foreigners need apply.
    Beyond the shipping firms there are what may be called general carmen and cartage agents, who have a very miscellaneous connection; and, in addition to this internal traffic, a certain amount of long-distance carrying is still done between London and a few towns and villages in the home counties by the men who start from the Old Bailey, the One Swan, the Borough Spur, the Aldgate Saracen's Head, and Spitalfields; but these have only about 250 horses amongst them, worth say 25l. apiece, which can very well be thrown in under the same heading as those of the larger firms, although they will not improve our average.
    And over and above all these are the few firms whose names as carriers are household words. The largest of these is Carter Paterson's, who have a stud of 2,000 stabled at their twenty London depots, the headquarters being in the Goswell Road. The system on which [-63-] these carrying companies work is practically that of the railways. The parcels are collected from the senders on information received at the numerous order stations, which the public know by the show-boards. From the houses and shops of the consignors the parcels are taken as a rule by one-horse vans to the nearest depot, where they are transhipped into vans drawn by pairs or teams, and find their way across London to the depot nearest the address of the consignee, from which depot they are sent out to their destination in the local single-horse vans.
    The headquarters of Carter Paterson's network of traffic is like a railway goods-yard, with the usual 'banks,' as the platforms are called, with their topographical divisions, their truckloads of cans, and barrels, and boxes, and packages, and baths, and perambulators, meandering among other piles of similar miscellaneous character as they are scattered out from one van and gathered from all points for another; the same sorting, and checking, and sheets - only it is all sheets in this business - in short, the same surroundings, and belongings, and proceedings, except that there are no trucks, and that the goods are somewhat lighter, as we have already noted together in our Everyday Life on the Railroad*. [*See Everyday Life on the Railroad, a companion volume of The Leisure Hour Library.]
    The stables are on three floors, one over the other, clean and roomy, each horse by himself, the fixed travis here taking the place of the now more customary bale, so that there is not that close line of backs and tails characteristic of the modern working stable. The [-64-] horses are generally of a lighter type than the railway horse, as befits the lighter trade, and they are worked on a different system. Sunday is the rest day, and the horse does nine trips a week; one day he has two trips, the next day he has one, the next he has two, the next one, and so on-three trips every two days. The length of the trip depends very much on the season, and during the fever heat of Christmas time the carrier's horse has quite as much work to do as he can manage.
    Then it is that the parcels companies rejoice at the limits of the Parcel Post. The fact of the Post Office not collecting and its refusing everything over eleven pounds of course keeps these busy all the year round; but at Christmas they get the full benefit of the six-foot limits of 'length and girth combined.' To them falls the crowd of immeasurables; and looking at the queer shapes they carry, we can easily understand why it is that the senders have given up length and girth measurement in despair. The parcels trade is then enormous, but so well is it organised that out of the millions of packages of all shapes, weights, and sizes carried by Carter Paterson in a year, only one in 10,000 goes wrong.
    This small proportion means, however, a large accumulation, and the lost property department at Goswell Road is instructive not only as regards the peculiar sort of address and packing people think sufficient, but as regards the very varied character of a London carrying business. The staple of the trade seems to be servants' boxes - the shillings collected from the nomadic domestic must amount to thousands  [-65-] of pounds in the course of the year - but one is hardly prepared for the cases of eggs 'refused delivery,' probably on account of the too obviously advanced 'shop 'un' quality of their contents, the iron bedsteads gone astray, the baths, garden tools, bundles of bedding, washstands, dog-kennels, iron bars, bicycles, perambulators, chairs, china, fruit, and boots and shoes which here find themselves together awaiting an owner.
    The load of the carrier's horse is thus cumbrous rather than weighty; the vehicles range from the box furniture van to the parcels cart, and it is not often that the ton and a half which is the maximum an ordinary horse should have to draw on London streets is exceeded.
    Pickfords, who do heavier work in connection with the North Western, and the other firms who have a good deal of railway agency, have heavier horses to suit the trade. One of the noticeable things on Thanksgiving Day in 1872 was the ease with which the Speaker's coach, usually drawn by six horses, was hauled along by a pair of Pickford's Clydesdales, engaged for that occasion only, behind whom it seemed to be as light as an empty dray. The Parcels Delivery Company are at the other end of the scale, and average a much lighter build of animal; in fact, the carrier's horse is of all varieties, down to the Old Bailey screw, and we may as well say beyond, for London has worse horses in a carrier's cart than those that start from the King of Denmark and the Lamb, and occasionally a really good specimen will be seen among the waggons and tilt carts that still rendezvous at London's old Place de la Greve.  [-66-]

 [-67-] Some of them are evidently of an advanced age, but then it is not every carrier's horse that has made its first appearance in London in that character. The more hours they rest the longer they last, and the more they fetch when 'cast'; but in a good many instances the casting is the final one to that dark bourne whence no horse returns except as 'meat.' These, however, are the great minority; the majority having yet another, and perhaps another, experience before they face the slaughterman. Some last a few months; of others there are very extraordinary stories, but we refrain and even including the patriarchs, we should not have an average of much more than five years of London hard labour.
    There are about 19,000 of them in all, and these are of all grades, from the excellent lo the indifferent - the latter, as in the case of the cab horses, being the exception and not the rule. The price paid for the lot when they first entered the carrying business must have been very close on 900,000l., and supposing each horse costs twelve shillings a week to feed - which he does at the least - it must take about 600,000l. a year to keep them going, independently of what it may cost to attend to them, to drive them, and to house them.
    Including the railways, we have thus in our metropolitan carrying trade some 25,000 horses worth 1,260,000l., and costing 800,000l. a year for food alone. And adding these to the omnibus horses, tram horses, and cab horses already dealt with, we have found in London an equine herd of 72,000. And we have thousands more to follow.