Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 13 - The Sale Yard

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CHAPTER XIII

THE SALE YARD

THE number of horses in London used exclusively for riding is very small. Taking them altogether, and including the police and military with the rest of the community, we shall not have one per cent. of the general herd. A good many of these are introduced direct from the dealers, but a large number are knocked in, and down, at Tattersall's.
    Tattersall's is usually looked upon as the headquarters of horsey London. It is certainly the headquarters of the horse of pleasure, but, as has been made clear enough in these pages, that sort of horse is simply lost in the thousands that throng our streets. Tattersall's is practically the great betting exchange, but the visitor to any of the Monday or Thursday sales will be puzzled to find the least sign of a betting atmosphere at Knightsbridge. The two things are as distinct on those days as, say, the Bank of England and Capel Court. The yard is under cover, a lofty glass-roofed hall, which cost 30,000l. to build, and which is as big as many a railway station. It is surrounded by a handsome gallery, behind the arched and columned screen of which every type of pleasure vehicle seems to be 'on view,' duly [-156-] numbered in 'lots' for the hammer. In the centre of the gravel area is a drinking fountain, surmounted by the quaint old Georgian bust of the founder, with its eyes fixed on the entrance doors, and its thoughts apparently as far away from water as are those of the crowd around.
    It is a different variety of crowd from that which gathers in any other sale yard. London has several 'repositories.' There is Aldridge's in St. Martin's Lane; there is Rymill's in the Barbican - these two being the chief; and there are Stapleton's out in the East, and Ward's in the West, and the Elephant and Castle in the South, and others which many a horse knows well. There is a sort of horse that 'knows the lot'; the sort that 'does the round,' and brings more money to the auctioneers than to the unfortunate buyers, who 'find him out' in a fortnight, and 'get rid of him sharp' to an unwary successor; a wonderful animal this horse, 'quiet in harness, a good worker,' who has only two faults, one that 'it takes a long time to catch him in a field,' the other that 'he is not worth a rap when caught.' But this kind of horse does not put in many appearances at Knightsbridge. Tattersall's has a character to keep up, and it has kept it up for over a hundred years now. It is eminently respectable, from the unused drinking fountain and the auctioneers' hammer, one of the good old pattern, with a rounded knob instead of a double head, down to the humblest hanger-on.
    Entering one of the stables which open on to the yard, and have a dozen or more roomy stalls apiece, we find a horse being measured, to make sure he is correctly [-157-] described. One would think he was a recruit, from the careful way in which the long wooden arm is brought down so gingerly as not even to press in his skin. soon his turn will come. Up in the gallery will go his number, and the young auctioneer in the rostrum below - which has a sounding-board, as if it were a cathedral pulpit - will read out his short title.
    Out comes the horse at last - tittuppy-trot, tittuppy-trot. 'Ten,' says one of the crowd. 'Ten guineas,' echoes the auctioneer. 'Twelve,' comes from the crowd; 'twelve guineas,' echoes the Varsity man in the pulpit. And so the game goes on with nods and shouts, each nod or look being worth a guinea, so that the solo runs, 'Thirteen - thirteen guineas  - fourteen guineas - fifteen guineas - sixteen - sixteen guineas - seventeen - eighteen - twenty guineas' - quite a singsong up to - 'twenty-eight guineas' - and so gradually slowing, with a spurt or two to 'forty guineas' - and then a grand noisy rally till 'fifty-five' is reached. 'Fifty-five? Fifty-five? - Fifty-five? Last time, Fifty- five!'  - knock - and away goes Captain Carbine's hunter, to make room for a 'match pair' that will change hands at 165 guineas, or perhaps fifty more if the season has begun - the bidding always in guineas, in order that the auctioneer may live on the shillings, as Sir John Gilbert used to do in the old days when the guineas flowed to him for his drawings on the wood.

    If you want riding horses or carriage horses you go to Tattersall's; if you want draught horses for trade, you go to Rymill's or Aldridge's, where you not only get the new-comers, but also the second-hand, and [-158-] many-another-hand, from London's stables. With those second-hand horses we need not overburden ourselves our task has been to bring the first-hand horses into London, and sort them out. We have brought in the bus horses, the tram horses, the cab horses, the railway horses, the cart and many other horses. Of the cart horses we could, if it were worth while, say a good deal more. We have said nothing of the distillers, the millers, the soap merchants, the timber merchants, the better class contractors, and half a dozen other firsthand horse-owning trades. Some of the distillers' horses are said, by those who know, to be as good as any in the brewers' drays, and by 'as good' is meant that they are of the same breeding, and can be compared with them, owing to their being at somewhat similar work.
    If you think you know anything of horseflesh and want the conceit taken out of you, by all means attend a repository sale. You will see a horse - it may be a likely mare - led from her stall and stood ready for her turn, and you will probably value her at, to be reasonable, 20l. ; and she looks worth not a penny less. When her number goes up at the window you will see her shown at her best at a run, and, for a moment, you will be inclined to add 5l. to your estimate. But soon a chill will run down your back as you hear the bidding. 'Three! Three and a half! Four!' a long pause. 'Four and a half! Five!' jerks the auctioneer in the corner, with about as much expression as if a penny had been put in his mouth to work him automatically. 'For the last time! Five!' Knock. Five guineas And as the mare is led back to her stall she seems to [-159-] change before your very eyes, and you are ready to admit that she doesn't look worth a penny more!
    There is rather a good story of grey - or chestnut? - age, told of, or probably shaped to fit, one of these repositories where horses are knocked down at the rate of thirty lots an hour. A certain colonel happened to peep in during a sale, and saw a smart-looking cob being shown amid a dead silence on the part of the shabby-looking crowd. 'What do you bid, gentlemen?' asked the auctioneer. 'Two!' said the colonel sportively. There was no advance; and to the colonel's astonishment, the lot was knocked down to him. He handed the clerk a five-pound note in payment. 'Really, sir, I'm sorry I must send for change,' said the clerk. 'Oh, never mind,' said the colonel, 'I'll take it out in horses!'
    The man who says he knows everything about horses - and he is rather a common object of the street - seems to compare all horses he sees with a thoroughbred racer, and knocks them off as beauties or beasts in the terms of that comparison. He forgets, or does not know, that there are other stud-books than those that come from Weatherby's, and that the different breeds of horse are made and kept alive for their fitness for different occupations and he also forgets, or never knew, that there is no man living competent to judge all down the lines that lead and mingle from the pedigree stallions of the Racing, Cleveland, Clydesdale, Shire, Suffolk, Pony, Hackney, and other stud-books.
    As regards what we may call the 'medium' brigade, the lighter cart horses, or vanners, of no particular class or pedigree, the opinion of the man in the street, [-160-] though valueless, is not unreasonable. They are, it must be confessed, a curiously miscellaneous lot, most of them not doing half enough work for their weight, owing to their power being at the wrong end. They come early on the scene, some of them at four years old, and they linger late. For the first year or two they fetch from forty to sixty guineas, seldom more, and they sort themselves out rapidly into the twenty-pound line, owing to their being unequal to the work that is put behind them. 'Call that a horse!' we heard recently from the depths of the crowd in the Poultry. 'Why, he has got no power astern; he climbs along!' And that is exactly the state of the case with hundreds of the London vanners. But then such horses are possible because they are cheap, and we must not expect too much of them. Their life is a hard one. As a rule, they are worked long and wearily; but, unlike 'that useful horse, the hackney,' they have a Sunday's rest.
    This rest on the seventh day is far more important to a horse's well-being than many a hackney owner is disposed to admit. Burke, in a letter to a member of the National Assembly of France, in 1794, attributed much of the evil of the Reign of Terror to the continuance of sittings without the intermission of the Day of Rest. 'They who always labour,' he said, 'can have no clear judgment. You never give yourselves time to cool, and exhaust your brains like men who burn out their candles and are left in the dark.' Wilberforce used to warn Pitt that he would shorten his life if he worked without rest. Mr. Gladstone ascribes much of his vigorous old age to his Sabbath [-161-] rest. Apart from the religious view of the question, it is notable that even in Paris the desire for a day of rest is more and more increasing. A meeting was lately held there, in the hall of the Geographical Society, by an association called 'The People's League for Sunday Rest.' Churchmen and laymen, Protestants and Roman Catholics, and all classes were represented, the Abbé Garnier closing with an eloquent address on the advantages to the State of a periodical respite from toil.
    And necessary as it may be for man, it is at least as necessary for his horse. In the famous speech of Lord Erskine, on introducing for the first time in the House of Peers a bill dealing with cruelty to animals, he spoke much about the 'rights' of those over whom we have been given the mastery. 'Man's dominion,' he said, 'over the lower animals is very large; and it is his not merely by superior knowledge and power, but also by Divine appointment. The dominion is not absolute, but is limited by the obligations of justice and mercy'  - as declared in the Commandment, where the cattle are in this respect placed on the same footing as the children, the servants, and the stranger within the gates. The mercy of which injunction is manifest, even were its wisdom not one of the commonplaces of experience.
    A most gratifying testimony to the soundness of this ancient law, even - to use his own words - 'as a mere matter of business,' was given by Bianconi at an early meeting of' the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Before the railroad found its way to Ireland, the whole of the mail traffic was there run on Bianconi's cars. He thus came to own more [-162-] horses than any man of his time, and he averred that as the result of many years' trial he got far more work out of them when he ran them for only six days a week, and that for a long period he had made it a rule to give each of them a weekly day of rest.
    'A merciful man is merciful to his beast,' or, in Scriptural phrase, 'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.'* [*Proverbs, xii, 10]  If Justice requires that the rights of animals should be considered, much more does Mercy extend to their treatment. 'There is implanted by Nature,' says Lord Bacon, 'in the heart of man, a noble and excellent affection of mercy extending even to the brute animals, which by Divine appointment are subjected to this dominion.' Dr. Chalmers, in his eloquent sermon on Humanity to Animals, amplified and emphasised this. 'It is,' he said, 'a virtue which oversteps as it were the limits of a species, and which prompts a descending movement on our part, of righteousness and mercy towards those who have an inferior place to ourselves in the scale of creation. It is not the circulation of benevolence within the limits of one species. It is the transmission of it from one species to another. The first is the charity of a world. The second is the charity of a universe. Had there been no such charity, no descending current of love and of compassion from species to species, what, I ask, would have become of ourselves? . . . The distance upward between us and that mysterious Being who let Himself down from heaven's high concave upon our lowly platform, surpasses by infinity the distance downward between us [-163-] and everything that breathes. And He bowed Himself thus far for the purpose of an example, as well as for the purpose of an expiation, that every Christian might extend his compassionate regards over the whole of sentient and suffering Nature.'  By Dr. Chalmers the duty of mercy to animals was thus lifted to the highest level of Christian ethics. In the same spirit are the words of that distinguished man of science and philanthropist, Dr. George Wilson:- 'There is an example as well as a lesson for us in the Saviour's compassion for men. Inasmuch as we partake with the lower animals of bodies exquisitely sensitive to pain, and often agonised by it, we should be slow to torture creatures who, though not sharers of our joys, or participators in our mental agonies, can equal us in bodily suffering. We stand, by Divine appointment, between God and his irresponsible subjects, and are as gods to them.'
    Descending from this high level of moral and religious duty, it may be remarked that absolute cruelty to horses is much on the decrease, owing chiefly to the activity of the police. But a growing proportion of horses of a certain class have their lives shortened and their value rapidly deteriorated by persistent overwork. Many of them, as Sir Benjamin Richardson says, go from early life to premature death without the attention a steam-engine receives - the learned doctor being evidently aware that even a steam-engine has to be treated as daintily as a baby if it is to last long and work well - and the worst used of all our horses are the weary nags in traps and spring carts that crawl home so late on Sunday nights. In short, the hackney [-164-] is too useful a horse for his own good. Six days a week he works to earn money, and on the seventh he works to spend it. And so he is soon knocked up, and changes hands oftener than any horse in London.
    Yet one more class of first-handers, and that is the ponies, which keep to their first owners longer, and, in the ownership of sweeps, attain frequently quite a remarkable healthy old age. And with the first-hand ponies and hackneys our herd reaches the 150,000, and we confirm the usual estimate that half the London horses are at least second-hand.

    Three hundred thousand horses! Not a tenth of what there are in this island; but what a herd it seems! And what are they worth? Taking them at 25l. apiece they would run to 7,500,000l., and that, as we have seen, would be putting them at a low price. To keep them at less than half a sovereign a week we should require seven and a half millions a year; and if we add to this current cost the interest on the capital sunk in them, and their harness, the wages paid in looking after them, and the rent of their stables, we shall get into figures that seem almost too large to be true.