Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Snatched from the Boiler

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Melancholy fate of old and used-up horses - On their last legs at the market - The horse torturers who attend on them there, and their motives for so doing - The humane old lady who would have "wasted hay" -  "That does 'em more good than wittles" - A disappointing lot - An authority from the "slaughterers" - his bitter resentment against the "snatcher" - The old bay that was thrice "snatched," and narrowly escaped a fourth rescue.

THE spectacle of an old used-up horse, high-bred or of vulgar extraction, ignominiously tied to a cart-tail and on its way to execution, has for me a most melancholy interest. My pity and commiseration for them are profound, when, ragged and lean and decrepit, they hobble along on their last legs to the place where the dreadful gates shall open to yield them up again only when reduced to dogs' meat.
    It would not be so bad for them, and consequently for me, if those who attend them on their last mournful journey exhibited for them the respect that is due to infirmity and old age; but, as far as I have had opportunities for observing, this is seldom the case. As every one who has visited a public horse market is aware, there are always to be found there a class of individuals who are regular in their attendance, not in the interest of either buyer or seller, but as would seem solely and wholly for the gratification of a fiendish inclination to inflict pain on the creatures submitted to public competition. The spite and vindictiveness of these rascals is evidently so deeply seated and insatiable that it would be interesting to trace them to their origin, with a view to ascertaining whether it is inborn malice that actuates them, or if their aim and desire is vengeance. Men who are ruined by rash speculation are effected thereby according to their temperament. Of the hundreds of foolish people who every year not only burn their fingers, but who are in a manner of speaking utterly consumed by a disastrous meddling with horse-racing, the majority no doubt sink in despair, and are heard of no more; but it is possible that there are a few passionate spirits who cannot brook to be thus summarily extinguished, and since they have not the wherewithal to obtain revenge in a gambling sense on those who won their [-107-] money, they hope to find solace in torturing, whenever and wherever they can, every representative of the animal that brought them to grief. It is a cheap treat for them they have but to invest a penny in a nice pliant ash stick, or borrow of a stable acquaintance a heavy old whipstock, and make a holiday journey to Islington on a Friday, and there take their stand with the rest that skirt the narrow lane up and down which the horses for sale are "tried," and inflict on each one a slap, or a whack, or a savage goad as it passes.
    Knowing the feasibility of this theory, I think it not improbable that some of the fraternity who are brought to the dogs in the way above indicated, take kindly to the occupation of "crock collectors," or, in other words, buying up horses used up and past patching, for the sake of the few shillings profit arising out of the difference in the price they pay for them and what they will fetch at the slaughterer and horse-meat merchant's. One can imagine the diabolical glee which warms the breast of the vengeful crock collector who, years ago, was at one fell swoop mined by backing Jack o' Lantern at Epsom, should it happen that he is enabled to purchase a worn-out old racer to add to his string; and, oh, unspeakable bliss! what if that horse should chance to be the identical Jack on account of whose failing by a short head he came away from the racecourse that memorable Wednesday choking with savage oaths, and so deadly pale, that those whom he passed looked back after him Fancy him having that horribly anathematized "short head" all his own and in hand to do as he likes with-to revile it, and punch it, bang it with his bony fist, all the while with a firm grip on the cruel twitch attached to its nose.
    I saw a man a short time since in charge of five horses on their way to the slaughter-place, and though I should not like to say he was capable of being guilty of any such act of atrocious cruelty, my unfavourable opinion of crock collectors was not mitigated by what I witnessed of his behaviour. The animals he had in charge were a miserable-looking lot of poor creatures, two of them being of the agricultural kind. One of the latter was thickly plastered on one side with clay, as though it had been lying neglected and ill for a long time in some field, and the clay had dried and hung in unsightly pieces from its hide. The other had been condemned to death evidently on account [-108-] of its extreme old age and its utter inability to do another day's work, even of the lightest kind. Its ribs were so prominent that between them were deep furrows, its flanks were hollow, its spine a corrugated ridge, its eyes were dim, and its poor old nose drawn round, as though, with its head bowed and its ears drooping, it was absorbed in sorrowful retrospection. One of the remaining three was blind, and, judging from a large bald and shiny place near the shoulder, its last employment was grinding clay in a brick-field, the spot in question having been denuded of hair by the constant chafing of the pole pad it leant against in turning the mill. The other two animals were in no way remarkable, except for their impoverished and starved appearance, as they stood roughly tied nose to tail. Outside the public house to which the man in charge of the horses had retired for refreshment, there were some pails full of water and a bundle of hay in a basket, and as the wretched creatures looked that way it was easy to understand how grateful they would be to any one who would charitably bestow on them a bit and a sup.
    I was not the only person, it seemed, who, passing that way at the moment, observed and noticed this. There was a little old lady, quaintly dressed in a short cloak of some ancient black material, with her silvery neatly-parted hair showing under her black silk poke bonnet, who, like myself was brought to a standstill by the pitiful spectacle. She addressed the gaunt old plough horse as "poor fellow," and compassionately chafed its afflicted nose with the handle of her umbrella. Presently, and after a brief review of the five, her sympathy took a more substantial shape. She crossed the pavement, and peeped in at the half-open door of the public house, and seeing there a horsey-looking man with a whip tucked under his arm, rightly conjectured that he was the person she wanted, and beckoned to him. Out he came, with some bread and meat in his dirty fist, and with his mouth full.
    "These poor creatures belong to you, if I am not mistaken, sir," said the little old lady politely.
    "Well, wot of it?" was the gruff response.
    "You will excuse the liberty I am taking," said she, "but it seems to me they would be glad of some hay and water." 
    "Ah, they d be glad enough of it," grinned the collector of [-109-] crocks, "if anybody was fool enough to pay for it for 'em. I wish they may get it."
    "They shall have it, then," returned the little old lady, taking out her purse; "how much will it cost?"
    "How much will wot cost?" said the fellow, pausing amazed in his mastication of bread and pork.
    "A meal of hay, with some water for each of them; will half a crown pay for it?"
    The brutal collector burst out into a great laugh. "Why, what sorter cranky old woman are you," he exclaimed, "to want to go a-wasting 'arf-crowns in that 'ere manner? You re not aweer they're going to the knacker's, p'r'aps?"
    "I am only aware that they look very hungry and thirsty," said she, looking at him reproachfully; "that biggest poor creature looks as though he would fall down."
    "That's cos he's so high in flesh," laughed the cruel rascal "he's fat and lazy, that s what he is. He wants waking up, that's all. Hi! hi! there!" and he gave the feeble old plough horse a cut with his whip that certainly had a rousing effect, for he started and backed with violence against the others, so that all-at once there was an alarming clattering on the cobble stones. Whereon he applied the heavy old whip liberally all round, by way of restoring order again.
    "That's done 'em more good than a feed of wittles," he remarked to the little old lady, who by this time had replaced the money in her purse, and was looking as wrathful as though she had half a mind to assault him with the umbrella she grasped in her mite of a hand. "If you've got arf-crowns to chuck away, chuck one here, and I'll spend it like it should be spent. Yah! not you. You d spend it on a lot of crippled old crocks, only fit to be poleaxed; but a man might parch of thirst for want of a pot of beer before you d pay for it for him."
    And his distorted visage betokening his scorn and contempt for such one-sided philanthropy, he retreated, growling, into the public house again; or, rather, he was on the point of retreating, when he was whistled back from the threshold by an individual of his own stamp, but rather more decently dressed. He wore tight-fitting trousers and a low crowned hat, and was horsey from his heels to his short-cropped hair.
    "I thought you was never a-coming," growled the first man. [-110-] The second man, who was nibbling a short length of straw, made no reply until he had made a rapid survey of the five quadrupeds tied nose to tail. Then he made answer, sarcastically, "I'd a-hurried myself, if I had knowed how well worth my while it was."
    "What, can't you do with aira one of 'em?" asked the first man, in a disappointed tone. "You can have your pick at your own price. Look at that blind old mare. You might make summat out of her, I'll lay a wager. I've sold you many a wuss one than she is." But the other had evidently made up his mind on the matter.
    "When I buy a 'orse out of the biler I ain't particular, as you know, Tommy," he remarked, sententiously; "but I can't build castles in the air, neither can I make a 'orse out of nothing. So say no more about, this lot, and tell me what you'll have to drink."
    With that they retired to the bar of the tavern, and I should have remained in ignorance of what was meant by "buying a horse out of the boiler" had it not happened that, as the men disappeared, there emerged from the stable-yard an individual who, by his manner, was not altogether uninterested in the fate of the wretched animals ranged in a row at the edge of the pavement. He was not a man with whose personal appearance one was likely to be favourably impressed. A rough-looking fellow clad in well-worn corduroys, with a hairy cap on his head, and with a short leg eked out to the length of the other, with an iron ring attached to the sole of his heavy hobnailed boot. He looked stealthily, and with a scowl, after the two men, and then lie glanced at the horses, and with such a changed expression of countenance that I was encouraged to accost him.
    "It will be a mercy to make an end of the poor things," I remarked. "Don't you think so?"
    "I was just having a squint at 'em," he replied, "to see if I reckonized a old acquaintance among 'em, but I don't. I thought at first that I knew the blind 'un, but she's a stranger. They're booked for our place, I suppose, and quite time, too, by the look of 'em."
    "When you speak of your place, you mean-"
    "I mean the slaughter'us, close by here. I'm yardman there, and have been this many a year."
    [-111-]"If you are employed at a horse slaughterer's," said I, "perhaps you can tell me what buying a horse out of the boiler means?"
    "It means," he replied, as we walked together the way he was going, "just what you saw that chap in the low-crowned hat doing - I saw you looking at the pair of 'em - and if one man mortally hates another" - and in his animosity he looked back scowlingly at the public house - "I hate him. I'd walk willing a hundred miles to see him hung, dashed if I wouldn't. How has he offended me? Oh, it isn't me he has offended. I ain't no poorer for his tricks, but he's such a mean beggar. What business has he to come lurking round buying 'em out of the biler, when, in a manner of speaking, there s one leg in it? He s nothing better than a churchyard robber or resurrection-man. I've told him so to his head many a time. 'What odds is it to you; you get 'em at last?' he says, laughing in his aggrawating way. 'If you had any kindness of heart in you,' he says, you'd treat me with respect, and stand something 'ansum for rescuing so many of 'em from being cut off in the prime of life.'
    "A pretty sort of fellow he is to talk about kindness of heart. I'll be bound, if it was only known what are the tricks and dodges he practices on the poor creatures, getting 'em for sale again after they have been booked for our shop, and perhaps only a matter of half a crown - I've known it be as little as a pot of ale - has stood between them entering our gates and being taken away to be faked up for work again, the police would have something to say to him."
    "But am I to understand that you object to his dealings because you regard them as an unwarrantable interference with your trade, or because of the cruelty inflicted on the poor animals themselves?"
    "Both, sir. He s right enough when he says they come to us at last, and, for that matter, it s no consequence if they don't, for there's always as many to be bought as we care to buy; but it's the principle of the thing that I'm looking at. One man hasn't any business to go taking the bread out of another man's mouth, more he hasn't his meat, whether it be horse-meat or any other. And when a horse is parted with by its owner on the understanding that it is to be killed, it ought to be took [-112-] straight to the slaughter'us, without no one poking his nose in to prevent it."
    "And that isn't the worst of it," he continued, warming with his subject. "You might suppose that because I have been yardman at a knacker's going on for twenty years, and have let some thousands of 'em in, that I should by this time have come to think no more of horses than though they were a lot of pigs. But, somehow or another, I've always had a sort of pitying feeling towards 'em, and I don't want ever to have any other- specially for them that are regularly worn out with old age, and who have been kept hard at it to the wery last. I don't know much about the laws or who makes 'em," continued the humane yardman, "but it seems to me that they want mending when they're brought to bear on horses. True, there's the Prevention Society, that looks after cruelty cases, and if a man works an animal that's lame, or with a sore or a wound, they are down on him for it. But it don't matter how old a horse may be, so long as he's got a sound hide to cover his worn-out carcase; there s no law to prevent his being forced to do the heaviest sort of work as long as he can stand on his legs. Pon my word, you'd hardly think it, but somnetimes I've opened the gate to the sort we're speaking of, and I could almost answer for it by the look of their eyes, as they came hobbling in, that they knew what the place is, and are thankful that it was all over with em at last."
    "I suppose they must be very far gone," I remarked, "before the man we have been speaking of would regard them as no longer serviceable."
    "Well, that's where it is, you see; he's that deep sort of a dodger that he seems to be able to look right into a horse, and to find that he's got a little go left in him yet, if it s properly stirred up and made the most of, whereas you or me would think it hadn't got a month's life left in it even if it was left to die a nat'ral death. I've had my eye on him, and so I hain't speaking without knowing. There was one poor old mare, a bright bay she was, who got as far as this towards our place five times in the course of as many months, and that wagabone stopped her and tinkered her up again. She was one of the sort he likes to get hold of, a regular high-bred one, and worth at one time three or four hundred pounds, I'll lay a wager. But the older she got, the more, of course, she came down and down [-113-] - first to day cabbing, then to a greengrocer's wan, then to night cabbing, then to a brick-cart. It was after she was used up at that the collector bought her for killing, and Mr. Faker got hold of her. She was that all to pieces through the brick work that she was as ricketty as a old bedstead that s give way at the screws. All Faker would give over our price for her was seven and sixpence. Well, sir, if you had seen that mare after he'd done his conjuring with her, you'd willingly have taken your oath it wasn't the same animal. He sold her for thirteen pounds, and she looked cheap at the money. But, of course, she didn't have any more wear in her than them Brummagem plated things they sell at mock auctions, and in a couple of months' time a man that buys for the knacker had her again a worse wreck to look at than last time. But Faker couldn't let her pass him.
    "He did so well with the last deal that he bid seventeen and six above killing price for the bay this time, and did her up and sold her to a milkman at a profit of four pun ten. Well, she was at that job only a fortnight, and then she took fright at the clattering of the milk-cans, and bolted and fell and broke her knees. You d have thought that Mr. Faker would have had no more to do with the poor old mare when it came to this, but he had faith in her, and patched her up and set her going once more. And once more again after that, her last master being a donkey-rider chap at Hampstead Heath, who bought her for two pun fifteen, just to work through the Whitsun holidays. And blessed if I don't believe he would have had a try at doctoring her once more, only, while Faker and the donkey-driver was haggling over her price outside that wery public house where you saw him, the poor old bay settled the matter by falling down dead in the road."