Victorian London - Transport - Road - 'London driving'


SPEND half an hour at Hyde Park Corner and notice the number of ways in which it is possible for man to drive. The difference may be slight between any two drivers, but among the hundreds what a wide range there is of character and skill Good carriages are many, good horses not so many, and good drivers much fewer. Many men who know what they are talking about, tell us that our carriages are driven worse than they ever were, comparatively speaking that is to say, the good drivers have not increased in proportion to the number of vehicles. In these days of jobbing it seems in many cases as though the horses were jobbed from one establishment, and the driver from another, in order that the driver may worry the horse out of form as soon as possible.
    Of course good driving is essentially never conspicuous. The well-driven equipage passes so easily and naturally that there is nothing about it that calls for remark. The horses are under perfect control, and yet travel in comfort to themselves and to those behind them. They seem to find their way round the corner as unconsciously as the people on the footpath. A mere turn of the left wrist, only perceptible to those who are on the look-out for it, takes them clear of any obstacle and in and out any crowd. The reins are not conspicuously slack or conspicuously tight, and the harness everywhere is as it should be.
    But how few there are like this! A single brougham comes along, an admirable turn-out in every way ; the horse a well-made, quiet, good-natured looking animal as ever was, and the driver is a pleasant intelligent man with a rein in each hand, his left knuckles near his chin, and his right near his trousers' pocket. He is followed by a determined individual driving a pair, and leaning right out forward over the taut reins as if he were preparing to go out hand over hand along them. Behind him is a driver at the opposite angle, lolling back in a heap with his arms a-kimbo, and resting his hands in his lap with a rein in each. Here is another pair with one horse shouldering the pole and the other spreading away from it, and the driver beaming with satisfaction as if all were as it should be. When anyone attempts to cross the road matters become really amusing. One anxious man driving a pair of showy German steppers manifestly does not know what to do with his whip, and hurriedly gets it somehow over his right shoulder, while he clutches the reins like grim death, so as to be ready for a long pull and a strong pull at the critical moment.
    Where do these men come from that gentlemen should entrust their wives and daughters to their care? The wages are good, the life is not a hard one, notwithstanding its long hours in the season, and there are numbers of young fellows who know their way about horses, in the best sense, who must be available. How well our hansoms are driven as a rule And yet a cabby's life is from all accounts far more arduous than that of a gentleman's coachman. Look how excellently our omni·buses are driven. Taken as a whole, there are no better drivers in the world than the men who pilot their twelve inside and fourteen out through the traffic maze of London. And so it is with nearly all our business vehicles, barring of course the red Royal Mail, whose drivers, assuming a right to the whole of the road, are perfectly careless as to what they do, and are quite as bad as our carriage coachmen.
    Some people tell us it is all owing to brakes and bearing reins ; but these have no more to do with it than conic sections. The fact is that half our carriage drivers are not coachmen, and never will be coachmen. They have no sympathy for their horses and no talent for their trade. The horses may be ruined in no time, and the master pays and takes no further interest in the matter. He looks upon a carriage as necessarily expensive, and having in nine cases out of ten no knowledge of driving takes whatever comes along, growls occasionally, and settles the bill by bankruptcy or otherwise. The greatest jobmaster in London called our attention to this matter over a twelve- month ago, and we have been watching it ever since. Every word he said we have proved to be true. It is time some one should speak out, for the way in which our horses of pleasure are worried and spoilt is neither more nor less than scandalous.
    The wonder is that carriage accidents are so few. In many cases we have noticed it was evidently unsafe to trust life and limb to such a driver's mercy. And then there is the value of the property. You can get a pair of omnibus horses for 70, or say 80 at the outside, while many of these carriage horses are worth 200 apiece. Consider the carriages. You cannot get a new victoria for less than ninety guineas, a single brougham will cost you as much, a double brougham will run you into perhaps a hundred and fifty guineas, a barouche means perhaps two hundred, a landau perhaps fifty more, and some of the big chariots that come out on great occasions have cost five hundred and more. Of course the owners can presumably afford it, but it certainly would appear somewhat venturesome to put from 500 to 1000 at the tender mercies of a man who is obviously unfit for his duties. Our forefathers, who were all good growlers, notwithstanding the traditional mirth of merrie England, had always a sneer at the "gardener" or "country coachman " who drove their neighbour's carriage, but it is difficult to imagine that incapacity was as conspicuous in their time as it is now. We have seen really first-class horses that have been sent out in the perfection of training and condition, so messed about with bad handling in the course of a single season, that it has taken another season to get them into form again. And think what a time it takes to produce the London carriage horse. Most of these horses come from Ireland ; many of them hail from Yorkshire and South Durham ; an increasing proportion reach us from Belgium and Hanover and Mecklenburg, and some are even sent here from Vienna, while a few are Canadians. Take a Yorkshire colt, for instance - he is of no use on the farm, all he can do is to run about and improve in value. When two years old he perhaps changes hands and comes into the possession of a farmer who thinks he can make something out of him, and for two years more he has practically nothing to do. It is not until he is four years old that he is sold for London, and is seriously taken in hand to be trained. As it is with him, so it is with the Irish horse, the only difference being that instead of changing hands privately he is bought and sold at the fairs. The breeder brings him to the fair when three years old, and his first purchaser has to keep him through the winter unless he finds him not quite up to the mark, when he invariably gets quit of him before Ballinasloe fair, which takes place in October. It is not until March or April that the London buyers set out, and they naturally take the pick of the Irish dealer's stock. They pay perhaps 100 apiece for them, raw as they are, and it requires no little judgment to choose a promising horse in that state. It does not take more than twenty-four hours to get the purchases out of Ireland, and on to the farms around London, which the dealers and jobmasters use as elementary schools, and there the trouble begins. The new arrival has first to be acclimatised, and in most cases nursed and doctored through a series of ailments. His breaking is a long process; he has to be mouthed, to be practised with the longeing rein, to be taught to carry a rough rider, to be broken and trained to harness, to learn all the fashionable airs and graces, to be driven on the country roads, and then finish his education in the London parks and streets. In fact, it is not until his fifth year that he is really presentable and able to earn his food. No wonder that a carriage horse costs money. And when one considers how carefully he has keen treated and trained it certainly seems rather too bad that he should be spoilt in a few months by some clumsy fellow who has not taken the trouble to learn the first rudiments of his trade.
    Driving in the ordinary way is easy enough if men would only attend and observe. Good examples are multitudinous and always on view. Books there are many, but we say nothing about books what is wanted chiefly is observation. Practice must be constant, but it must be practice with a view to improvement. The omnibus man knows that his living depends on his keeping his horses up and his passengers safe, and is soon chaffed into style by his mates. These men are not all born with a horse-cloth over their knees. Some of them have never handled a rein until a month or so before they have gone on the box. So it is with the cabmen, who are a much more mixed lot, and not such good drivers on the whole, which is mainly owing to the fact that their responsibility is less, and that they can make the round of the yards, for if one master will not trust them with a horse they go on to another, till they reach the deplorable, both in horse and growler.
    The fastest vehicles that go through London - always excepting the fire engines - are the railway parcels carts. Many of the men began as railway porters, and yet the driving is generally good. Some of it is not highly finished perhaps, but still it is not conspicuously foolish. Even the news-cart men thread their way through the crowd in workmanlike style, rough as the driving may sometimes be. We have never seen a newsman driving like one of Leech's mossoos, as we have seen a coachman with a cockade driving along by the Serpentine. And of course a carriage coachman who drives badly is more noticeable than the driver of a tradesman's cart.
    London driving is a very different thing to country driving. To begin with, the roadway changes so frequently and unexpectedly. What with macadam rolled and rough, and granite squares, and wood, and asphalt, now in this order, now in that, the horse has to be very careful of his footing where the change comes, and the driver must be on the alert to assist him. Then the cross-roads are so numerous, the stream of traffic so varied, the blocks at the Street corners so many and embarrassing, that the young man from the country requires an effort to keep his head clear. On the country road he has had to pass, perhaps, one vehicle in a quarter of a mile, in London he has to pass a hundred in the same distance. But this does not affect the way he sits his seat and uses his hands. Under no circumstances, if he had been properly trained, would he hold his hands a foot apart with a rein in each.
    If he were to think it out, he would see that it must be better in every way to drive with the left hand and keep the right in reserve for emergencies. Further, that it is better for the horse to draw willingly and steadily than to be constantly reminded that the man at the end of the reins does not know what to do next. For the horse knows instantly who is driving him and the extent of liberty he may take.
    Horses go differently with different drivers, and it is always with the quiet light-handed ones that they go fastest and longest. A good horse with a good driver will do fifteen miles a day for five days a week, and keep on at it week after week ; but give him a worrying driver and he will soon become obviously incapable of such work. And the driver will get very tired of his work also, for the curious part of driving is that what is best for the horse is best for the man. That hard, dead pull at the reins, that some people are so proud of, not only spoils the horse but wearies the driver's hand and wrist.
    The art of driving with one hand was probably discovered by the necessity of keeping the right hand free for the whip or weapon. It is here that a point is made by those who think the brake is responsible for so much bad driving. "In former times," says the Duke of Beaufort, "when there was no brake for carriages, it was absolutely necessary for a man to drive with one hand, because when going down a steep hill with a heavy load, and with tired and jaded horses, it was very often only possible to keep in the road by the use of the whip. Horses have a habit of hanging, so to speak, to one side or the other, to such an extent that nothing but a smart flick over the shoulder or the neck will straighten them, or prevent the vehicle from running into the ditch ; and if, before the days of brakes, a coachman had attempted the wretched modern practice of driving with a rein in each hand, he would most assuredly have upset his load." But there were two-handed drivers before there were brakes, as any reference to the old popular prints and caricatures will show ; and there are many vehicles now that are not fitted with brakes that have two-handed drivers to steer them, and there are others fitted with brakes which incompetent drivers are too nervous and clumsy to use.
    Driving clubs have one merit at all events. They show owners of horses how to drive not only four horses, but two, and even one ; for after all the general method is the same. Go to the Magazine in Hyde Park at one of the meets, and you will see as good driving as you wish. We do not say that all the four-in-hands are equally well driven, but there is not much to complain of even on the part of those who have made "the ribbons" a life-long study. If people would only accustom their eye to good driving they would soon detect the had, and there would be a considerable change for the better among the so-called coachmen, much to the advantage of our better class horses.
    We say nothing of beginners. Beginners have no place in a London crowd. They should practise single-handed in all senses, in the suburbs and quiet squares, and thereby earn the thanks of horses and men.

W. J. GORDON, article in The Leisure Hour, 1896