Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   WHY "Horse" Market? Or, if so, why not designate the great depot for butchers' meat in Newgate Street the beef market, Covent Garden the cabbage or grape market, and the mart for rags in Houndsditch the dilapidated waistcoat market ?
   It is a singular fact, but (and despite the title of this paper) there is no London horse market; that is to say, there is within the City bounds no space specially sot apart and chartered for the public buying and selling of that important adjunct of our commerce--that four- footed friend of ours that attends us constantly in our every walk of life, in our business journeys and our pleasure jauntings, to our weddings and to our burying -the horse. We have markets for leather, and hay, and corn, and tallow, and spices, and coals, and fish-places where the very best and the very worst of the crop of each kind may be bartered for. Pigs are sold openly, and bought without fear or suspicion; there is but one bullock and sheep market for Mr. Giblet of Bond Street and Mr. Blolam of Whitecross Street; but if you would purchase a horse, the last place to be visited is that provided by the Corporation for its public sale. Not that the Corporation is at fault. A stigma attaches to the unwarranted and promiscuous sale of horses that a Lord Mayor even of Sir Peter Laurie power could not " put down." Why is this ? Is our morality so lax that it would assuredly break through under the overwhelming weight of temptation involved in horsedealing ? Is it impossible to deal with the genus equus with as simple and single a purpose as with oxen, or is there enveloped in a horsehide some subtle essence that, brought into contact with money and an irreligious mind, breeds disease and roguery as naturally as the blending of certain gases creates flame ? A man possessed of just enough intelligence to dress a calf or judge of the weight of an ox by the breadth of its loins may jog to the market with a hundred pounds in his pocket and be sure of returning with his money's worth, and a profit to boot; but what would become of the same individual if, with the same amount, he ventured to Smithfield on a horsebuying expedition ? He would be mobbed. The eyes of every "horsey" man in the market would be either staring with speechless amazement or winking to each other a mute agreement to "share him amongst 'em." Just imagine the precious string of spavined, weak-knee'd, wall-eyed monstrosities the man with the hundred pounds would bring home. The fact is incontrovertible. Unless a man be awfully knowing-unless his vision be so acute that the machinations of the " chaunters " and the subtle tricks of the " copers" be to him as transparent as glass -the Friday afternoon gathering at the New Smithfield is no place for him to negotiate the purchase of a horse. Hence the establishment of such places as Aldridge's, where, if the auctioneer says of a horse "warranted sound," you may take his word.
   Let us, however, take a walk to the so-called horse-market this Friday afternoon, and see what sort of business is going on. First of all, however, we must find it; for, thank Goodness! things are not now as in days of yore, when the way to Smithfield could be discovered from any part of London-ay, even by a blind man-as easily, though not so pleasantly, as he could discover a bed of roses in a great garden. The obscure position of the new market, however, is no very formidable obstruction to its being found. From whatever part of the metropolis you may start you have only to scan the road carefully, and if you should see, steering northward, a horse with its tail plaited with straw and its hoofs polished to preternatural splendour, or a costermonger's barrow laden with old wheels and axletrees, or a lean goat harnessed to a fat chaise, or a man with currycombs, and whips, and whipcord, or one laden with fag-ends and tags of harness, you have only to follow, and you will finally arrive at the place of sale.
   Business-that is, rattling, roaring business-has not yet commenced, nor will it till the chiming of the market clock gives assent. This circumstance is, however, not to be regretted, as it affords an opportunity of inspecting the goods and their owners before the press begins. First, as to the goods. A single glance around is at once convincing that the proper name for the place is not a horse, but an ass, market. Here, and here only, throughout London and for five miles round it, is it that the humble donkey is bought and sold. There are more donkeys than any other animals present; but this I may state-on the authority of a middle-aged person with a bison-skin cap and a capacious shawl wisped round his throat, and who evidently knew what he was talking about-is not the case all the year round. "It's like everything else," observed he, "it flucterates. I'll lay yer a a'penny that if sich a lot of donkeys wos to show about May they'd be caught up like mackril, six a shillin'. What's the reason on it? Why the fruit season's the reason on it. When you aint got nothing to sell, you don't want nothing to draw it about." The same authority further informed me that the difference in the value of a donkey in the spring and in the autumn was about twelve shillings-an inconsiderable sum as it at first seemed to me; but when he explained that, at the best of times, it must be " a right sort of donkey" that fetched five-and-thirty shillings, the sacrifice on the part of the vendor in the autumn was manifest.
   There were other tokens beside the numerous donkeys that the costermongers' "season" had come to an end. Not many barrows, as a rule-these are merely hired; but plenty of scales, and measures, and pots (the latter with false bottoms and other cheating contrivances), and several big drums, instruments of late years adopted by the " cutting" cherry and apple costers" as a means of gathering children and calling people to their windows to inspect their tempting wares.
   There were present in the market other specimens of the donkey tribe beside the genus coster. There was the donkey used to panniers and respectable Brompton and Clapham society; there was the donkey late the property of the small laundress whose husband beat carpets; and the donkey-two, in fact-the cast-offs of some suburban assinine dairy. Curiously illustrative of that excellent maxim, "evil communications corrupt good manners," was the contrast the various animals presented. The donkey that had passed its life in the society of men of whom my bison-capped friend was the type, carried its ears aslant, leant negligently on three legs, and was a blackguard donkey from its impudent tail to the tip of its ruffianly nose; when the butt-end of the whipstock was brought down on its back with a noise like the banging of a barrel, it merely winked its eyes contemptuously and backed deliberately against the whelk man's stall, its close proximity to which had been the original cause of the chastisement. How different was the behaviour of the sleek Clapham ass, with its dainty white saddle-cloth and decently blacked hoofs! So of the neat laundry donkey, meeker even than its neighbour the chaise-goat, and only less bashful and seemingly washed out than the two unfortunates from the milk purveyors. What became of these two poor old used-up she-asses I should like to know. That they were not sold-at least that Friday-I am sure. Nobody seemed inclined to bid for them, or to think them worth bidding for. Once a big man, in a smock frock, sauntered up and punched the weakest one in the ribs, which act its owner construed to indicate a desire to purchase. " Wot for ? " replied the big man;
   "I want a hanimal to work, I does. I ain't in the weal line myself."
   Not only the animals themselves, but everything pertaining to their housing and harnessing could be bought in the market, and this as regards horses and goats as well as donkeys. Did you want an odd wheel, or a spring, or even a single plate of a spring, you could be served in a twinkling. Did you want simply a screw, or a screw-wrench, or a couple of linchpins, in a dozen different parts of the market there were tons of such things laid out on the stones for sale. This man had brought out to sell not only his beast and cart, but, piled in the latter, the whole of the building materials of his stable, together with the fittings, down to the pail and pitchfork. Here was a speculative little wheelwright, who had essayed the building of a van, but, having progressed as far as the body and the tireless wheels, had been brought altogether to a standstill for ironwork, and was now evidently and ruinously anxious to get the abortion off his hands. Here was a failure in the cats'-meat line-barrow (yellow, with blue cats' heads on the panels), knife and steel, and weights and scales, going for a mere song. There were perambulators by the score, goat-chaises by the dozen, and as for light pony carts and old-fashioned gigs (those ancient types of gentility), and light spring trucks, you could scarcely move for them. The cattle all undressed, and the harness festooning the various rails and posts, and the empty vehicles standing thickly about, gave one an impression of all the blackguardism of the City out for an excursion, and halting to rest, rather than of a public place.
   The muster of horses, my middle-aged friend informed me, was about the average. As far as I could judge, there were about 200 of them, making such a pitiful collection as made one quite melancholy to contemplate. Certainly there were amongst the number several animals whose bodily condition was satisfactory, and which to the uninitiated were all that could be desired. But woe betide the innocent person who purchased one of them !- at least if there was any meaning in their nervously- twitching ears and nostrils, or in the fact that while a strong hand held their halters a clear space was always kept in the rear of their heels. These, however, were the few. The many were the listless and dropping-knee'd sort, whose dull ears had ceased to take alarm or pleasure at any sound that greeted them, and who carried in their eyes a droning, weary-to-death look that exposed the vamping and tinkering to which they had been subjected, if nothing else did. What a scandalous mockery it seemed to see them, old enough to be the great-great-grandfathers of horses, with their hoofs daintily blacked and shining-with their scant manes combed out and made the most of-with their poor old tails done up jauntily in a plait of clean straw-and their callous hides French-polished, as it were, and making by its gloss the stubborn row of ribs beneath the more apparent It seemed worse to see the light horses served so than the big lumbering ones, who all their lives have never been hurried out of a walk, and who, being used to no better company than coalheavers and mudcarters, might reasonably be supposed to be dull brutes, incapable of comprehending a trouble too great to be buried in a nosebag. But the slim horses! what a wide field for speculation they afforded! Take that long-necked bay, blind as a bat, and with once sensitive nose now round and blunted against the grindstone of adversity, what does it think of as it stands on the market stones and hears the braying, and bellowing, and clatter, going on about him ?-of the times when it was a joy to exert its nimble limbs that never tired-to bound, to leap, to gallop with the mere weight of a man on its strong back, to cleave the dull wind till its eyes tingled ?-of the time when its fetlocks came to grief through failing at that tremendous " five-bar," which doomed it to the shafts ? of its easy carriage life ? of its dreary experience of omnibus life, during which it " went" at the knees, and at the eyes, and at several other points the 'bus driver knew not of, or he might have been more merciful ? of its discharge from 'bus duty, and of its plunge into that deepest depth of equine misery, the shafts of a London night-cab? Now, however, there is an end even to that. As the night-cabman says, " his sarvices don't kiver his nose-bag; that he moves pretty well while he is 'ot; but let him stand on the ranks an 'our or so, and you can no more stir him than cold lead with a wooden spoon." What's to come next ? The blind bay, aware of his galls and sprains and unceasing aches, may be picturing to himself, and with satisfaction, what a forlorn and wretched creature he must look, and how extremely unlikely it is that he will ever again be bought and set to work, the alternative being that the friendly horse butcher will presently take him in hand, and then an end to the weary business. Deluded bay! So excellent is the texture of your well-bred hide, so subtle the skill of the ruffians into whose hands you have fallen, that neither spavin nor gall are visible, and to all appearance you are a lean serviceable old horse, and as such will presently be bought, kept till the veneer wears of and the cobblers' work is revealed, again sold, tinkered, and botched, and bought again, till merciful sudden death puts you past repair. Now the market clock chimes and the sale begins.
   What was just now simply a bustling, chattering mob is now a perfect babel. The horsey rogue with a patched quadruped to sell eagerly unties the halter from the rails and yells at the poor, tame beast, and twitches its mouth, and otherwise drags and cuffs it about that any latent spark of pluck remaining to the outraged animal may be roused and exhibited, the horsey one meanwhile exclaiming, " Who-o-o, blood! who-o-o, then! Gently, gently!" for the edification of some shy, half-resolved purchaser whom the horsey one has his eye on, and who is anxious to secure--as are all seekers of their "first horse"-an animal of spirit.
   Hi! hi ! clear the road, the animals are about to be run to show their mettle. This is one of the most singular parts of the entire business. An avenue is formed of about ten yards wide and a hundred long, flanked on either side by spectators. Within the avenue are the running horses and asses, and the men who, clutching them by the halter, at once guide and haul them along. But these other men in the running lane-where they come from or who pays them I know not; but you may meet them week by week going to the market, and you find them at the market, with no other goods than a long thonged whip and a capacious mouth for yelling. Distributing themselves among the cattle being shown, their business seems to be to give tongue in most Bedlamitish fashion, while they slash with their long whips and administer to every animal that passes them one cut or more as time permits. The lane being a hundred yards long, and the floggers certainly not more than ten yards apart, wooden indeed must the beast be that could not be urged into a trot. Under such usage my blind bay flung out behind and tossed his head in most gallant style; and even the two little dairy donkeys were so far frightened from their propriety as to allow themselves to be hauled and flogged along at the rate of at least five miles an hour.