Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 5 - The Vestry Horse

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THE Parcel Post led us to digress among the mail horses; let us return to the heavy brigade. But we must clear as we go, and as there happens to be a class of cart-horse holding a position by himself, let us deal with him forthwith. Although he is employed for the saving of money, he is to a large extent of superior quality, owing to the pressure of appearances. With him there is, to put it gently, just a little more than a suspicion of 'nobility compels,' and that honourable compulsion is at the expense of the community.
    The thirteen hundred thousand cart-loads of refuse removed from London in a year* [*see How London Lives, in The Leisure Hour Library, published at 56 Paternoster Row] require a small horde of about 1,500 horses to deal with them, and of these more than half now belong to the vestries and district Boards of Works. What may be called the 'municipal horse' is a really good cart-horse. Any approach to 'the vanner' will not suit the vestries. His load varies too much, even with similar stuff, for any risks to be run. On a wet day he may have three tons behind him, including the vehicle; on a fine day the absence of the [-76-] water will take hundredweights off the weight, to say nothing of the improvement in the state of the road.
    Some of these vestry horses we have seen weigh over 18 cwt., and, though we have heard of a few heavier, we heard of none lighter than 13 cwt., the average working out at 17 cwt. - rather over than under. Such horses are now all English, coming from almost every county, direct from the farmer or through the dealer, and with very few exceptions they are bought in their sixth year.
    No foreign horse will live long in the London dust-cart; his feet will not stand the hard roads. He has been tried, and failed miserably, giving way in the forelegs, having strained the back tendons with the constant jar of his feet as he has plodded along on the granite, asphalt, or wood. And this has been particularly noticeable in the City service, where the only stretch of macadam is that between Lett's Wharf and Blackfriars Bridge, which is not in the City at all, although it leads to the City dust-yard.
    And it is not every sound horse, however big and handsome, that will suit the vestry, he has to possess an accomplishment which he is little used to display in the country. It will not do for him to be of the vestigia nulla retrorsum school, he must not only go forward, he must above all things be able to 'back,' and he must back as readily as he advances. When he is bought he is tried and drilled in this backing; and he must not only back, but keep in his legs as he does so, for if not his career will be cut short by his having his feet run over, which is the commonest accident to which he is liable when standing in the [-77-] London streets. The performances of some of these animals in backing and turning are remarkable. There was one mare, a year or so ago, who used to work in Bucklersbury, where it often became necessary for her to turn round. Now, Bucklersbury is a narrow thoroughfare, and to turn in it the mare had to get on to the pavement, in which, here and there, are cellar lights; and it was quite a lesson to watch her come round, carefully picking her way so as not to tread on the glass lights, which she had learnt to consider dangerous.
    Many of the horses are mares, but most of them are geldings; most of these are bays, many of them are roans, and the blue roans are said to last the best, which may be a mistake, although there is little doubt that the rat-tailed ones of any colour last the longest. The average working life in the vestry service is eight years; when they are sold out of it they fetch on the average 8l. if alive, and 1l. 18s. if dead. But their death rate is not high; indeed, among the City horses, which number between eighty and ninety, only one horse has died in every three months during the last twenty years.
    The average price now paid for them is 75l., arid a few cost over 80l.; but though London has many fine animals among the vestry studs, such as those owned by Marylebone, Battersea, St. George's Hanover Square, and Kensington - the four prize-winners at a recent Cart-horse Parade - there are some we have heard of worth three figures, although the value of heavy draught horses is always on the rise.
    It is rather puzzling to find that while the amount [-78-] of land going out of cultivation increases, the number of horses supposed to work on that land also increases; but the solution of the mystery is that not only are horse implements taking the place of men, but that it pays the farmer better to breed horses than to plough with them, particularly as the more he breeds the better price he seems to sell them at. The farmer suffers as much as most men from foreign competition, but as a horse breeder it is by foreign competition that he benefits. And according to the users of horseflesh he benefits most by the increasing number of horse and agricultural shows. For some years now, for instance, the Americans have been buying shire horses of good quality. Shows are plentiful, and at every show the American agent puts in an appearance, endeavouring at all cost to secure the prize-winners, and thus have the best of opinions to back up his own. His own judgment might land him in difficulties with his correspondents, but with the prize certificate he is safe. 'In any court of law he would get a verdict,' we were told by one of the best judges of cart-horses in London; and if' he were to send his people a three-cornered horse, they couldn't quarrel with him! But as this excellent method of picking out a good horse is not confined to Americans, prize-winners fetch high prices; and even though the winners go out of the country, the farmer benefits by the price, and the country benefits by the breeding of good horses in the hope of obtaining that price.
    And even beyond this the horse societies have certainly justified their existence in the prices now obtainable for breeding stock. Not long ago men won-[-79-]dered at a champion stallion like Enterprise of Cannock being sold for a thousand guineas; but since then we have had Prince William changing hands at fifteen hundred guineas; and now that price has been far exceeded in the case of Bury Victor Chief, the two-year-old shire stallion, who was bought out of Huntingdonshire by Mr. Wainwright, of Chapel-en-le-Frith, for the handsome sum of two thousand five hundred guineas - 2,625l. for a draught horse, who is expected to pay for himself in three seasons, during which insurance will cover the risk!
    But as we are not likely to meet with a two- thousand-five-hundred-guinea stallion in a vestry stable, we will say no more about him. When the five-year-old horse arrives in London, he almost invariably falls sick, and takes at least a week to become acclimatised and used to his surroundings. He is then exercised in backing, and when he has duly passed in this important part of his drill, he is put to light work for a week or so, bringing in a load a day. When he has acquired confidence and is thoroughly fit, he is placed in charge of a driver, with whom, if he gets on well, he will stay until either horse or master leaves the service. Some consideration is needed in fitting a man with a horse. A short man with a choppy step will never be comfortable with a free striding horse, and a man who lounges along with a leisurely swing will always be in difficulties with a quick mover. The gait of horse and man must be somewhat similar, and as they begin to know and take an interest in each other, it is astonishing how much alike they will become in their movements.
    [-80-]The vestry horse, as a rule, begins work at six o'clock on Monday morning, and knocks off at five o'clock on Saturday night, so that he has a full day's rest once a week. Every day he begins at six, and works about eleven hours, bringing in two or three loads during that time, each load averaging about two and a half tons, taking the twelve months round; but most of his time is spent in standing about accumulating this load, so that he cannot be said to be overworked.
    He costs fifteen shillings a week to feed, but his provender varies in different stables. At Lett's Wharf the mixture consists of one truss each of hay and straw to three of clover and half a dozen bushels of oats; and of this each horse has forty pounds a day. He has his breakfast at three o'clock in the morning, and takes out a nosebag with him on each journey; sometimes he has a feed of beans or some special mixture; and invariably he has a bran mash to wind up the week with on Saturday night.
    When he comes in wet and dirty a bale of peat moss is broken for him to stand in, and in this he is thoroughly groomed before he goes to the stable; and he goes to the stall at the word of command, knowing his place quite as well as the horsekeeper. And if he is a City horse, his stall is roomy and lofty - no swinging bales for him, although he stands not on straw, but on the more economical peat. He lives in good condition, for his driver gets a bonus of a sovereign or two every year for keeping him so; and he rarely comes to grief in the streets, owing to his driver being by his side to warn him when the paving changes, and check him [-81-] generally. And nails rarely trouble him, as he seldom is leg-weary, and he treads on such a gathering of rubbish in the dust-yard, that he gets quite experienced in dealing with the odds and ends he meets with on the roadway.