Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 11 - The Black Brigade

[... back to menu for this book]





A GOOD many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as the 'black brigade'; but the real black brigade of London's trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the job-master is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The 'funeral furnisher' is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The wholesale men, the 'black masters,' are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand - London's normal is seventeen - but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the 'blacks' have to get help from the 'coloured,' and the 'horse of pleasure' becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.
    A hundred years ago there was but one black master in London. He owned all the horses; and there are wonderful stories of the funerals in those days when railways were unknown. The burying of a duke or even a country squire, in the family vault, was then [-140-] a serious matter, for the body had to be taken the whole distance by road, and the horses were sometimes away for a week or more, and were often worked in relays, much on the same plan as the coach-horses, only that rapid progress through the towns and villages was impossible, for the same reason that no living undertaker dare trot with a tradesman within the limits of the district in which the deceased happens to have been known and respected. Even nowadays the black masters of London can be counted on one's fingers, the chief, according to general report, being Dottridge, of East Road.
    A wonderful place is Dottridge's. It is the centre of what may be called the wholesale undertaking trade, where the retail undertakers are themselves undertaken and supplied with all they need, from coffin to tombstone. From all parts of the country telegrams and letters are continually coming in and packages continually going out by carrier and fast train, all labelled 'immediately for funeral,' to insure quick delivery. If anyone wants a parcel to go promptly and surely to hand, he has only to label it with these mystic words, and the railway men will pounce upon it and be off with it at a run - that is, if they treat it as we saw them do with the first one that came under our notice, which they handled as if it had arrived red hot, and was required at its destination before it cooled. 'Haste,' 'urgent,' 'immediate,' are but poor incentives to speed compared with the red funeral label, such as was once accidentally stuck on a boy's hamper, and sent the matron into hysterics as it was hurriedly bumped on to the school door-mat.
    [-141-] Hundreds of men are at work. Here is a wood yard, such as one is accustomed to see by a canal side. Here are 'caskets' of every size and pattern being made by steam machinery, sawing machines, planing machines, fretting machines, bending machines, sand-papering machines, all in full swing; besides a complete outfit for marble working and carving, another for brass working, and, to say nothing of the carriage repairing and harness making, a battery-room for electro-plating. if anyone wants a shudder, let him take a peep at the sample room and the stores below, in which are those terrible boxes of one shape but all kinds - brass, lead, wood, paper, wickerwork, the last recommended as 'looking well when covered with green moss and flowers' ; you can try one on if you like, as you would an overcoat, and see if it fits. There they are in dozens, of all qualities, from the panelled and carved down to the simplest, plain, unpolished undecorated shell in which every Jew, from the millionaire to the sweated Pole, goes to his grave - for Dottridge's have for years held the contract of burying all the Jews of London.
    These funeral things - funereal does not quite give the meaning - are ordered, not in ordinary language, but by code, as foreign telegrams are worked, some trivial word doing duty for perhaps a full page of descriptive matter. A telegram will come in at nine o'clock with, perhaps, merely a word in it, say Malachite - or whatever it may be - and in reply there will be at Euston, or St. Pancras, or Paddington, ready for the twelve o'clock train, a long flat package of six boards, which the country or suburban undertaker will put together like a puzzle. He wires for 'the wood,' and [-142-] the wood comes to him all ready for 'building,' drapery, furniture, and all complete, the plate to follow within an hour or two of the receipt of the inscription, the quickest thing of all being the silver-plating, for no plated goods are stocked, and the brass is invariably plated, polished, and despatched on the day the order is received.
    Dottridge's are 'at the back' of all the big funerals in London. They buried Mr. Spurgeon; they buried Mrs. Booth; years ago they buried Cardinal Wiseman, the biggest 'black horse job' ever known, for the Roman Catholics will always have black horses if they can get them. Mr. Spurgeon had coloured horses, so had Mrs. Booth, but when Cardinal Manning died, the priests crowded to the East Road for coaches to follow, and were much disconcerted to find there were not enough blacks to horse them.
    Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing in fact, they begin work as what we may call the 'half-timers' of the London horse-world. When young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they get astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65l. each; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class [-143-] work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas; if they go to the repository they average 10l. if they go to the knacker's they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years' work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price; but the law of supply and demand came in to check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.

    Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth, for instance, is 'most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud' ; all the Salvationists 'are doing well,' except Railton, 'who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.' Stead, according to his keeper, is 'a good horse, a capital horse - showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are [-144-] trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn't work with Huxley at any price!' Curiously enough, Huxley 'will not work with Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. Barnardo.' Tyndall, on the other hand, 'goes well with Dickens,' but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. Morley works 'comfortably' with Balfour, but Harcourt and Davitt 'won't do as a pair anyhow.' An ideal team seems to consist of Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. Adler, and Cardinal Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel, dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. 'All the horses,' the horsekeeper says, 'named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!' And so we leave Canon Farrar, and Canon Liddon, and Dr. Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now 'out on a job,' and meet in turn with Sequah and Pasteur, Mesmer and Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.
    'Why don't you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?'
    'They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians - well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!' And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives; under him being another man, who drives [-145-] when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.
    One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion.
    'I am not a horsey man.' said Mr. Dottridge to us, 'but I have known this one particular class of horse all my life, and I say they are quite affectionate and good-natured, and seem to know instinctively what you say to them and what you want. If you treat them well they will treat you well. One thing they have is an immense amount of self-esteem, and that you have to humour. Of course I have to choose the horses, and I do not choose the vicious ones. I can tell them by the peculiar glance they give as they look round at me. The whole manner of the horse, like the whole manner of a man, betrays his character. Even his nose will tell you. People make fun of Roman noses; now I never knew a horse with a Roman nose to be ill-natured. The horse must feel that your will is stronger than his, and he does feel it instinctively, he knows at once if a man is afraid of him or even nervous, and no man in that state will ever do any good with a horse. Even when you are driving, if you begin to get nervous, the horse knows it instantly. He is in communication with you by means of the rein, and he [-146-] is somehow sensible of the change in your mind, although perhaps you are hardly conscious of it. I have no doubt whatever but that you can influence a horse even when he is ill, by mere power of will. There are affinities between man and horse which are at present inexplicable, but they exist all the same.'
    There is an old joke about the costermonger's donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The 'black family' has always to be alone; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result; and thus it has come about that in the black master's yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.

    The funeral horse hardly needs description. The breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., mid even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones to Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads 'like a book,' and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the [-147-] proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day's rest in the week.
    To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day - it is a trifle under that, over the 700 - and his food differs from that of any other London horse In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes, and so forth; and as a Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats, and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for it would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.