Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 14 - The Donkey Mart

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THE London donkey exchange is the Islington Cattle Market on a Friday afternoon. There some 3,000 'mokes' change hands during a year, the busiest days being the Fridays before and after Bank Holidays, for on these festive occasions there are not a few donkeys of pleasure which remain in the same ownership or just seven days, and in that time pay the cost of their purchase and keep and bring the profit on their re-sale.
    The biggest of the batches paying toll at Islington come from Ireland. Sometimes a herd of a hundred, sometimes even more, will be met with on the road from Milford or Holyhead, steadily journeying towards the city to which so many hoofs point, and feeding by the wayside as they come; or, and this is the more usual method, crowded in truck-loads on the rail. Not that these big herds are thrown on the market all at once, for the donkey dealer knows his business, and rarely puts in an appearance at Islington with more than a score; the trade is a trade of ones, and twos, and threes, which change owners with much arguing and bargaining, and in which nearly every argument and abatement is emphasised with a more or less affectionate [-166-]

[-167-] whack on the unfortunate animal's back. The stick-play at a donkey sale is remarkable. 'Sure, sir,' said one of the bystanders, 'the Neddies feel themselves quite at home!'
    The track, on the high road, of an Irish donkey drove is easily recognisable owing to the heavy shoes it is the custom to wear in the Emerald Isle - shoes which are promptly replaced by the lighter English pattern as

soon as the purchase goes to his new home. Irish are not, however, the heaviest shoes; for these we must go to Egypt, where the native farriers simply cover the feet with a plate. Shoeing a donkey costs sixpence a foot, and the farrier does not 'hanker after it.' 'You see, sir,' we heard one of them say, 'it's not nearly so easy as a horse; it is a smaller shoe and finer work, and some of the brutes have to be 1a~hed up, and some put on their backs with their feet in the air. However, two [-168-] shillings is the price for a set, and we cannot raise it, and there's an end of it! Luckily, the shoes last a couple of months!'
    We have been assured by a donkey expert that the Irishmen always bray with a brogue, and that without this they would often be unrecognisable; but recent experience has taught us to our sorrow that humorists of the libellous kind are not unknown among donkey drivers. Perhaps our driver had an unusually cultivated ear for vocal music; any way, after a day's drill we have not found it difficult to identify an Irish donkey nine times out of ten.
    There are over 200,000 donkeys in Ireland employed in agriculture, and these are of all sizes, some of the larger having a strain of horse blood in them, as is the case in Italy, where the so-called donkey is a by no means insignificant animal. Italy has more donkeys than any other European country, there being over 700,000 of them there; while France, which of late years has taken to that most difficult of pursuits, mule breeding, has 400,000. The great mule-breeding country is, however, the United States, where there are two and a half millions of mules and donkeys taken together, it being found impossible to separate them owing to the varying proportions of horse ancestry producing an indefinite series from the genuine mule to the asinine mulatto. For the male mule is not always sterile, and the female will breed with horse or ass, or apparently any species of equus.
    Next on the list to Ireland, as a source of supply to the London Donkey Market, is 'gallant little Wales,' whose natives also are credited with a note of their own, [-169-] shrill, persistent, and distressing, though welcome in the owner's ear, for a Welsh donkey is generally a good one; in fact, Wales breeds our best donkeys, and some of them will even fetch as much as 30l.
Donkey breeding has its difficulties, and it does not pay in England. Now that the commons have been inclosed, or taken over by County Councils, and the common rights done away with, pasture for nothing is rarely obtainable, and the margin of profit on a donkey is too small to be worth troubling about. Prices are 'up' now, it is true, and a donkey that a few years ago could be had for eighteen shillings will now be cheap at fifty, but the ordinary work-a-day animal does not range much above that price, which we can take as a fair average market rate.

    The market has not a thriving look about it. The great area at Islington, with its labyrinth of rails and posts, is all bare except in one corner, and in that about three of the roads are filled, one with donkeys, one with a series of scattered marine stores of harness and horsey sundries, and one with the most miserably weedy ponies and drudges that ever greet the horse-buyer's eye. Here is the tail end of London's horse-world, the last refuge of our cheapest beasts of burden, the last chance of the pony, and the first chance of the donkey, brought together so as to show off the donkey to advantage. Great is the clatter as the weedy nags, all heads and legs, are bustled about over the stones, with a whip here and a whip there to make them swerve and scamper as they are shown off before the 'nibbler.' 'We call 'em nibblers, sir, 'cos they don't always bite!' There is a [-170-] 

[-171-] refreshing candour about the whole affair which effectually disarms criticism. 'He ain't much to look at, mister, but then I don't ask much. He might suit you at the price. Four pun ten ain't much for a oss!'
    'Try a donkey, sir?' Well, one would rather. A good donkey is a better servant than a bad horse. In proportion to his size he will bear a heavier burden and drag a greater weight. He will eat not a quarter of what a horse does, and he will live at least twice as long. 'How long will a donkey live?' we asked Mr. Gill of Hampstead. 'Live? Well, I know one that has lived thirty-seven years and seen three generations of the family from babhood to babhood!'
    And what becomes of the dead donkeys? A good many go in their last days to this Mr. Gill, who supplies them wholesale to the Veterinary College for dissecting purposes, the anatomy of the donkey being almost identical with that of the horse - in fact, a donkey is practically a horse, minus the callosities on the hind legs, and plus the tufted tail and long ears. 
    The dead or moribund horse goes to the knackers, 'the practical zootomists,' as they are beginning to call themselves, but the knacker will rarely have anything to do with the donkey, which is hardly worth the cost of carriage. Five shillings is his outside value for his hoofs, his bones, and skin - chiefly his skin, out of which we get shagreen leather and memorandum tablets, and perhaps a drumhead or two, though drumheads are nowadays mostly made of Canadian deerskin. The flesh is worthless. It is only the Persian who will eat ass's flesh, and even he must have it wild, after hunting it, as if asses were deer.
    [-172-] Most of these Islington donkeys would require little hunting. But why this abrupt return to donkeys? Why not asses? The reason is that though ass is the more scientific - and Semitic - it is the more unpopular, owing apparently to the old Egyptians, who originated the libel of the animal's stupidity, and to the Mediaevalists, who made him the symbol of St. Thomas. With us he is the great ass, for English is the only language in which the old word does not appear as a diminutive; even in Latin he is as-inus, and in German he is es-el. Ass sounds so very exclusive amongst us, while there is something pleasant and companionable about donkey, for a double diminutive always shows appreciation. No unlovable hoiden was ever called a 'lassiekie'; and donkey - dun, dunnie, dunniekie - is built on similar lines. 'Oh, you dear little, wee little donkey!' we overheard on Hampstead Heath; a phrase which an etymologist would render as, 'Oh, you dear little, little, little, little, little ass!' And some of these London donkeys are very little, though they are not so small as those in the ownership of low-caste Hindoos; and they would look mere dwarfs by the side of the big Spanish donkeys used by the Marquis of Salisbury in his Hatfield hay-carts, which must stand at least thirteen hands. But then the donkeys of Spain and Calabria will often run into more, and one of their stallions will fetch 200l. when bought for export to Kentucky for mule breeding, and also donkey breeding; the animal known as 'donkey' there being now as big as any in the world, and ranging from fourteen to fifteen bands. And even by the banks of the Ohio the donkey betrays his origin by his hereditary aversion to [-173-] cross running water, and his delight in rolling in the dust, as his ancestors delighted to roll in their arid desert home.

    The donkey of our streets is a better animal than he used to be. He is bigger and healthier, he is fed better, and he does more work. The work done by these donkeys is remarkable; I have known one in the shafts of a South London milk-cart which for eight months travelled 140 miles a week in doing the daily round.
    Some of this improvement is certainly due to the shows, the chief of which is the triennial one, which now sometimes holds its meeting at the People's Palace. A queer show is this, for not only do the donkeys come, but they have to bring with them their barrows all duly loaded up with vegetables, or fish, or firewood, or whatever it may be, out of which the 'commercial traveller,' as the costermonger now calls himself, earns his hiving. Of course every donkey has a name, such a name as one would give to a horse - many of the names such as are borne by winning race-horses. Some of the donkeys have been working for their owners seven, ten, or fifteen years; some of them are even entered as twenty years old; and in most cases, without a rest, they have worked their six days a week, year in, year out. Every donkey has his price, often as fictitious as that given at a bird show, but occasionally genuine and such as would lead to business, even though it may be 15l. or 20l. or 30l. Even at Islington these high-priced animals are to be met with, but not in the pens; they are in the light carts and barrows of the donkey dealers, who would [-174-]  think it infra dig. to drive a pony. Some of these thoroughbreds have pedigrees going back for several generations, and the starting of a Donkey Stud Book is evidently an event of the near future.
    Away from the crowd, in a pen by themselves, harnessed up to their traps and with cloths over them, we find two of these aristocrats admirably groomed and in the pink of condition. The cloth is taken off one that we may inspect her. 'That is White Jenny. She'll do her six miles inside thirty minutes any day you please!' 'And the other?' 'The Skewbald? He is as good.' 'And what is Jenny worth?' 'Forty-five pounds, not a penny less!' 'But is that not rather a long price?' 'Maybe, but she's good. What is a good horse worth compared to a bad one? How do you know a good horse from a bad one? By opinion. And that is how we know a good donkey from a bad one. That is not the highest price asked for a donkey. Why, I know a pair that changed hands for a hundred and twenty pounds - yes, one hundred and twenty; sixty pounds apiece!'
    And yet such scope is there for opinion that the rates at which the lots are being parted for in the market do not average as many shillings. This is for 'Jacks' for ordinary driving among costers and organ-men. But we are here reminded that there is a curious by-way of the donkey world concerning itself with 'milch asses.' These have been bought for 12l., but they generally range from 7l. to 8l., being sold again after six months at from 2l. to 3l. Asses' milk was at one time a favourite with physicians. Being more sugary and less cheesy than that of the cow, it was well [-175-] suited for weaklings and invalids of a consumptive turn, and a fairly large business was done in it. But the patent foods came in with their voluminous advertisements, and the trade has almost died out. It is most in evidence in one or two of the West End squares during the season, where a donkey, with a goat in the cart, may be seen in the morning going round to be milked. If there are fifty milch asses in London it is as much as there are, the oldest firm at work being that of Dawkins, of Bolsover Street, which has been selling asses' milk ever since 1780, and, what is more extraordinary, jobbing out milch asses to families, sending them far and wide into the country, accompanied with full printed directions as to how to milk and treat them. As an ass will yield about a quart a day, the London supply could easily be got into a single churn, and is manifestly microscopic, but the jobbing is not so insignificant a business, and is certainly worth a note.
    Donkey jobbing in its draught and riding branches exists, but does not flourish. Here and there one hears of men with studs ranging up to fifty, but they are not numerous. Ten is the average stud of the donkey master, and there are about five hundred donkeys thus 'standing at livery.' It is not a satisfactory business to run, and many people have burnt their lingers at it. A donkey out on hire for a month is at the mercy of his hirer, who is not always merciful, and it is frequently returned so over-driven and knocked about that it takes two months to return to decent condition; and as the charge for hire is three shillings a week, the twelve shillings spread over three months is not much [-176-] to get a living out of, although it may mean 75 per cent, per annum on the capital invested. The poor willingly pay high percentages, owing to the amounts they deal with being so trifling. The same rule holds good in all trades; on a large return a living is possible on a small percentage, but where the return is small the percentage must be large. No wonder, then, that to hire a donkey many a costermonger has to borrow the money at 20 per cent, per week.
    Many of the donkeys at the Islington market appear there two or three times during the year, and all the 3,000 are not used up in London, for Brighton and Margate and other seaside pleasure towns are supplied from the London centre. Against this we must put the private sales, for many of our donkeys change hands without visiting Islington. Altogether there seem to be about thirteen thousand donkeys in the county of London. These mostly begin work at two years old, though they ought not to begin until they are four, and they are very seldom used for riding purposes until they have turned three.
    But the riding donkeys are few in number. On recent application to the County Council, we were officially informed that only fifty-seven drivers now hold licences to let out donkeys on the open spaces under the Council's control, and that each licence only entitles the holder to let out five animals.
    There is at present no special breed for riding, the donkey being in the same state as the horse, whose shape and make decide whether the mount or the draught is to be his line in life; and the best begin with 'pleasure,' and take to business in the shafts later on.
    [-177-] About twelve years would seem to be the average London life, most of the veterans being disposed of at last for country work. A donkey seldom breaks down. He is one of the healthiest of animals, and one of the cheapest to feed. He is so clean and careful that he rarely troubles the vet. He will not drink greasy or dirty water; he would rather go without and die of thirst. His food must be fresh; no leavings will suit him. Once a donkey has breathed over fodder in a nose-bag no other donkey will touch it, nor will he touch food that has been breathed over by any other animal. Like the knight, he must have an egg to himself, although, like the gallant Schweppermann, he will not object to two. One good meal a day of, perhaps, chaff and oats, and beans and hay, with some pudding or bread from his master's table, is his usual fare; but he only has corn when he is at work, and his hay is often that newly mown from a gentleman's lawn. He takes kindly to potatoes and carrots, but he objects to a Saturday 'mash.' He is very sound on his feet, and is rarely troubled by contagious diseases - in short, he is a sanitarian, and almost proof against epidemics.
    He has very strict notions as to what constitutes a day's work, and once he gets home will never go out again that day if he can help it; and it requires immense persuasion, and no little force, to get him to work on a Sunday, for, like his humble master, he has a very strong objection to working more than six days a week. Some people tell us that the greyer he is the stupider he is, but it appears on investigation that those who hold the opinion have generalised on a very few examples, as is the way of the world in most [-178-] 

[-179-] other matters. He is said always to bear the 'ancestral stripe,' but this is gradually being bred out of him.
    Those who would see the coster's donkey at his best should go to Billingsgate or the vegetable markets early in the morning. There they will find him smartened up by his drive from home, and contentedly waiting for his load; and they will probably be astonished at his being on the whole so cheery and well. Donkeys on hire are often ill-treated, but a donkey driven by his owner is generally hooked after kindly, inasmuch as few men care to damage their own property. Many of these costers' donkeys come pattering along with a briskness and assurance that can only come of contentment with their work, and some of the smallest even are as active and 'packed with power' as one could wish, and with a quiet, fearless outlook, speaking volumes for their master. Here and there some exceptionally good-looking examples will be pointed out to a new-comer as 'known in the shows' or 'on the road,' and hoping to he better known, perhaps next year in the Donkey Derby which is being organised by Mr. John Atkinson, the well-known medical superintendent of the Animals' Institute in Wilton Place; the idea of the competition being that racing will improve the breed by encouraging emulation among the breeders.
    At the same time the donkey is hardly a racer at present, although donkey-racing is not unknown, and that under two very different forms. There is the 'comic' style, usually indulged in at country fairs and travelling circuses, in which the rider's object is to reach the winning-post last, owing to the prize being [-180-] given to the hindmost; and there is the more straightforward, but certainly less exciting, variety, in which the first past the judge is the winner. If we could have a race of this kind, in which the skill of the rider were rewarded in inverse ratio to his use of the stick, such a competition would not fail of support: but that it will not do to forbid the use of the stick altogether was shown some years ago at the Agricultural Hall, where, as a conclusion to the show, a race took place in which no sticks were allowed, and the result was such a display of tugging at mouths and kicking at ribs on the part of the riders, and poking and prodding with sticks and umbrellas on the part of the crowd, that the least said about it the better.
    And this Derby reminds us of another, which, however, was a man who spelt his name with an 'a.' He was a fish-salter who was driving borne from Billingsgate one morning when his donkey caught his foot in a plug-hole and broke it between the knee and the fetlock. What was to be done? 'Kill him!' said the crowd. 'No!' said Darby. 'I'll not kill him; I'll cure him!' and putting him on the cart, he dragged him home. He put the patient to bed in his own sitting-room, bandaged him, hooked after him, and had him on the high road to recovery, when Mrs. Darby, who happened to be a washerwoman at the London Hospital, let out the secret of the queer patient, and awoke an interest in the matter which led to a country home being offered to the interesting convalescent as soon as he was able to travel. And eighteen months after the leg was broken Darby drove up in triumph to Billingsgate with his pet 'as sound as ever.'
    [-181-] This is, of course, an exceptional instance. Costers' donkeys are not generally tended in sitting-rooms, though their stable accommodation is peculiarly varied. A shed or a lean-to against the back-yard wall seems to be the prevailing fashion, with the cart alongside and the harness indoors; for the harness may be worth as much as the cart or the donkey. A good set will cost 7l, a bad one may be had for as many pence, there being a lower depth in rag and rope than that displayed in the marine stores on the Islington stones, where the line seems to be drawn at the old carriage harness, which makes the poor little donkey look like a street Arab in a man's coat.
    Miserable as many of these turn-outs may look - animal, harness, and vehicle complete  -it will be found that they 'bulk into money.' There are 7,500l. worth of donkeys alone changing hands at the London mart during the year, and the carts are worth quite as much as the power that draws them. The costermonger begins business with a basket; from that he advances to a hand-truck; and from that, when he has amassed sufficient capital, he rises to the dignity of the donkey-cart, which made its first appearance amongst us in the days of Elizabeth, when donkeys first became common in these islands.
    Previous to then the few donkeys we had were, it would seem, used for riding purposes only, as the high-class Syrian breed is used to-day. Those who would see donkeys at their best, to Syria must go. In that interesting land they have become differentiated into four distinct breeds: the rough one, for ordinary draught; the heavy one, used for agriculture; the [-182-] Arab one, used for ordinary riding; and the light and graceful one, reserved as a mount for ladies only, which only very distantly resembles the patient variety on which the London mater-familias of sixteen stone enjoys a few anxious minutes on high days and holidays.

    It may seem a mystery why the donkey market should be held in such an unexpected place. Of course, it went there from Smithfield with the cattle market. But why did it begin at Smithfield? For the same reason as the cattle market did; because the animals could be conveniently watered at the old Horse Pool, which once lay between the moor fields and the smooth field that served the citizens as a playground. And the Friday market on that field was at least as old as the days of Fitzstephen, and even in those days it included the draught animals and peasants' wares' we find represented to-day among the posts and rails of Islington.