To some very real extent Victorian London was powered by the horse. Horses pulled cabs and carts, coaches, trams and omnibuses, and where today an individual might use a car to get around in the 1800s our ancestors would have ridden (if they had the wealth to afford it). The capital’s streets were thronged with horses then, as well as with people, and no doubt the streets were also well fertilized with the animals’ ‘leaving’s (although some drivers fitted bags to collect the manure their beasts expelled).
The use of horses is something we’ve left behind as the internal combustion engine has replaced them: better perhaps for them if not for us given the unprecedented levels of pollution that have now made central London’s air quite literally lethal. Today we think of horses as a luxury or as pets, animals more associated with the countryside than with the town. Yet even a short walk around the city would remind of the horse’s ubiquitous presence in the past, remembered today in the frequent existence of horse troughs and mews.
It was a hard life being a working horse in Victorian London. Cabbies, coachmen, carters and bus and tram companies worked their animals for long hours in all weathers. The average horse might work for 11 years and no peaceful retirement to pasture awaited them at the end of that, just one of Harrison Barber’s knackers. The firm of Harrison Barber had, by the 1880s at least, come to dominate the horse slaughtering business – something myself and Andy Wise discuss in our new history of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Most of the horses that ended up one of the company’s many yards across London were destined to serve the capital in another way, as pet food sold door to door by a ‘cat’s meat man’.
Many of those who kept a horse must have cared deeply for them; bonds between us and animals are deep rooted and not a ‘modern’ phenomena. But cruelty was also a feature of the relationships then as it is today. In May 1884 Charles Ramsden was brought up at Marylebone Police court and charged with ‘cruelly torturing a horse’. The 22 year-old cab driver worked for a cab proprietor named Barrell.
Mr Barrell was in court to testify that the young man had left his yard at six on Saturday evening and did not return until eight the following morning. Throughout the intervening 38 hours Ramsden had worked his horse constantly and as a result the poor animal had developed a wound on its back ‘so deep that he could have buried an egg in it’ the owner explained.
‘Now, however, it had swollen considerably, and was as big as his (prosecutor’s) head. The animal was dreadfully exhausted, trembled, and was very stiff in its joints from overwork’.
Ramsden had apparently refused to say where he’d been that night when Barrett has asked him but in court he told Mr De Rutzen that he’d had no choice but to keep working as he was unable to get a fare and so ‘was determined to stay out until he did get one’. The two policemen that arrested him gave supporting evidence as to the state of the animal as did William Peacock, a vet living on Westbourne Park Villas.
The magistrate was clear that this was a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he sent Ramsden to prison for a month with hard labour. Hopefully the animal recovered but I fear that its future looked bleak and that a visit to a knacker’s yard was not that far away.
[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 20, 1884]