‘White van man’ in the dock as his horse falls sick and endangers life in Stoke Newington

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Today the internal combustion engine (and its electric equivalent) is ubiquitous, but the horse dominated nineteenth-century London. Horses were everywhere: pulling Hanson cabs, coaches, omnibuses, trams, carts, traps, and individual riders. Until quite late in the century there was hardly a form of transport that didn’t involve horses.

This meant that there were tens of thousands of horses on the streets, tons of manure to clean up, thousands of horse shoes to make and fit, hundreds of vets to treat animals that got sick, and even more knackers to dispatch them when they could work no longer.

There were rules to govern the care of animals and to prevent the spread of contagious diseases that might affect other beasts and, in some cases, the human population. Ultimately these laws were enforced by the police and the magistracy. James Witney had fallen foul of the law when he appeared before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in London’s East End in July 1879. Witney was a carman; a man that owed or rented a small cart and was employed to carry goods or materials across the capital. He was the equivalent of the modern ‘white van man’ and was probably held in equal esteem.

He owned a horse to pull his cart but it had fallen sick and couldn’t work. He should have notified the authorities and called a vet, but he did neither. Instead he sent Frederick Wright with the horse to Stoke Newington common to leave it somehow get better on its own. In doing so he had not only endangered the life of his own animal he had put other horses and cattle at risk because the common was used by lots of people to graze their animals.

The problem was quickly identified by a constable employed by the local Board of Works. He found the horse suffering from what he suspected was ‘farcy’ and he reported it to the police. Two government inspectors of cattle were sent to examine the animal and they agreed with his suspicions and ordered that it be slaughtered. Witney was informed and tried to get the animal removed to be treated but a local vet refused and insisted it be slaughtered before it infected any other beasts in the vicinity. When a post mortem was completed ‘farcy’ was discovered and the action of the authorities was justified.

Glanders and Farcy, according to the DAERA website, is ‘a serious bacterial disease of the respiratory tract and skin, affecting mainly horses and other equine animals’. It remains a notifiable disease in the UK even though it is thought to have been eradicated here and in most of Europe and North America. It is fatal to animals and humans and has been used a biological weapon in wars (notably by the Germans in the First World War, and the Japanese in WW2). There is currently no vaccine for glanders or farcy.

Mr Bushby was satisfied that the Board of Works had proved that Witney had broken the law and endangered both the public and animals on the common. He fined him £21 5s plus costs and handed down an additional fine of 10s to Fred Wright for ‘leading a horse afflicted with glanders through the streets’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 12, 1879]

The horse trade, especially the slaughtering business and the trade in horsemeat, forms part of Drew’s new history of the Whitechapel (Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888. This new study offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. It is available on Amazon now.

 

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