We like to have an old horse about the place

I was born when the working horse was already an anachronism, but there were still plenty of reminders of what had been. My grandparents still had a stable, part of a long wooden building with a hen house, aviary and pig sty. It’s long gone, and is now under a housing estate, but when my sister and I were little we spent hour after hour playing with the completely imaginary animals, collecting imaginary eggs and mucking out the imaginary horse. We weren’t quite so keen on the imaginary pig, possibly because the pig sty was dark, gloomy and distinctly spidery.

Those buildings were a tangible connection to a way of life that had gone. Now the buildings have followed the way of the animals, family stories are the only connection to them: the cockerel that attacked my mother, the pony that pulled the cart, and the wartime pig.

None of the people reading this, I suspect, have any experience of what it is like to live in a world where there are working horses round every corner. If I want to see a horse, I have to get in my car and drive. I went looking for stories of what it was like when horses still tramped the streets, and found some wonderful things, like this brilliantly pithy description of horses and boys in Aberdeen:

 Jees, when a Clydesdale started pissing on the cobbles ye had tae move quick. Yet I never heard one fart ever.  The cartie driver would often give you lift and let you climb up to his rickety seat for a wee hurl o’er the chatterin cassies…. The shires were great feathered footed, gentle beasts who were housed overnight in magnificent terraced stables with ramps in Virginia Street near the Bannerman Bridge, and some mature shires had full military moustaches and would eat yer 'piece' gladly.  When the cartie driver went to dinner so did the horse tossing his nosebag up and doon tae get a crunchful and relieving himself in the aforesaid manner and also shedding a pile of well rounded manure that we could use as grenades against our enemies when they had dried but slightly.

Heavy horses. Not pissing. The Horse, J K Brunel Esq

I never realised the potential of horse muck to be used as a weapon, and I am sad about that. The use of pedestrian horse as Derby winner, I was right on top of, however. I was not alone. Tommy Weston, champion flat race jockey in 1926, worked as a chain boy at Dewsbury Station when he was 14. A chain boy was responsible for waiting at the bottom of a steep hill with a horse, ready to hitch it on to a railway wagon to help the horse pulling it up the hill. Once at the top, the horse would be unhitched, and led back to the bottom of the hill to wait for the next animal that needed help.

Tommy used to ride the horse back to the stables (Dewsbury was obviously more forgiving of this than other stables – it was a sackable offence at some stables for the chain boy to ride the horse). When he rode back, Tommy was no longer Tommy, chain boy, but a jockey, riding against his hero, champion jockey Steve Donoghue.

‘We used to win many a Derby together. Crouched over his neck, furiously waving my whip and digging my heels into his broad sides, we clattered along the streets at a terrific five miles an hour. Time after time I just managed to beat Steve Donoghue by a short head as we came ‘dashing’ up to the finishing line – the stable gate.'

Tommy Weston, having moved on from chain horses, riding at the Pitmen’s Derby
(now the Northumberland Plate), 1927.

Getting mugged by a horse keen on sharing your food was something that used to be familiar to every city dweller. The Yorkshire Evening Post, in an article written in May 1940, gave a wonderful description of what it was like to walk down a street where horses were working.

‘Shortage of petrol has put many railway horses back on the street deliveries again, and once more shoppers in Coney Street, York, have to run the gauntlet of inquisitive heads and nuzzling noses. Once more there is equine blackmail extracted in the form of sugar from the assistants at the shops where the lorries call, though it must be more difficult to provide the blackmail in these days of sugar-rationing. Still, it is forthcoming.’

The writer went on to describe one particular horse, Billie, a magnificent black, well known in York for his habit of ‘disregarding all laws about the proper place for horses. He invariably got his forefeet on to the footpath, and thought nothing of nosing into shop doorways for his lump of sugar if it was not immediately forthcoming.’

‘People would soon notice if you weren’t there,’ said British Pathé in their film about the life of an everyday working horse.

And they did, too. The Bedfordshire Times and Independent wrote in 1954 about a horse called Jack who had worked at Bedford Station, and had now retired. He had been bought by the ILPH, and was now working at Bromham Hospital, which had its own farm. The comments of Mr Reg Benson, the hospital farm manager who took the horse on, sum up the connection between man and horse that many still felt, despite the fact numbers of working horses were in steep decline when the article was written.

‘We like to have an old horse about the place. It doesn’t cost much to feed, and a farm isn’t the same without one. I know a farmer near here who would gladly take one on just for the sake of having a horse on his farm, even if he didn’t work him more than one day a month.’

But even wanting an old horse about the place was not enough to maintain the horse in anything like the position it had enjoyed pre-war. Stark practicality won out, and now the overwhelming majority of horses in Britain are leisure animals. They are private animals, not public.

~ 0 ~

* The Pitmen's (or Pitman's) Derby is a race that's still run. The Northumberland Plate still takes place, as it did in 1927, at Newcastle racecourse at Gosforth Park. The race was originally run on a Wednesday, and coincided with the annual holiday week at the local coalmines. Its popular name, the Pitmen's Derby, reflected the major importance of the coalmining industry in the area, and the popularity of the meeting with its workers. The annual mine holiday week was abolished in 1949, after the mining industry was nationalised in 1947. Presumably to maximise a different audience, the race was moved to a Saturday in 1952, Tommy Weston won the race shown in the clip, riding the horse Border Minstrel.

Bedfordshire Times and Standard, February 19, 1954
The Dewsbury Gazette, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 September 1952 (My Racing Life, Tommy Weston, reviewed)
The Doric Column, website,
Yorkshire Evening Post, May 4, 1940


Fran Jurga said…
What a great collection of vignettes! Thanks for the explanation of the chain boy, that linked photo is worth a visit!

So we know what a chain boy is, but what is a pit man? Is it someone who worked in a coal mine? And, if so, was this Derby to honor them or did they have some role in the race? That's fascinating on its own. Those horses in the video definitely don't look like pit ponies!

Thanks so much for being interested in history!
Jane Badger said…
Thanks for your comment Fran. I've added a bit to the piece to explain about the Pitmen's Derby, which has an official name: the Northumberland Plate. The name referred to its audience rather than its riders. It was a conventional thoroughbred race, but was run during the annual holiday for the local mining industry. The race meeting was hugely popular with the miners, and for many, a highlight of their holiday week. After the mining industry was nationalised in 1947, the holiday week was abolished. The mining industry contracted dramatically during the post-war years, and there are now no active mines in the area. The old popular title of the Pitmen's Derby will probably wither altogether itself in time. Tommy Weston won the race at least once more, as far as I'm aware, riding Oracion in 1939.

Popular posts from this blog

Dick Sparrow - 40 Horse Hitch, and Neil Dimmock's 46 Percherons

The Way Things Were: Pony Magazine in the 1960s

Lauren Brooke: Heartland