Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Of Christmas. And unicorns. And glittery bathbombs.

A highlight of my year as a child was when the November horse and pony magazines hit the shelves, together with their Christmas gift guides. Why not this charming pair of jodhs from Swaine, Adeney, Brigg for double the price of my entire riding kit? Or this extraordinarily expensive china horse at roughly the same price as a small car? Why not indeed? I could always hope.

So, in tribute to those long ago, black and white pages of glory, here is my own selection of horse-themed gifts. Like those articles, I have chosen things at which you will gasp and say What is she on? And also the odd, more reasonable contribution.

If you no longer wish to smell of the stable, then you might like to try Parfums de Marly, whose creations are mostly named after horses. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have said the Galloway (probably ancestor of the Dales and Fell ponies) was elegant and white, but here in the world of splendidly expensive French perfumery that’s exactly what it is. The scent itself is from £160 at Harrods, but you can buy infinitely more reasonable samples from the Parfums de Marly website at 3 euros a pop.


If you don’t want to smell like a pony, you could dabble with Godolphin, Byerley or Darley, and if the foundation stallions of the Thoroughbred don’t appeal, there’s always Pegasus, or even Herod, which is vaguely appropriate to the time of year, though perhaps best saved until after Christmas.

Demeter's Library of Fragrances can provide you with bottled Fresh Hay, Riding Whip, Saddle, and Stable. (They can also fulfil your dreams should you wish to smell of cinnamon bun, dust, or indeed laundromat). Somewhat cheaper than Parfums de Marly, these are £15 each.


Unicorns were a bit of a thing in children’s literature a few years back, but thankfully have now receded into a pink-tinged distance. This is not at all the case for children’s toys, however. Liberty can supply you with a unicorn head decoration by Tamar Mogendorff for your child’s wall for £600.



I would suggest not buying the unicorn head together with the splendidly named unicorn snot, because the thought of the two of them getting acquainted is truly horrifying. 



Unicorn snot comes in some interesting colours, and is around £7.99 (it's on offer at the moment) from Flamingo Gifts, as well as Liberty. The makers say it washes off. 

I once made the huge mistake of buying, and using, a glitter bathbomb. NEVER do this. You will spend at least the next month removing glitter from places in your house and your person it was never intended to go.

Leave glitter to unicorn tree decorations. 


This one, at £19.95 from Liberty (probably my favourite shop ever) would be right at home on our tree, which is never themed. Well, it is. The theme is EVERYTHING. Everything the children have ever made. Everything of which we’ve ever thought in a moment of panicky madness ‘This! This is the thing that will make my tree beautiful!’ And then when you get it out, you wonder what on earth you were thinking. All of that. We have so much all of that, lovingly hoarded from year to year that we’ve now had to move to two trees.

Unicorns need not be restricted to children — oh no. Lush Designs do a unicorn cushion (it's £35.00), and a whole load of other unicornery for your house: aprons, lampshades and bags.

However, if you do have a small child to buy for who is still at the flinging crockery stage, you might like to try their unicorn child’s crockery set for £18.75 — made of melamine so it should in theory survive the swift journey from high chair to wall.



So there we have it. A horse-themed Christmas. Well, actually not — it was pretty much all unicorn, wasn’t it? In my travels around the wilder reaches of horse-themed merchandise I have found more. Watch this space.

***

Monday, 21 November 2016

Review: Carl Hester – Valegro, the Little Horse with the Big Dream


Ah, Valegro. Superstar dressage horse who made all our hearts flutter in the last two Olympics. If you’ve ever wondered how Valegro started off, and what life is like if you’re a horse on Carl Hester’s yard (and indeed if you’re a dog, a guinea fowl, or a human) then this is the book for you.



There’s not a great deal of narrative excitement in the book, as obviously we all know what’s going to happen. What we don’t know, however, is how Valegro got there, and that’s what this book covers – or at least his early life. The book is the first of a series and I admit I am looking forward to what happens when Valegro meets the woman who was to become his rider, Charlotte Dujardin. What this book tells you is what happens when Valegro is first shipped from Holland over to Carl Hester’s yard. 

We’re probably all familiar with some elements of his story, but this book introduces you to things you probably didn’t know, such as the Hester naming convention (all horses the year Valegro arrived were given stable names of fruits) and that Valegro busily passaged all by himself in Holland: actual proper passaging, and not just in the midst of general field mucking about.

The book does have considerable charm, and gives an excellent insight into the somewhat esoteric world of dressage; one that most children will have little to no idea about. That does mean that at times the pace drags a little, because of the very careful explanations to make sure that all readers, and not just the horsy, will understand what is going on. And I think on balance that that’s a good thing, as this book is intended for children, and not for me.

If you know a child who was charmed by Valegro at the Olympics, then this book should be an absolutely ideal Christmas present.

 ***

Thank you to Janet Rising for sending me a copy of this book.

Carl Hester with Janet Rising: Valegro, the Little Horse with the Big Dream
Matador: £6.99
Kindle: £3.99, Kobo: £3.47
Age range: aimed at key stage 2 (ie, for non UK readers, ages 7–11)

Themes: growing up, dressage

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Pony Tails and Puffin Books II

Puffin Picture Books to me had it just right. Their illustrations were things of simple beauty. They weren’t in any way child-like, quirky, or hitting a particular, temporary, zeitgeist. The illustrations of the only Puffin Picture Book I had as a child (Henry Wynmalen’s Riding for Children, found at a Methodist missionary society jumble sale) gave me a sunlit, rural world in which lived a perfectly behaved grey pony, and a kind and expert instructor who gave considered and elegant riding lessons where you had no need to wonder why you were being taught the hands-in-lap show ring style that had been out of fashion for decades. 

It, and its fellows, were the idea of Noel Carrington (1884-1989), who in the 1930s was working for publishers Country Life as an editor and designer. He had tried to interest them in his idea of a series of factual books for children that explained the world around them in books that were inexpensive, yet profusely illustrated in colour. Country Life already published stories for children on country subjects, and had its own Country Life Junior Library series. They were not, however, interested in Carrington's idea, and turned it down. Carrington took his plan to Penguin co-founder Allen Lane (1902-1970), and the two met in 1938 to discuss the idea. Lane was keen, but had to go away on business. By the time he returned, war had been declared. The outbreak of war did not discourage Lane — quite the reverse. He wrote to Carrington to say:

‘…evacuated children are going to need books more than ever, especially your kind on farming and natural history.’

The first books appeared in 1940, and despite what Lane wrote, focused firmly on contemporary events. Three of the first titles, War on Land, War at Sea and War in the Air, took children into the heart of the war rather than sparing them from it. But Carrington was eager to embrace his passion for nature, and books addressing current events were, in the main, shelved for a series of mostly factual books, all in the same format, twice the size of a Penguin paperback. Unlike the Puffin story books, all the titles were specially commissioned.

Out of the 120 Puffin Picture Books printed, there were six that have some horse content: three story books and three factual books. Carrington maintained his record of giving children the best by commissioning the famous sporting artists Lionel Edwards and Michael Lyne to illustrate (and write, in Edwards’ case) two of the books. Artist and naturalist Professor Allen Seaby wrote the third, Our Ponies, which appeared in 1949.  

Henry Wynmalen wrote the text for Riding for Children (1949). Wynmalen was a particularly inspired choice. He was a proponent of the continental style of riding that aimed to be in harmony with the horse, rather than produce a rider who could stick on the horse, at whatever cost, as it charged down the hunting field.  Riding for Children was his only children’s book. It takes beautiful, grey Silver (because greys always have a particular fairy tale charm their darker cousins do not necessarily have) and takes his rider through a series of riding lessons, all illustrated with rare charm by Michael Lyne, a talented sporting artist.


The other two factual books covered British breeds of horse and pony. Allen Seaby had, by this time, already written and illustrated a series of story books about British native pony breeds, such as Dinah the Dartmoor (1935) and Skewbald the New Forest Pony (1923). Our Ponies (1949) covers most British breeds of pony (the Irish Connemara is missed out).


Lionel Edwards, the author and illustrator of Our Horses (1945) was one of the foremost equine artists of his generation, whose books and paintings still command high prices now. Our Horses is a short, but thorough look at the horse in Britain, encompassing working horses and riding animals, their breeds, equipment and gaits. Sadly, for copyright reasons I am unable to show you a picture of this book, but if you ever find one, pounce upon it and make it yours. It is a gem.

The other three Puffin Picture Books to include ponies were stories. They all feature anthropomorphised animals who can talk and comment on their situation. The first, and most overtly pony-orientated of them, was Joanna Cannan’s Hamish. Published in 1944, this book is unusual in wartime equine fiction in being the autobiography of a pony, a subset of the pony genre which had died completely with the advent of war. Hamish is also unusual for its strong dose of Scottish nationalism:

‘Scottish people are famous for going to England and getting all the best jobs. [Mr MacTavish] told Hamish that if he were naughty and lazy no one would think he was a Scottish pony. They would think he was English or Welsh.’


Hamish gains courage from reminding himself that he is a Scottish pony, and he frequently encourages himself with cries of ‘Scotland for ever!’ Sadly, he only speaks Gaelic, which no one around him speaks, and it is not until he meets another Gaelic speaker that his problems are resolved.
It’s tempting, if fanciful, to posit Hamish as a representative of the many people who were displaced during the war, and who found themselves strangers in a foreign country.

Phyllis Ginger’s Alexander the Circus Pony (1943) and Diana Ross’s The Story of Louisa Who Loved Pretty Things (1944) are both stories involving circuses, and like Hamish, aimed at the younger child. Alexander the Circus Pony is rare and expensive and one has never crossed my ken. Louisa, Who Loved Pretty Things by Diana Ross, which appeared in 1944, is a simple and moral tale of companionship and loyalty. Louisa's noble, and poverty-stricken, owner releases her so she can go in search of the pretty things she loves. Louisa resolves to take no job unless they will take her old master too, and eventually manages to find one for them both in the circus.





What all these titles had in common was that they did not talk down to their readers. The Picture Puffin Books paid children the compliment of assuming that facts did not need to be simplified or edited; simply explained well with illustrations that complemented and developed what was presented in the text.

***
Sources
Phil Baines: Puffin by Design, 70 Years of Imagination 1940–2010 (2010)
Owen Dudley-Edwards: British Children's Fiction in the Second World War (2007)

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Pony Tales and Puffin Books I

When I wrote Heroines on Horseback, I looked briefly at the impact that the development of paperback publishing had on the pony story. I was looking then at publishers like Armada, the paperback arm of Collins, whose business model was to produce paperback versions of books children wanted to read, in an often standardised and abridged format. Armada and Dragon tended to concentrate on popular series and genres: school stories, Enid Blyton, and of course the pony story. Puffin’s publishing model was subtly different. Puffin’s first editor, Eleanor Graham, aimed to give children the best of children’s literature, a model Kaye Webb, its next editor, followed and developed.

It’s interesting to look at the horse stories that Puffin published in the light of this, and that’s what this short series of blogs will do.

Eleanor Graham (1896-1984) was born to a father who was the editor of Country Life and a mother whose passion was books. After a brief interlude when she studied medicine, Eleanor’s life entered the world of the book and stayed there.  She left her medical studies to work in the newly established children’s department of Bumpus’s bookshop in Oxford Street, London. On starting work, she told her employer that she knew nothing about children’s books, and was told not to worry, as no one else did either.

This was not uncommon in 1927, when Eleanor began work. There was plenty of literature available for children, but little critical appraisal of it, or intelligent selection. Eleanor watched what children and librarians selected, and learned. She reviewed children’s books for the Sunday Times and the Bookman, and went on to work as children’s editor for Heinemann and Methuen. She wrote four children’s stories herself, the most notable of which, The Children Who Lived in a Barn (1938), addressed the stern, cold realities of children trying to survive on their own with little money. Marcus Crouch, in Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, described Eleanor as ‘the first literary critic in Britain to recognise that children’s books needed to be judged by standards as demanding as those applied to adult literature.’

She applied these standards to her work with Puffin Books, which was set up by the founder of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, in 1941, despite the fact there was a war on and paper restrictions were making life difficult for established publishers, let alone new ones. Added to that, publishers were reluctant to release the paperback rights of their books. These factors, and Graham’s insistence on quality, led to a slow expansion of the list, a list which consisted for some years of reprints.

All eight stories with horse content that Graham chose during her editorship were indeed reprints, and not one of them is the conventional girl plus pony story. Horses are certainly allowed to be at the forefront of the stories, but preferably at a distance, whether geographical or historical. This was a focus which was reflected in the rest of Puffin’s early input, with its historical stories like Jehan of the Ready Fists and Columbus Sails.


Will James’ Smoky (1941) was one of the first titles to be published. Like Gerald Raftery’s Snow Cloud, Stallion (1959), the horses are set firmly at the centre of the stories, but neither are conventional English horses, calmly cropping grass in a field. Snow Cloud runs wild in Vermont, and his story is one of redemption as he recovers from a life of abuse to become an equine hero. Smoky has a similar story after he is captured from the wild, becomes a fine cow pony but is then set on a path of decline and ill treatment until he is rescued by the man who first trained him.


Both books mirror the quintessential horse story, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which made its appearance as a Puffin story book in 1954, and is still a timeless portrayal of the way man treats the animals who make his life possible.



Children come more to the fore in Muriel Dennison’s Susannah of the Mounties (1949), another book set well away from green fields and gymkhanas. Set in the Canadian Yukon, it is the story of nine-year-old Susannah, who longs to become a Mountie.


Kate Seredy’s The Good Master (1959) continued the theme of a distant location. Set in Hungary at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is more a farming story than one of horses, but the horses are ever-present. The book also uses one of the themes that became a mainstay of the pony story: the healing effect of the countryside. Urban Kate soon blossoms once at the farm. The Good Master is a particularly attractive book, filled with a sense of comforting and industrious family life, with everyone working for the common good, and pulling together despite drought, snow and accidents.


But three of these early Puffins are set in rural England. It’s interesting to speculate why Eleanor Graham chose two Romney Marsh titles from Monica Edwards’ output. Perhaps the Punchbowl Farm books, with their concentration on domestic and agricultural detail, were felt to be a little too close to the comfortable middle class world of most pony books. 


That is not something that can be said of Storm Ahead, a chilling picture of the effects of flood and tragedy on a community. Both Storm Ahead (1956) and The White Riders (1956), are really adventure stories in which ponies happen to appear. Although the ponies play pivotal roles in the stories, with Tamzin’s pony carrying her through the floods to Rye to fetch the doctor to Lindsay, and ponies being dressed up as spectral steeds in The White Riders, gymkhanas, and loving pony care are far from central. The attention is on the human, and not the equine.


The most conventional pony story of this period is Ann Stafford’s Five Proud Riders. Published by Puffin in 1953, it originally appeared in 1937, and is an early example of the time when the focus of pony stories was starting to move from the pony to the child. Ann Stafford does indeed get a gymkhana into this book, but has it all done and dusted before the real meat of the book, the trek the children go on, takes place. The real tension is from the human drama, and not whether or not the ponies get a red rosette.


Eleanor Graham retired from Puffin in 1961. She believed that children should be given the best that was on offer. Unlike later paperback publishers, she did not abridge stories. If authors had seen fit to give children 60,000 words in the original, that was what they got in the Puffin versions. Puffin proceeded with the entirely admirable aim of giving the children the best, and I find it cheering, and not the reverse, that some horse stories made that cut.

***
Note:
All publication dates are the Puffin publication dates. Most of my books are not Puffin firsts. The earliest titles, including Smoky, were originally published in the familiar three stripe format of the adult books. You can see them here.

Sources:
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Twentieth Century Children’s Writers, ed Chevalier
Marcus Crouch: Treasure Seekers and Borrowers
Phil Baines: Puffin by Design, 70 Years of Imagination 1940–2010


Thursday, 3 November 2016

Review: Caroline Akrill - The Last Baronet

It’s been a while. It’s been a long while, but Caroline Akrill is back. After writing the best-selling Eventers’ Trilogy and a raft of other sharply observed and witty horse stories (not words that often go together) Caroline went off to do Other Things, like run J A Allen equestrian publishers, and run a hotel.

The hotel obviously provided rich comic fodder, much of which has surfaced in this book. Her first book for adults, it is a gloriously sweary, brilliant, vital read, which moves effortlessly from the comic to the dark and on to the romantic.


Set in the 1980s, when new money had not yet rushed through the world of the English country house and refurbished it, Rushbroke Hall has reached a state of almost terminal decline, reeking with rot, roof timbers open to the skies. Its owner, Sir Vivian Rushbroke, is in hock to the bank for staggering, sick-making sums of money. Rushbroke Hall needs a saviour, and it finds one in the unexpected form of Anna, a chef. A chef with secrets. And a legacy, which she is determined to invest in Rushbrooke Hall by turning it into a hotel.

Everything is focused on opening the hotel for Christmas, and interlaced with the increasingly desperate attempts to sort the house out are the stories of the guests. Akrill’s earlier books are notable for their rich mix of galloping eccentrics and you will find plenty of them here. A rich widow with a family that turns out to be dogs. An accountant desperate to escape, just once, the kindly meant but stultifying Christmases he suffers each year. A businessman dressed in the finest and most splendid hunting clothes whose first riding lesson takes place on a gypsy cob. And Henry Lamb. I particularly loved Henry Lamb, the antiquarian bookseller with a heart of pure, and concentrated murder.

And there are horses. Sir Vivian’s daughter, Nicola, runs one of those schooling operations that exists on a shoestring.

I absolutely loved this book. It made me laugh. It made me cry. I loved the mixture of sweariness mixed with quotations from the King James version of the Bible (Sir Vivian is a fan). I loved the fact that although there is romance, it doesn’t (thank the Lord) follow the traditional romance plot. I loved the dark comedy of it all; the brilliance of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation. Akrill has lost nothing while she has been away.


 * * *


Caroline Akrill: The Last Baronet

Paperback due December 2016 (not sure if this will be available in the US or not. I'll try and find out).

Friday, 7 October 2016

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.

Sources
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

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Fall of the Railway Horse

There are no horses working in the shunting and goods yards of British railways now: the last one retired in 1967. That horse was the last of a phenomenon that had lasted over 100 years. 



At its height, in 1913, there were 27,826 railway-owned cartage and shunting horses in the UK, a number Bryan Holden in his The Long Haul describes as declining to 9,077 by 1945. This decline had effects that were noticed by even the higher echelons of society. Riding Magazine, whose readership were not generally troubled by lack of money, noted with concern in its July 1951 edition that the number of railway horses on parade at the 55th Annual Show of the London Cart Horse Parade Society at Regent’s Park had dropped from 61 to 14.

The decline, as with the agricultural industry, was driven by the replacement of horses with motorised transport. This was not a process that happened immediately: it took 40 years. The Second World War, and the rationing of petrol meant a temporary halt to the reduction in horse numbers, but it was only temporary. After the war ended, the push to mechanise gathered pace.

Horse-drawn parcel vans, Euston, 1925. © National Railway Museum and SSPL

Before the war, the motorisation lobby had waged what Holden called ‘a relentless war of words against horse transport’. He quoted the district goods manager of the GWR in Birmingham telling the West Midland Traffic Commissioners in 1936 that Birmingham City Council was strongly behind the motorisation drive, saying that ‘before long it would be necessary to compel railway companies to take horses off the central streets.’

The horse’s disadvantages when compared with mechanised alternatives were described in a Manchester Guardian article of 1952. The Road Transport Division of British Railways had set up an experiment in 1952, where 100 drivers used electric horses rather than the real sort. Hull was one of the stations that took part, with 12 of the new machines (the YE 4102). Charlie Pulford was one driver who took part, with the machine taking the place of his horse, Tiny. Tiny was allowed one, and only one, advantage:

‘Looking at it from the driver’s point of view, Charlie Pulford thinks that the only advantage Tiny had was that he knew his own name and would come when you whistled, whereas YE 4102 does not, and will not.’

The article sang the praises of the electric horse. You didn’t have to stable it, groom it, or feed it, or use farriers and harness makers. The only maintenance the author appeared to think the YE 4102 needed was a quick wash with the hosepipe, which showed a touching faith in the machine’s reliability. Mr A A Harrison, an executive officer of British Railways argued that the electric horses saved the country petrol, cut the use of manpower from 30-60% (not I would have thought a winning argument, but the Manchester Guardian does not comment on it) and recharged during the evening, therefore not interfering with the demands of industry.

The Manchester Guardian did not shy away from one final advantage of the electric horse: it didn’t involve you in a moral conundrum when the time came to pension it off.

‘…one railwayman observed ‘at least with the electric horses when it comes time for them to be pensioned off, there will not be one group trying to put them out to pasture, and another trying to eat them.’’

The prospect of going to slaughter was a real one. The number of horses in Britain fell drastically in the post war years. In the Blue Cross’s 1952 annual report, Mr E Keith Robinson said that 719,500 farm horses had been slaughtered since 1939, and estimated that the equine population had reduced by 1.5 million over the previous 14 years. He did, however, single out the British Railways Executive for praise, as it had agreed to sell as many of its redundant horses to the League as it could afford to buy.


Charlie at Newmarket, 1967 © National Railway Museum and SSP
The public it appeared, had a special affection for the railway horse. For many people in towns, the agricultural horse was a distant creature, not often seen, but the railway horse was different. It delivered goods to their workplaces. It delivered parcels to their door. They fed Tom, or Ben, or Kitty, as they stopped on their routes. They were part of everyday life.

Local newspapers printed story after story describing vigorous local campaigns to save the railway horses of their towns and cities. Our Dumb Friends’ League set up a lease and lend scheme. They, with the public’s help, would buy railway horses, and then rehome them, with regular inspections to ensure the horses’ welfare.

On 29 January 1954, the Northampton Mercury reported the story of an anonymous local businessman (described as ‘the owner of a very small business at the end of a back street’) who had heard that the nine horses at the town's Castle Station were to be replaced with lorries, and might end up in the slaughterhouse. He contacted the Blue Cross and Our Dumb Friends’ League and together they started a campaign to raise the £540 to buy the horses.

Tiny and Darkie inspect a mechanical horse, 29 January 1954. Image © Johnston Press plc  
By February 16, the target had been reached.

In August, the Mercury printed a heart-wrenching description of the last days of Northampton’s railway horses, and their journey to a farm in King’s Sutton. It’s ironic that horses who spent their entire lives transporting things were terrified of being transported themselves.

‘After years of work at smoky Castle Station, this was a new experience for Joe and Ben. They munched the thick grass, and then, realising they had more space than they had ever seen before in their lives, they kicked up their heels and galloped off together in sunshine.

Happy though they were, they were not too keen to leave Castle Station, early in the day. It took fifteen minutes to load Ben into the Blue Cross horse ambulance in which they travelled, and twice as long to coax an extremely reluctant Joe.

So reluctant was Joe to leave that once he broke away and ran back to his stables, shivering with nervousness.’

A reluctant Joe being persuaded to leave Castle Station. Image © Johnston Press plc 

This must have been extraordinarily difficult for Harry Hawtin, the stable foreman who was ‘losing two old and trusted friends’. What happened to Harry is not related, and one can only hope he was deployed elsewhere on the railways, there being few public collections to help redundant railwaymen.

Being horsy had no bearing on people’s willingness to save the horses. Mrs Ann Newton’s interest in railway horses was sparked when she gave an ice cream to a piebald railway horse in Leeds who then called every day for a tit-bit. When he was sent to auction in Manchester, Mrs Newton bought him, and from that point, devoted herself to working with the International League for the Protection of Horses to save the railway horses of Leeds, as well as campaigning for the ponies and donkeys shipped for slaughter from Ireland.

Ann Newton was a distinctive figure at the horse sales. No tweedy woman she, in 1952 the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer described her thus:

‘The tough horse dealers and their hangers-on in a Manchester auction yard are now used to seeing the spruce figure of Mrs Newton, always looking as if she had come straight from a London fashion show, elbowing her way through the crowd to bid for a horse against stiff competition.

She never ‘dresses down’ to go to the auctions—sometimes she wears an even more daring hat than usual. She is an incongruous figure in the gloomy shed, filled with frightened horses and with shouting and cracking whips.



Ann Newton raised enough money to save several of the Manchester horses, and many others throughout the North.

The public’s enthusiasm for saving the horses did not always meet with unmixed joy from railway staff. A fund had been started in 1952 to save the redundant horses in Rochdale, and the Manchester Guardian reported one railway man as being ‘fed up with shoving hundreds of people, including children, round the stables.’

Hundreds of people visiting railway stables was an occupation that had obvious time limits. The very last railway horses worked at Newmarket Railway Station (a handsome building alas now demolished). The last of them all, Charlie, retired on 21 Feb 1967, after shunting his own horsebox onto the train which was taking him away from Newmarket Station. He went to Clare Hall, Ston Easton, where his working companion, Butch, had already gone.

Charlie achieved some celebrity as the last working railway horse, and British Pathé filmed him a few years before he retired.



The railway horses of Britain felt their way into the public consciousness in a way their mechanised replacements could not. However inconvenient and overly labour-intensive the horse came to be seen, the opportunity they gave the public to connect with another living being, to interact with an animal that was pleased to see you even if it was just because you gave it an ice cream, led to furious fights to save them.   





References

Our, S. C. (1952, Oct 22). RAILWAYS TRADE "TINY" FOR AN ELECTRIC HORSE. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/479404792?accountid=55962

1, 500, 000 FEWER HORSES. (1952, Nov 03). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/479394091?accountid=55962

Riding Magazine, August 1951, pg 313

Northampton Mercury - Friday 29 January 1954, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Copyright Northampton Mercury - Friday 13 August 1954, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Yorkshire Evening Post - Thursday 14 August 1952, Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

FUND GATHERS £180 TO SAVE HORSES. (1952, Jun 28). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/479357825?accountid=55962