Camden Stables – in Search of Horse Ghosts

In most towns and cities, you can probably, if you look hard enough, find evidence of the working horse, even if it’s just in the names of streets. And although many buildings have disappeared entirely, some still survive, even if they have found other uses entirely.

One such is the railway stables that served the goods yards of Euston Station and the surrounding canals. Inner city stables like these housed an astonishing number of horses, often in surprisingly small spaces. If you are used to the open spaces of most modern yards, it’s difficult to imagine that once hundreds of horses were stabled around Chalk Farm Road, in what has become known as Camden Stables. At its peak, the goods stables housed 700–800 horses, with more stables at the termini for those horses who transported passengers.

The first run of stables was built in 1839, but they and the surrounding buildings saw decades of expansion and rebuilding. The earliest range of stables that still survives today was built in 1844­–6, and housed around 160 horses. These stables, large as they were, were joined by more and more as the Victorian era strode on and the boom in trade required more cartage. Stables were built to the west of the railway line in 1856 for another 150 or so horses. North of this another building was added for about 70 horses. The buildings were dramatically extended when Gilbeys, the drinks manufacturer, arrived at the site. By 1881, when more space was needed, there was not much option of where to go, other than up. Although room was found to build a two-storey horse hospital, new floors were added to existing ranges, and the horses found their way up via ramps or horse stairs.

Ramp up to the horse hospital

Not only were there horses, there was a forge, saddler, harness room, provender department, and housing for the superintendent. And not only were there were stables, there were tunnels, used to get the horses from the stables to the stations where they were to work.

The picture below shows Lilian Carpenter leading Snowball along the horse tunnels. It’s interesting to note that he didn’t need leading back – he could apparently be left to make the journey back to his stable on his own. Lilian Carpenter joined the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) during World War II, and was one of the subjects of a photo essay in 1943 by Ministry of Information Photo Division photographer Richard Stone, showing a day in the life of a van girl during the war.

Everyday life in the stables is difficult to imagine if you visit them now, but there is an excellent British Pathé film shot in 1949 about the flu epidemic that swept the Chalk Farm stables that gives you a fine idea of what life was like. It shows the forge, stables, tack room and provender store, and a vet administering medicine.

Less than twenty years after this film was shot, not a single horse remained. The last horse working on the UK railways worked at Newmarket and retired in 1967.    Most of the Chalk Farm stables have now been demolished, apart from the stables immediately to the west of Chalk Farm Road. Of the others, little else remains apart from the tunnels and horse stairs that once connected them to the goods yard. Like the ghostly unused tube stations that still survive beneath London, these reminders of London’s equine past still exist. You can see an excellent set of photographs by Nick Catford here.

The stables themselves are very different now. Most of what survives has been converted into retail units after the stables underwent a huge conversion programme in the first decade of this century.

Camden Stables is listed, and while it’s good that the country does recognise the importance the horse played in its past, it leads to interesting problems when attempting to reconcile this past with the needs of the present. In an attempt to relate to its past, the developers have scattered the place with bronze horses and murals. I’m not sure how successful the bronze horses are in conveying much of a sense of what life was like.

The bronze horses feel something of a sop to the conservation authorities, who like conversions of industrial properties to have some sort of nod to their past. The whole concept seems muddled. At the entrance are wild horses, bursting out of the arch, and on the floor below them is a farrier. Is this intended as a comment on man’s domination of horses’ essential wild nature? Or of the horses escaping the domination of man? Or just a clumsy juxtaposition? Whatever, there are a great many better horse sculptures in the world. But there are an awful lot of them at Camden, so if quantity is your thing and not quality you will not be disappointed if you visit.

As for getting any sense now of what it was like to live and work in the stables as they were built, I found it a struggle when I visited in 2016. Although the basic format of the stables still remains, as do the loose boxes, there’s very little sense of horse, despite all those large metal horses. I’m not quite sure what it is that gives it (to me at least) so little sense of its industrial heritage. I think it’s because the most noticeable thing about the place is the reason why people are there, and that’s to buy things, or wander along and inspect what has become a tourist destination. You are surrounded by people whose focus is things, and not by people and animals performing hard physical work.

That is fair enough, as that’s why the buildings now survive, and have to some extent been preserved. But the atmosphere of the place is not that different to anywhere else. We went to Carnaby Street afterwards, and the feel of the place was similar: if anything, Carnaby Street had an honesty that Camden Stables lacked.

Those bronze horses had a feeling of a case full of dodos. The real horses were extinct, and like dodos, the bronze horses were something just to look at, or to pass by, incurious, on your way to the next food stall.

The horse ghosts are still there in Camden, but you need to look for them. The horse hospital was easier to imagine as it had been, probably because it is now a club and not a retail space, and it was pretty much deserted when we went there.

I felt, I think a rueful sort of sadness when I visited. There was nothing there I wanted to buy: I have enough t-shirts. It was as if a cathedral had been turned into a shopping centre. Instead of that pull of centuries of tradition with generation after generation using the building for the purpose for which it was intended, this was I suppose, overlaying one manifestation of capitalism with another. The market had indeed moved on.

***

More on the stables

  • There is an excellent piece on the construction of the stables, on the Camden Railway Heritage Trust website. It has wonderful, atmospheric photographs of the Stables as they were in 2007 before they were polished up by the juggernaut Retail.
  • The same piece also has detailed information on the horse tunnels
  • Nick Catford, who took the photographs of the horse tunnels linked to in my piece, has written what is probably now the definitive guide to the London that lurks, unseen, beneath our feet: Secret Underground London.
  • Many women worked on the railways during both World Wars, and you can see something of what life was like for them on my piece on railway women. It also has many more photos of Snowball.
  • Even retail moves on – there are now plans afoot to gloss up the stables, displacing some of the small retailers who replaced the horses. You can read more about that here

Photographs copyright Jane Badger, except where stated

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