If you travel on the railway now, you’d never know that the horse had been an essential part of its workings. The stables are gone: demolished or converted. The huge provender store at Wellingborough, which kept thousands of horses in London fed, is no more. 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, and the last of a stream of working horses whom the public fought for as they began to disappear.
At its height, in 1913, there were 27,826 railway-owned cartage and shunting horses in the UK. This had declined steeply by 1945 to 9,077 (Bryan Holden: The Long Haul), and it carried on doing so. The 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 fall 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.
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.’’
Because what happened to the horses was an issue. The prospect of going to slaughter was a real one, and not just for railway horses. 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.
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.
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 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...
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.’
It’s ironic that horses who spent their entire lives transporting things were terrified of being transported themselves. Their terror 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.
Our, S. C. (1952, Oct 22). RAILWAYS TRADE “TINY” FOR AN ELECTRIC HORSE. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959)
1, 500, 000 FEWER HORSES. (1952, Nov 03). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959)
Riding Magazine, August 1951, pg 313
Northampton Mercury – Friday 29 January 1954, Friday 13 August 1954
Yorkshire Evening Post – Thursday 14 August 1952
FUND GATHERS £180 TO SAVE HORSES. (1952, Jun 28). The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/479357825?accountid=55962