Horse Transport

By Catriona Cook MBE

With our fast modern motor transport it is difficult for many to imagine what things were like in the days of transport by horse and donkey. Unless steep hills were to be negotiated with heavy loads, where a longer route following the contours was preferable, then the shortest route was used.


As Paddy Baker, one of my late mentors, said when we were discussing the arguments over path status today, compared with riding in her youth during the 1930s. “What a lot of nit picking; if you could get along on a horse, then you got”. This is how I remember it being as a youngster in the 1960s, riding around the Brendon Hills in Somerset attending Young Farmers dances; my dance frock squashed into my saddle bag!

In earlier centuries the breeding of horses and the fairs where they were sold were big business. The average life of a horse due to poor working conditions, especially on the roads was only 4-5 years. Literally thousands of horses were required for transport, troops, pleasure and industry, which meant hundreds of horses per village. The breeding of horses was a successful exporting business as far back as the middle ages. London had weekly horse fairs, whilst Yorkshire was renowned for its’ breeding of horses, with large annual horse fairs at Howden, Northallerton and Bedale and the largest nationally was at Horncastle in Lincolnshire.

1. Carriers & Coachmasters (Trade and Travel before the Turnpikes) by Dorian Gerhold 2005 page 94 “Undoubtedly the most common form of travel was riding on horseback. According to Guy Miege in 1691 (The New State of England 1691 part 2 page 46) ‘travelling on horseback is so common a thing in England, that the meanest sort of people use it as well as the rest’

2. A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain 1724-1726 by Daniel Defoe edition 1991 page 337 “I met with nothing at or about Bedall, that comes within the compass of my enquiry but this, that not this town only, but even all this country, is full of jockeys, that is to say, dealers in horses, and breeders of horses; and the breeds of their horses in this and the next country are so well known, that though they do not preserve the pedigree of their horses….

3. The English Fair by David Kerr Cameron 1998 page 95 “To Howden, one of the largest horse fairs of Europe in the Middle Ages, came not only dealers, from the Continental countries but even representatives from the royal houses. Howden would endure: 4,000 horses a day were said to be sold at the fair in 1807 and into the last quarter it was still going strong.

page 97 “By 1871 the dealing had become more dispersed- anywhere within a 25 miles radius of the town……Forty years earlier, the old timers recalled, a hundred locally bred animals could come to Howden Fair from just one of the surrounding villages.

page 98 “Another of Yorkshire’s legendary horse fair, Lee Gap-still being held after 800 years-was equally international.
page 102 “In 1881 the august Daily Telegraph described the ‘stirring spectacle’: “The high road in the vicinity of Barnet station commands an uninterrupted view of the broad spread of hill and dale where thousands of cattle and horses are collected for buyers to pick and choose from……

page 105 “In London alone nearing the end of last century, some 15,000 hansom cab horses…..The London General Omnibus Company, which had started buying out its competitors in the 1850’s had 10,000 on the road at any one time and around 20,000 in total, while tram horses in the capital totalled another 14,000. The railways owned an estimated 6,000; carriers such as Carter Paterson and Pickfords had 19,000, making 25,000 animals on carrier work…..1,500 pulled the capital’s rubbish carts; 3,000drew it’s brewers wagons; 8,000 coal merchants and 700 for hearses…..Count the private carriages, milk floats……the capital’s working horses population was probably around 300,000.

page 107 “ Horncastle…by 1820 was the largest fair for horses in the kingdom and unquestionably one of the greatest in Europe….By 1825 huge droves of unbroken colts were driven to it, thundering through the narrow twisting streets at the gallop, thirty or forty at a time….Horse dealers and buyers in their thousands thronged its cobbled streets….

3. Brensham Village by John Moore 1946 edition 1966 page 50 “ The spectacle of a young man in blazer and white flannels, carrying a bat, trotting down the village street on a lanky chestnut didn’t at all surprise the people of Brensham; for almost everybody in the place was a horseman, and the neighbouring farmer’s sons would often ride to the village dances in white waistcoats and tails.

All the above extracts conjure up a picture of literally thousands of horses being used and moved around using the local road network. All indicating that it was more probable than not, that any through route, would have been used by these travelling horses.

Over the past few years I have become aware that the new, younger generation of highway officers and civil servants have no grounding of the horse or our transport history. They and clever lawyers for the landowning fraternity are gradually airbrushing the horse out of our cultural heritage. Apart from equestrian access to the countryside, we need to address the education of the next generations, as regards the importance of the horse to our civilisation.

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