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A guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier, this article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from October 2014.

It is the summer of 1720, and you decide to walk (not ride) around London’s outer edges, keeping woods and trees on your left all the way. Starting from Hyde Park Corner, you head north to the gallows at Tyburn and east along the Oxford Road, proceed around Montague House and Lamb’s Conduit Street, Clerkenwell and Bunhill Fields, and turn south from Shoreditch to pass Whitechapel. The northern shore of the Thames is lined with wharves and smart seafarers’ houses downstream as far as Wapping, where you get into a wherry (that’s why you don’t have a horse: the horse ferry is expensive). You are rowed across to Rotherhithe Church. After a quick detour inland to Allhallows in the Borough you follow the shore upstream to where wharves, mills and cottages peter out near Vauxhall Gardens. Here you take another wherry from the gunmakers’ stairs at Vauxhall back to the horse-ferry terminus at Tothill, near Westminster, and walk up to Pall Mall and back to Hyde Park Corner. There have been woods and fields, or marshes, on your left all the way; and buildings – newish terraces on the northern edge, and a largely post-Fire jumble in the East and south – on your right.

jangreffierhorseferry500
The Thames at Horseferry, with Lambeth Palace and a Distant View of the City, London, by Jan Greffier, c1710.

London was four miles long and a mile and a half wide, with a population of around 400,000. It was not easy for horses: there were long slopes up from the foreshore to Covent Garden, Mayfair was hilly, the Fleet basin was treacherously steep on both sides and there were sharp climbs up from the river north of London Bridge. Loads were unlimited, laws against cruelty unenforced, and ignorant farriery ubiquitous. Most peripatetic farriers, recognisable by blue cross-belts with gold horse-shoes on, followed Blundevill’s bad instructions from 130 years ago, and over-pared hooves and heavy-shod them with agonising results.

The summer of 1720 was the height of the boom. South Sea Company stock was giddily high and fortunes were borrowed to buy it. The rich rode in the Park, flirted in private gardens and stepped down from coaches into pleasant squares; some rode out to Ascot where the late Queen Anne had begun a tradition of summer horse-racing, now continued by the German King George.

Back in London were crowds of shortish humans, dodging nervously over cobbles between hackneys and carriages and drays pulled by horses of uncertain temper that might weigh half a ton. Between every few houses were slippery side turns down to cobbled yards; certain streets were edged by ‘kennels’ – drains bridged by culverts; barrels, on ropes, were lowered into gaping cellars. Markets were crowded with impatient horses and scavenging dogs, streets strewn with spilled hay, and the crossing sweeper rarely got to the latest pile of dung fast enough. The smell of manure was omnipresent. Every yard, mews and inn had its dunghill. And this chaos played out against the roar of iron-bound wheels and iron-shod hooves on cobblestone.

Men with money rode their own horses in town, and rich women who happened to be frail or pregnant could be taken by carriage and four, kept at the town house’s stables; although riding ‘on the stones’ in the middle of town, in a heavy creaking vehicle without suspension, was certainly uncomfortable.

Horses, of course, had to put up with people: yelling drivers, bawling street sellers, wailing children, a din compounded in unpleasantness by a stench of sweaty, unwashed wool, for laundry water usually had to be carried from pumps in the street or delivered by barrel. London had thousands of cess-pits, growing obnoxious before they were emptied (the slurry being carted through the streets at night for eventual sale as fertiliser). And human behaviour was unpredictable. John Gay saw it all, in his walks about London.

The lashing Whip resounds, the Horses strain,
And Blood in anguish bursts the swelling vein.
Oh barb’rous Men, your cruel Breasts asswage,
Why vent ye on the gen’rous Steed your rage?

The craze for gin meant inhibitions were released, anger expressed in blows, animals neglected and above all, horses were stolen. A good horse, for quick sale at Smithfield, could fetch £10 at a time when thieves could look forward to getting drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence, pennies being 240 to the pound.

London’s working horses, like their owners, were crowded into cramped accommodation. If they were ever taken out to the fields of Marylebone or Brompton, they could graze on rich grassy meadows dotted with foxgloves and lady’s slipper, celandine and clover. Good fortune of this kind attended royal horses and cavalry horses, but plenty of draught animals toiled in the streets from one year’s end to the next. As to grazing opportunities south of the river, they had to get there first and either way cost a fare or a toll. The horse ferry was quicker than the journey across London Bridge, but picking your way through a cramped dark alley between shops and pedestrians could take an hour. London Bridge was a restraint on trade. Parliament heard repeated demands for a new bridge, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, who profited from the horse ferry at Lambeth, the Watermen, and the Bridgewardens, were solidly opposed.

In the autumn of 1720 the rich got a nasty surprise. The Government, the King, and every other potential investor discovered that the South Sea Company had been a Bubble. It burst, leaving them with debt.

Fine horses were suddenly for sale. Many were stabled on the great estates outside London, but if you were a suddenly impecunious aristo, in town, who chose to ride your best horse at Hyde Park Corner, you might get an offer from a friend.

The great age of horse breeding for racing, when today’s at thoroughbred bloodlines were sired by three imported stallions, was in its heyday. In 1720 the Byerley Turk had recently died, the Godolphin Arabian was yet to be born, but the Darley Arabian was very much alive. Rich men were impassioned by horses as status symbols as never before. The King had imported hundreds of cream Hanoverians, which were much admired. Everyone who was anyone took riding lessons; there were riding houses, with training circuses or even amphitheatres, in Riding House Street and down alleys all over town. Captain Foubert and his family had been running one for years.

DarleyArabian
The Darley Arabian, after John Wootton.

If Hyde Park Corner and an exchange between friends was not to be, the South Sea Bubble debtor would sell his horse, or his team of horses and maybe even the carriage he kept in town in an inn yard to a dealer, through an auctioneer like Mr Heath or Mr Osmer or Mr Beevor in St Martin’s Lane – or – and it did happen – on a Friday at Smithfield.

This was of course the start of a long downhill run to decrepitude. A champion horse kept at stud in retirement from the racecourse could easily, like the Godolphin Arabian later, live for thirty years. Or like most others it could, in changing hands, go from racehorse to country hack to carriage horse to carter’s horse in a decade or less. Such a horse might pull a heavy hackney carriage all day or join the team kept by a carter such as Mr Pickford and be sent back and forth along a section of the Great North Road. It was tolled, but still a rough surface. Most cartage horses would die of exhaustion before they were fifteen, for their the lives were fraught with sprains, skin diseases, eye infections, dental deformation and ailments generally arising from inferior care, stress and sometimes cruelty.

Those farriers who took their job seriously did mean well. They were at least as expert as doctors – probably more. While there were inhibitions about cutting human bodies up (and only six years later a royal doctor would ‘witness’ Mary Tofts giving birth to rabbits), horse anatomy had been studied for at least a thousand years. The expertise of a good farrier came mostly from observation of gait and wind and mouth. He dealt with horses daily – all farriers were shoeing smiths – and could tell when something was wrong.

Well informed owners knew that many equine ailments could be traced to poor shoeing. Diagnosis was sometimes perceptive but treatment was usually wishful thinking. The Farrier’s Dispensatory by William Gibson was a popular resource. The author earnestly explained that essential off the-shelf remedies were herbal – leaves, roots, seeds, grains, gums, barks and so on – animal, and mineral. Listing them all, he helpfully suggested cheap alternatives for less valuable horses. Herbs could be gathered or bought. Things like snakeweed and allspice were imported from the Americas or the Indies, then distilled, infused, or administered as balls (pills)or powders, suppositories or plasters. Minerals included borax, arsenic for poultices, petroleum, vitriol, antimony – an excellent all round tonic – and lead, silver, quicksilver, coral and chalk and brimstone. Animal derivatives included dog turd (to reduce inflammation), bear’s grease (a ‘ripener’ to relieve pain), beetles, the anal sac or some other stinking bit of the back end of a beaver (an import, very expensive, but good for the staggers); cow-dung wrapped onto stiff legs; cuttlebone powder, blown into the eyes; frogspawn; pickled herrings or bacon rind applied to wounds, and hoglice (woodlice), a clutch of which, ground into balls with flour, ‘open all manner of obstructions’ and would prevent blindness. Tiny puppies also could be cut open and ‘applied to the part’.

Gibson rejected some older remedies – toads, and fox lungs – although earthworm oil (made by boiling worms in wine) was always useful. Well-meaning as all this was, it does seem that for many horses neglect must have been the better option.

As a postscript to the horrified, please note that an Annals of Improbable Research Ig Award, 2014, has been awarded to a group of scientists who proved that plugs made of bacon, inserted into a human nose, are extraordinarily effective in stopping nosebleeds.

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