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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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The most famous of London’s many bridges celebrates its 120th birthday this year. Horace Jones’s masterwork was opened by the Prince of Wales on 30 June 1894, nine years after the Act of Parliament was passed to bring it into being.

To mark the occasion, the Guildhall Art Gallery has just launched an exhibition of representations of Tower Bridge down the years. Like Sir Charles Barry and others before him, Jones didn’t live to see the completion of his most prestigious project. He is remembered here at the entrance to the show with his most famous portrait along with that of his engineer, John Wolf Barry, son of Sir Charles himself.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

Charles Pears (1873-1958), Blitz. Our London Docks, 1940, oil on canvas. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

After this, the bridge itself is the only star. There are many dozens of depictions spanning over a century. They include water colours, oils, pencil drawings, and photographs. Most notable of the latter are an amazing survival from the early 1890s of the bridge being built and we are reminded that for all appearances, this is a steel bridge with cladding. There are also fine engineering plans of the towers, along with ephemera relating Tower Bridge’s earliest days: invitations and programmes for the opening and even for the laying of the foundation stone. Incredibly elaborate items where Union flags abound. This was, after all, to be the new front door of  the capital of the world’s greatest power at its mightiest.

But by far the biggest element of the show are the paintings. They are in a multitude of media, taken from every viewpoint: the pool of London; Wapping; Rotherhithe; and at least one from the bridge itself. The London skyline, an evocative addition to any landscape features varyingly. But there is another star of the show: it is, of course, the Thames. And with the Thames come boats and boatmen. All subject matter that is a gift to the painter: if you think about it, nothing possibly can go wrong for any artist. There was only one picture I thought was not particularly good, but even it looked delightful thanks to a quite nice tugboat centre stage: it was very much the exception.

So an exhibition featuring images of the most photogenic (and yes, there are old photos too) bridge in the world is hardly going to struggle. But they still have to be sourced, chosen and displayed in a coherent way, and variety here is key. Moody here, frivolous there; the highly detailed rubs shoulders with the broad brush approach. The arranging is broadly chronological without being slavishly so.  The gallery and curator have got this all completely right and the result is delightful. You’d be mad not to go: entrance is free.

120 Years of Tower Bridge (1894-2014) runs from 31 May – 30 June, so not particularly long.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), The Opening Ceremony of the Tower Bridge, 1894-5, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge. Guildhall Art Gallery.

Frank William Brangwyn ARA (1867ÔÇô1956), The Tower Bridge, about 1905, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

James Page-Roberts (b. 1925), Self-Portrait with Tower Bridge, 1965, oil on canvas. Copyright The Artist.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery.

Judith Evans and Arthur Watson (b. 1949, b. 1946), The Spirit of London, 1981, oil on canvas.
Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Tower Bridge, Guildhall Art Gallery

Mentor Chico (b. 1963), Forever Imagical Tower Bridge 2014, 2014, oil on canvas, copyright The Artist

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cart marking 2011Today saw the ancient cart-marking ceremony which takes place at the Guildhall every year. It is held by the Worshipful Company of Carmen, who represent hauliers, public transport and other commercial road vehicles. From medieval times, commercial vehicles were limited by number within the City and licensed with a brass plaque. In modern times, this became impractical but the ceremony is still undertaken each year, involving about 50 vehicles, ancient and modern. It involves the Lord Mayor of London or his representative branding a letter on a plank of wood on the side of each vehicle. This year’s letter is “T”. Some of the carts are modern monsters by the likes of Scania. But most are historical vehicles, including horse and carriage, buses, steam traction engines, taxis and lorries. For added novelty value we had a fork lift truck.

Much fur and scarlet livery was in evidence as the Lord Mayor’s representative, Lord Levene, did the honours. The vehicles were immaculate and the whole ceremony was a load of fun.

cart marking 2011

cart marking 2011

The prettiest of the buses.

cart marking 2011

cart marking 2011

cart marking 2011

A steam powered lorry from the 1930s. Very quiet, not too smoky, smelled lovely.

cart marking 2011

Monty’s Roller.

cart marking 2011

Cockney geezer. This fellow ostentatiously lit a ciggy before presenting himself to the dignitaries. Top man.

cart marking 2011

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The London Transport Museum, as most people know, is based in Covent Garden. But like most museums, space is limited and a lot of good gear needs to be stored elsewhere. In the case of LTM, this is Acton Depot, which has two open weekends each year, in March and October.

london transport museum acton depot

Acton Depot: dull urban warehouse full of hidden treasure.

Acton Depot is simply a large warehouse immediately across the road from Acton Town tube station. It is an Aladdin’s cave of old tube trains, buses and all the associated paraphernalia: ticket booths, electrical control boards, signalling gear, ticket machines, posters, advertisements, architectural models, safety equipment and so forth. Unlike the main museum, it has an oily rag quality to it and one can almost hear the ghosts of passengers and staff of days gone by.

One is struck by the hardiness of the old buses and tube carriages. Many vehicles which entered service in the 1930s were only decommissioned in the 1980s and 1990s, coaches that we may have travelled on. Even the earlier ones are familiar to us from interwar and post-war black and white movies. There are ticket-machines and platform shops that all of us can remember using.

Many of these artifacts populated the public spaces of our youth and most of them would be familiar to our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. They represent massive change over a relatively short period: they played their part in transforming London from a smelly, horse and cart city of centuries standing to a modern metropolis. Yet in their way, they are unquestionably archaic. One finds oneself stroking the shiny black mudguard of an old bus as if it were as much a living thing as the horse it replaced. Leaning on the worn bare metal of the 1930s Westinghouse control panel from Bond Street tube station, decommissioned just 10 years ago. And that’s the joy of a museum which celebrates the 20th Century: it’s history with a very powerful dose of nostalgia.

In addition to the two open weekends in March and October, London Transport Museum hosts guided tours of the Acton Depot on the last Friday and Saturday of each month. More information here.

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

london transport museum acton depot

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The clearance between train and tunnel is ofte...

Image via Wikipedia

I very much look forward to attending the launch tomorrow evening of Engines of War, a new book by Christian Wolmar.

This book is not specifically London-centric, but I mention it because Christian is also the author of Subterranean Railway, the definitive history of London Underground;  he is a leading expert in the story of London’s public transport. Great news for London Historians is that Christian has agreed to write a piece for us in the near future.

I’ll be interested to read Christian’s take on AJP Taylor’s assertion that World War I was run on train timetables. *

This is a charity event on behalf of Railway Children and costs £15 , £5 of which is your discount if you purchase a signed copy of the book. It takes place near St Pancras Station at 18:30.

For more information and booking, go here.

Update: I have just spoken to the organisers who say it is also okay simply to pitch up and pay at the door.

*Update II: Christian has been in touch to say that in the book he debunks Taylor. Looking forward to that.

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