The Days of the Horse

horsebusThere are so many thousands of cars on our roads that we don’t often think back to the days before the horseless carriage. We now tend to think of horses just in terms of riding for pleasure but it was very different not so long ago. For centuries the horse had been used as the main power source for transport, cartage, farming and any sort of pulling use. Even into the early 1950’s they were still commonly seen pulling carts delivering coal and milk and still much in use on farms ploughing fields at harvest time. The working horse was different to the riding horse of today – heavier and muscular. The horse posed a different set of problems in daily life – the car needs petrol stations, motorways and garages while a horse needs feeding, watering and grooming.

forgetitledThere were several blacksmiths in Bookham. One of these was situated in the High Street at Great Bookham where there was a forge at the premises next to Brackenbury’s – look for its ‘tin’ roof in the old photo. Behind the forge the stabling stretched almost as far as East Street or Back Street as it used to be called. Not far away, opposite Townshott Close in Lower Road at Slinfold Cottage, was another forge. The forge was the equivalent of the garage of today – servicing meant re-shoeing the horses’ hooves, repairing wheels and making good any repairs to the carriages and providing saddlery, harnesses and collars. There were also ‘visiting’ smithies to visit farms and other premises. A saddlery business was situated opposite the forge in the High Street next to the Royal Oak pub. Imagine the scene in the High Street of horses waiting to be shooed and the blacksmith over the anvil heating the furnace with bellows.

A tradesman would need a horse and cart to make deliveries while a farm would have had a good selection of wagons and horses for working the farm, carting the produce, carrying the hay and straw. If you were slightly better off you might have had a pony and trap. Every horse needed a stable and stablemen or ostlers to groom and feed them.

stagecoach1slinfoldsblackieTransport added another dimension to the work of the horse. Any reasonable journey was made by horse and carriage, the only option until railways were gradually introduced in the middle 1800s. Longer journeys used a stage coach pulled by four horses whilst smaller carriages had just two horses. A horse could only be taken a distance of about twenty plus miles a day which meant say, a maximum of twelve miles a stage, remembering the return journey. Any journey had to be broken down to these twelve mile distances to allow for horses to be changed. The wealthy would own a pony and trap but a journey was limited to about a 12 mile radius. This meant that courting was limited too – marriages were nearly always within this area!

We think of present-day congestion on the roads but a city like London suffered much the same problem in the days of horse and carriage. By 1900 some 50,000 horses were powering central London ‘s transport – horse drawn buses, trams, carts or private carriages. Fuel emissions in those days caused a different problem – some 1000 tons of dung a day. Much of this was collected by dung carts and deposited in huge heaps. Alternatively the householder could have better roses and rhubarb by collecting it for himself! Children often used to earn tips from wealthy pedestrians as ‘crossing sweepers’ who for a penny or two would sweep a path across a street!

Horses also needed feeding and watering on a journey and a handy nosebag of oats was kept on the carriages. Water was supplied by roadside troughs for passing horses. There used to be a trough in Lower Road at the bottom of East Street . In town the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Horse Trough Company set up a series of fountains and troughs at many corners, some remaining ones are nowadays planted out with flowers.

tollgateThere was no centralised road system and a law was passed in the middle 1700s to allow private individuals to create turnpikes – roads on which a charge could be made with the owner responsible for the upkeep of the road. The turnpikes were controlled by toll gates at which the charge could be collected. A schedule of charges was made for stage coaches and carriages, allowing the passage of a flock of sheep and so on. A charge for a stage coach might be one shilling and sixpence (7½p now) but a considerable sum in those days. One such turnpike was the present A24, the London to Worthing turnpike with about twelve toll gates, another – the Leatherhead to Guildford turnpike. The stage coach owner recovered the toll cost in the coach fare – London to Worthing was a guinea if your seat was inside the coach or half a guinea for an outside seat exposed to the weather. The Leatherhead/Guildford road took you up Hawk’s Hill (Leatherhead up to Bockett’s farm) which was so steep that passengers had to get out and walk or even help to push the carriage up the hill! So road charging is not such a new idea! Road surfaces were nothing like those of today. The best surfaces were created by Macadam who developed the best method of laying small stones on top of a larger stone base and cambering the surface. Tarmacadam (tarring over the surface) is a fairly recent improvement to this method.

When you drive your two hundred brake horse power car along the road think back to the days of the one brake horse power horse. When you sit in the queue of traffic think of the toll gate. When you pay your road charges think of paying your toll. When you call at the garage for petrol think of stopping at the trough and fetching the nosebag. When you see the odd pot-hole think of the stony roads and turnpikes. Those were the days!

Martin Warwick

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