In today’s insulated world, we can only imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the animals that inhabited Regency London alongside humans. Cows were confined inside small city dairies or allowed to graze in public parks ready to be milked at a moment’s notice. Tens of thousands of cattle and sheep were driven from the countryside through the streets to Smithfield market to feed the masses. Considering that a “horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day”, crossing sweepers were kept perpetually busy clearing the streets of dung, for by the end of the 19th century, over 300, 000 horses lived and worked in London. Despite the sweepers’ best efforts, the streets were covered in horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere.* Not a pretty image of a time that we tend to view with nostalgia.
Town planners had to take the lodging of horses and animals into account when designing new squares and terraces, which was no small effort, for stabling these animals and feeding them straw made an enormous demand on urban spaces.
The direct and indirect energy cost of urban horse-drawn transport–in terms of feeding, stabling, grooming, shoeing, harnessing, and driving the hourses and removing their wastes to periurban market gardens–were among the largest items on the energy balances of late-nineteenth-century cities. – Energy in World History, Vaclav Smil, p. 132
In terms of urban transportation, horses reached the peak of their importance in hauling goods and transporting people between 1820 and 1890. By the turn of the 20th century, horses were rapidly displaced by electric streetcars, automobiles, and buses. The cost of stabling and feeding horses was enormous and most Londoners walked. Those who could afford the luxury of stabling their animals and maintaining their carriages paid a steep price.
The difficulty and cost of horses and their stabling encouraged walking, which helped to keep the city small and dense. The limited travel span of the horse and cart further restricted urban expansion by constraining the outward movment of industry. An idea of the costs to households of private horse-based transport can be seen in the mews of the more expensive nineteenth-century West End neighbourhoods. Solely designed to house horses, carriages and livery servants, these back passageways behind the grand houses took up considerable space; whilts working horses ate prodigious amounts of feed, and livery men were often some of the best paid domestic staff. – An economic history of London, 1800-1914, by Michael Ball, David Sunderland, p. 229
Coaching houses and mews not only had to be located close enough to dwellings for convenience, but they needed to be tucked out of sight , especially in the tony West End (see image below). These photographs of Garrett Street Stables in Islington, London demonstrate how horses were traditionally kept. The site also tallies the numbers of horses that have been stabled at that location since 1750. While these animal were housed in a well maintained stable, one can only imagine the conditions for animals who were unlucky enough to be owned by those who could barely eek out a living. Costs for maintaining horses and a carriage in London were astronomical and reserved only for the rich if they could find a convenient space to house them. If one purchased a horse, one had to find stables, as Georgette Heyer reminds us in The Grand Sophy, when Sophy shows up in a new phaeton drawn by a pair of horses:
‘Don’t hesitate to tell me which of my mother’s or my horses you would like me to remove from the stables to make room for these!’ begged Mr. Rivenhall, with savage civility. ‘Unless, of course, you are setting up your own stables!’
Relying on a carriage for transport, however, required significant wealth. They were expensive to buy and maintain, needing as they did stabling for the horses and liveries for the coachman and grooms. Even renting a carriage and pair (two horses) with a coachman cost £200–£300 a year (£10,000–£20,000 today). The two-wheeled carriages with one horse (the Ferraris of their day) were called ‘bankrupt carts’ by the Chief Justice ‘because they were, and are, frequently driven by those who could neither afford the Money to support them, nor the Time spent in using them, the want of which, in their Business, brought them to Bankruptcy’. Stabling your own horse, particularly in a city, was harder than finding a parking space today. Just feeding a horse cost £30 a year – more than feeding the groom, in fact – while the coachman’s liveries cost more than his annual salary.
On a practical level, coaches also took some time to prepare and had to be ordered several hours before they were needed. They were therefore more useful for displaying one’s wealth than for surveying one’s estate. They were necessary on long journeys, of course, or when carrying large loads, but otherwise riding a horse or a mule was much the quickest and cheapest option … – Regency House Party, Channel 4 History
The costs of keeping a horse in London are still enormous. Economist Brad DeLong estimates that with exercise, stabling, grooming, shoeing, and other facilities it costs £30,000 to maintain each horse per year, which is considerably more than driving and maintaining a car.
- Going by Coach, Jane Austen Centre
- Garrett Street Stables
- *The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, Stephen Davies, 2004
- Crossing Sweepers
- Gower Mews, City of Sound