11 November 2021

How working horses shaped Britain

A horse works in a Welsh coal mine (credit Mary Evans Picture Library/Roger Worsley Archive) and a London horse bus (credit Mary Evans Picture Library/Grenville Collins Postcard Collection)

With our roots firmly tied in the history of WW1, each November Brooke takes time to honour and reflect on the heroic contribution of horses to the war effort. It’s estimated that eight million horses lost their lives during the conflict, and the majority of those who survived were either left abandoned or sold into a life of hard labour at the end of the war.

At the turn of the century, there were around three million working equines in Britain, fulfilling a variety of jobs from city transport and food delivery to the ploughing of fields and hauling of coal. When war broke out in 1914, the British Army had around 25,000 horses in its ranks and knew that it would need many more. Thousands of animals were drafted in, decimating the UK horse population for years to come. But what jobs might they have left behind?

Farm work

In the early 20th century, horses were a fundamental part of farm life. In the absence of tractors, they provided the power that pulled most of the heavy farm machinery. Usually working in teams of two, the horses would be responsible for ploughing, tilling and hauling manure. Brooke supporter and actress Pam St Clement grew up on a farm in Dartmoor in the 1950s and even then, decades after both world wars, she relied on her two horses Duchess and Violet to get much of the work done. She said: “My god, we couldn’t have done without them. We didn’t have an alternative. We didn’t have these fancy tractors that they have nowadays.”

Pit ponies

From the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, pit ponies were widely employed throughout mines in Britain to haul tons of coal on underground mine railways. They worked long, tiring days underground, coming to the surface only during the colliery’s annual holiday. Brooke volunteer Bronwen Bayliss, from Tregaron, Wales, grew up in a mining family and has strong memories of the ponies. She said: “One of my fondest memories from my childhood was being taken to the pit head to see the pit ponies when they were brought top side. Their joy was palpable.”

“The images of the pit ponies have stayed with me. The coal mines of Wales took their toll on horses and men, my grandfather being one of many. This is why Brooke is close to my heart. It’s hard to imagine that in 1875 there were over 200,000 horses in British mines, yet I believe there are no records of how many perished below ground. My family and I do not mourn the closure of the pits.”

In February 1999, two working pit ponies believed to be the last in Britain retired, having worked at a small, private drift mine in South Wales.  

City transport

At the turn of the century, horse buses were a hugely popular form of public transport in cities. The introduction of the Omnibus in the 1830s, meaning ‘for all’ in Latin, had transformed horse-drawn transport from the domain of the wealthy to something everyone could access. They did not need to be booked and could be hailed from anywhere along the route. Whilst the underground network began to challenge the Omnibuses on some routes from the mid-19th century, they did not have the same flexibility and the bus remained the most popular form of public transport. By the 1890s, there were over 2000 horse buses in London, powered by 25,000 horses. However, as technology ushered in the first trials of motorised buses, the horse era came to an end. The last London horse bus ran on 4 August 1914, the day Britain declared war on Germany.

Food and milk delivery

Throughout the early to mid-20th century horses were employed to deliver food, milk and other goods to households around the country. The Co-Operative Wholesale Society in particular utilised this form of transport to become a major retailing force before the Second World War, and by 1919, a census showed that there were 6,000 horse drawn vehicles delivering goods for them. Brooke supporter Nicola Davidson’s grandad, John Edward Dyson was a milkman for the organisation now known as the Co-op. He is seen here with his father, Edwin Dyson and their horse, turned out for May Day, standing outside the Co-op in Marsden, Huddersfield.

Advances in technology meant that working horses had largely become a thing of the past in Britain by the 1980s. However, they are still crucial to the livelihoods of millions of people around the world today. From coal mine donkeys in Pakistan to gharry (taxi) horses in Ethiopia, equines are contributing to economies and keeping the world moving. 87 years after Dorothy Brooke set out to help the ex-war horses in Egypt, Brooke continues to give a voice to the voiceless and improve the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules.

Will you help us put a spotlight on them this November? Share this on social media with the hashtag #EveryHorseRemembered