Up until the 20th century Camden, London and in fact the rest of the country was a horse-drawn society.
Camden was an industrial borough. It had factories, brick makers, timber yards, furniture makers, breweries and distilleries as well as being home to the piano industry. It was also a major player in London’s transport system, with three mainline stations — Kings Cross, St Pancras and Euston — and a canal system with Birmingham in one direction and linking up with the River Thames in the other. On top of this, it was also home to two goods yards, one in Camden Town and one in Kings Cross. And at one point all of this would have been powered by horses.
The goods yards were huge transport hubs, a combination of railway and canal, loading and unloading and transporting goods all over the country. Horses towed the barges on the canal, shunted the engines on the railways and pulled the carts to take the goods to their final destination. But how were the railways, canals and goods yards built in the first place? Well, yes, they were built by architects, engineers and workmen or navigators, but how did their materials arrive so they could build them? That’s right, “Horsepower”.
Camden Goods Yard
The goods yard stood on the elevated site of the old Morrison’s supermarket (now being redeveloped), with extensive stabling below in what is today’s ‘Stables Market’.
By the end of the 19th century there would have been at least 800 horses stabled there as well as farriers, tack rooms and even a horse hospital.
The work of the farriers was paramount. They looked after the horses’ feet, very important because their legs and feet did most of the work. Farriers were part blacksmith, smelting iron to make and fit horses with shoes, and part chiropodist, trimming and filing hooves, while checking for injury and disease.
The hospital, to cater for horses which would often get injured in the course of their work, was both built and extended to two floors in the 1900s. It included a purpose-built ramp called a ‘creep’ to enable horses to get to the upper floor. (For more information on Horse Hospitals, see my blog on “The surprising history of animal medicine in Camden”, published February 26th.)
Leg injuries were very common and would require horses to take the weight off their feet, which was done by a specially constructed sling that would be suspended from the ceiling.
Horses towing barges on the canal would sometimes end up in the water, either by accident or by being spooked, so there were recessed ramps in the water called ‘horse slips’ to help them get out; but sometimes they would need medical attention.
The worst injuries, quite often fatal, came from working on the railway lines, or, more precisely, returning to their stables unaccompanied afterwards. For this reason two horse tunnels were built: the east tunnel stretched from today’s Horse Tunnel Market to a building in a development called Gilbey’s Yard; and the west tunnel from the back of Morrison’s car-park to what is now a restaurant in Primrose Hill.
King’s Cross Goods Yard
Kings Cross was also home to a goods yard, again with extensive stabling both on and off-site; it also had a huge infirmary complex complete with a bathing pool.
The first stables would have been on site in the basements of the Eastern and Western Transit Sheds behind the Granary Building and The Coal Stables, housed in the canal side arches of what was then Wharf Road. New stables were later added in many places including a stables complex of 180 stalls off-site at nearby Blundell Street (borderline Camden/Islington). Ideally stables should provide a modest space with dry bedding, light, ventilation and adequate drainage, but this wasn’t really the case up until the later part of the Victorian era when more stables were built above, rather than below, ground.
Typical stabling would have consisted of an access passage with stalls on one or both sides and the average size of a stall would have been approximately 10ft by 6ft 2.
The number of horses in use here at its peak in 1900 would have been about 1,300, so even more than Camden Goods Yard. Employed by The GNR (Great Northern Railway), these horses were known as the ‘Stud’.
The GNR horses of preference would have been at least seven years old and already ‘broken in’ as work-horses, although this wasn’t always possible, in which case five-year olds would be purchased but kept separately from the main stud while they learnt the ropes, so to speak.
Different horses for different courses
Or in this case different types of work!
Vanners or Half Heavies were used for moderate to light deliveries, eg milkman or grocer. These were a mix of heavy horse, such as a Shire or Clydesdale, crossed with a lighter type, such as a cob, approximate height of 14.1-15.1 hands (4ft 9 to 5ft 1) measured to the withers (where neck meets shoulder blades).
Draught or Dray horses were used for heavier work such as cartage; robust and powerful, they usually stood between 15.1 and 16.3 hands (5ft-5ft 7) to the withers. Extremely heavy work, eg shunting trains, would have been the job of the pure breed heavy horse such as Shire or a Clydesdale; the height of these to the withers could range from 16.3 to a whopping 18.2 hands (5ft 7 to 6ft 2). These horses were huge, very strong, and often weighed in excess of one ton.
Surprisingly considering their size, horses are herbivores and can live purely on grass. Working horses, including ones being ridden, will usually be given additional feed which could include oats, barley, sugar beet, carrots and apples as well as hay and water.
This Gothic design building in Heath Street, Hampstead,today a Building Society, was one of the first purpose-built Fire Stations in London. When it was first opened in 1873 it was complete with two, you’ve guessed it, horse-drawn fire engines and the clock tower, which has since been altered, served as a watch tower and water reservoir.
Although you will rarely see horses on the street of Camden today, apart from those of the mounted police, Camden does still have working horses. Kentish Town City Farm is a British Horse Society and Riding for the Disabled approved riding centre and offers equine therapy riding sessions.
And finally, Levertons, the Royal undertakers, based in the borough since the 18th century , can still supply horse-drawn hearses for their funeral services.
Camden Goods Station through time, Peter Darley
Kings Cross Story, Peter Darley
Camden Town & Kentish Town then and now, Marianne Colloms & Dick Weindling
Image at top of page is Horsepower, (c) Paula Pickin, 2021