Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Horse Power

It’s not possible to write contemporary fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning motor cars.

It’s not possible to write historical fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning horses.

For a writer who, like me, doesn’t know much about cars or about horses, this can present difficulties.

These can be circumvented to some extent by having a central character who doesn’t know much about them either.  But at some point over the course of a writing career, a central character will be in a position where he or she has to deal with a car or a horse, depending on the setting. Or there will be a secondary character whose job, or personality, requires that he or she knows about one or the other.

Cars and horses are possessions, and like other possessions they can be revealing of the characters of their owners. A man who owns a flashy, expensive car in a contemporary novel would own a flashy, expensive horse in historical fiction.

Horses were everywhere in the past. In 1695 it was estimated that in England about half a million horses were used as cart and plough horses. There were probably at least as many again employed in private ownership, in the carrying trades, in industry and other uses, making a million horses in all. The human population of England at this time was perhaps a little over five million.

The expanding industries of the eighteenth century used horses in increasing numbers. In 1726 a coal mine at Jesmond used more than seven hundred horse drawn wagons to move coal from the pithead to the quayside on the Tyne

In 1766 two thousand horses a week were used (or two thousand horse journeys per week were made) carrying lead from the mines at Nenthead to Penrith.

In 1835 one coach operator employed 1800 horses.

The arrival of the railways ended long distance stagecoach travel, but overall  probably increased the number of horse drawn vehicles on the roads. There were frequent complaints about the congestion caused in London by the railway companies’ vans transporting goods from the termini to their final destinations.  

In 1893 one writer estimated that there were 25,000 horses employed in the carrying trades in London. When omnibus, tram and cab horses, and brewers’ horses,  were added, that brought number up to 75,000. There were also horses kept for private carriages and by small tradesmen.

All those horses had to be stabled. One railway company had stabling for five hundred horses and one stables near Paddington. Large numbers of men were employed in caring for horses, large quantities of leather were used in making saddlery and harness. 

Horses had to be fed; fodder was shipped along the Thames to London in large quantities.  The amount of land that had to be devoted to pasturing, and growing fodder for, horses gave cause for concern when the human population was growing rapidly and needed to be fed.

And horses produced manure, which had to be disposed of. A horse might produce fifteen to thirty-five pounds of manure a day. This was not a problem in the countryside where manure could immediately be put to good use and even had a monetary value. It did create difficulties in the towns.

Overall, I think I would rather write about horses than motor cars. Stables and horse fairs are more attractive locations than garages or car showrooms. The weather or the landscape can be used to greater effect in  an account of a journey by horse than in an account of a car journey.  And a fictional horse can more easily be given a name and a personality than a fictional car.

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