Skip to content

At Wood St Stables

July 22, 2011
by the gentle author

Just occasionally, I hear distant horses’ hooves in the street outside when I am sitting writing at my desk in Spitalfields. It always causes me to stop and consider this evocative, once familiar sound, that echoes down through the centuries. When horses were the primary mode of transport, there would have been hundreds of stables in the City, but today there is only one. So yesterday, I decided to follow the sound of the hooves back to their source in Wood St and pay a visit to the last stable, the home of the City of London Mounted Police – and Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Patricia Niven came along with me.

Passing among the shining glass towers of the City and then entering Wood St Police Station, we were ushered behind the desk, past a sign that said “Level of threat: normal,” down a passageway, through a courtyard and into the stables where the magnificent beasts are kept. Leather harnesses hung from the walls, straw was scattered upon the floor and the acrid smell of the farmyard prevailed here in this quiet enclave, a world apart from the corporate financial culture that surrounds it.

These are the last working horses in the City, out on the street in pairs for four hours at a stretch as they undertake patrols three times a day. Exchanged fortnightly, the troupe of ten is divided equally between here and Bushey Park where they get to run free and where training takes place. Mounted police officers double up as stable hands, cleaning kit and mucking out, grooming and feeding their charges. And, consequently, the stable is a scene of constant activity from seven each morning, when they arrive to wake the horses before setting out on the first patrol at eight thirty.

“I never envisaged, when I joined the police, I’d end up riding a horse,” admitted Sergeant Nick Bailey, greeting us eagerly, “I joined the police to ride motorbikes, but I suppose you could say I found a different horsepower.” Yet, in spite of his alacrity, Sergeant Bailey is a passionate horseman who grew up riding and competed in equestrian events before the demands of police work caused him to choose between his career and sporting endeavours. Now with thirty years service behind him, he came to the City of London to take charge of the mounted police just twelve months ago from Bridgend in Wales, where he set up the equestrian department. “My wife and family are still in Wales, I go back every third week” he confessed with a shrug, yet he was keen to outline his busy year that began with the Lord Mayor’s Show and included the student protests, an English Defence League demo in Luton, football matches at Watford and Arsenal, and a Heavy Metal festival.

Before the mounted police were created in 1946, horses were drafted in from the cavalry and recently the stable had a visit from  blind ninety-seven-year-old who had lead the last cavalry charge in battle – an event which filled Sergeant Bailey with awe. “I can’t imagine what that was like,” he confided, as a vision of a distant harsher world, even if he admitted that “if a bomb went off, we would have horses out on the streets for seven hours at a stretch.”

Sergeant Bailey introduced his four horses in the stalls that morning. Trader, a powerful white stallion quivering with life, reached over to scrutinise us while Little Dave, a smaller dark horse, eyed us from a distance – weary from the traffic patrol that morning. Opposite, Finn, the oldest horse, with ten years service, stood composed and dignified and then Roxie, the only mare, pushed her glossy striped head over the gate to greet us enthusiastically.

There are one hundred and twenty five horses in the Metropolitan Police today where twenty years ago there were over two hundred and fifty. A fact which makes Sergeant Bailey evangelical on behalf of his charges, advocating the horses’ credentials as cheaper and greener than motorcars. “In the Summer, cafe owners bring out a bucket of water for them,” he told me, “People  feel safer when they see horses on the street.”

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

7 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    July 22, 2011

    i love the frame full of shiny brown coat.
    thank you.

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    July 22, 2011

    Yet another great article thanks. One of the highlights of my youth was hitching a ride on a horss and cart. I remember, more than 55 years later the different view of familar streets in Hackney. The horse was stabled in Blanchard Road, London Fields.
    Does anyone remember the last smithy in the area? He used to be at the top end of Balls Pond Road. I occasionally used to get off the bus just to watch him at work

  3. July 22, 2011

    It’s so good to see this tradition continuing. I remember we were burgled when I was about 8 (in the mid 1950′s) and living in Victoria. It was almost worth it, because the Police took me round the stables they then had at Rochester Row Police Station. A city child, it was my first close encounter with the sight and smells of the stable, and I was very impressed with those horses – so huge, strong, and yet, to me, gentle and friendly.

  4. July 22, 2011

    Some beautiful pictures of beautiful animals.

    I hope the tradition of using police horses never dies out altogether. When I’ve seen them used to control large crowds, I’ve noticed that even the rowdies who may not think much of human authority give the horses a certain amount of respect. To paraphrase Neil Young, long may they run!

  5. Sara Waterson permalink
    August 5, 2011

    A lovely piece – police horses are real heroes and have to undergo very rigorous training.

    I very much doubt that the grey is a stallion, especially with a mare in the squad! A mature stallion takes very sensitive handling, and they are usually only kept for stud duties. I’m pretty sure the police would use geldings (castrated horses, as most males are quite early on) – you would not risk working a stallion on public duties.

    Horses are never called white by the way; they’re called grey; though they often become closer to white with age. The occasional genetically pure white horse is an albino, but they are quite rare

  6. August 11, 2011

    A very interesting article enhanced with beautiful photographs

  7. Tiziano Battistella permalink
    September 9, 2013

    Hello I’m Tiziano and I would like to work in contact with Horses. How can I do?

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS