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The Animals Of Georgian London

July 25, 2019
by Tom Almeroth Williams

Tom Almeroth Williams introduces CITY OF BEASTS, How Animals Shaped Georgian London

Old Smithfield Market by Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1824 (courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art)

My ancestor, Herman Almeroth, emigrated to London from Germany in the late eighteenth century and established a sugar refinery in Whitechapel. As a teenager, I grew obsessed with Herman and my fascination with the working world of Georgian London began with him. Yet the catalyst for CITY OF BEASTS was a surprise encounter early one morning with thirty army horses in Kentish Town. When I searched for historical evidence of Georgian London’s animals, I was surprised to find that historians have written so little about horses, cows, sheep, pigs and dogs – the city’s most useful animals.

Herman does not appear in my book – his surviving records do not offer the excuse I require – but he almost certainly kept a cart horse and a guard dog, both of which are featured. My interest is in the relationship between working Londoners and their animals. I do not shy away from animal cruelty but, rather than depicting animals as victims, I explore what they contributed and how their existence was interwoven with human lives.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an estimated 31,000 horses (double that if you include riding and carriage horses) were at work in the capital. Around the same number of sheep and cattle were driven through the streets every week. No other city in Europe or North America has ever accommodated so many large four-legged animals or felt their influence so profoundly.

The Georgian city of beasts was remarkable because of the astonishing diversity of the interactions between humans and animals. The world’s largest livestock trade was embedded at the heart of the city and both pig-keeping and cow-keeping thrived. While Victorian London employed more draught horses, its Georgian predecessor relied on mill horses to power machinery. In this earlier era, London was the centre of Britain’s equestrian culture, offering park riding and riding houses, as well as hunts and racecourses, before this was lost in the mid-nineteenth century.

Let us take a ride into the Georgian East End. We are setting out from Marylebone in the seventeen-eighties. Terraced houses are covering up fields where dairy cows once grazed. These animals are a vanishing sight in this part of town (where renting pasture is becoming too expensive) and multiplying in less wealthy, more urbanised areas such as Whitechapel and Bethnal Green.

Increasingly, these animals were kept in yards and fed on grain, hay and vegetables. Across Britain, cow-keepers experimented with feeding regimes designed to boost milk and meat yields. In London, a distinctly urban solution was found in the city’s colossal alcohol industry. After extracting liquid wort from grains, brewers and distillers sold their industrial waste – ‘spent grain’ – to local cow-keepers. In the early eighteen-hundreds, William Clement was purchasing grain from Charrington’s Brewery in Mile End and hired carters to make regular deliveries to his yard on the Hackney Rd. Smaller cow-keepers could not afford these cartage costs so they clustered around breweries, distilleries and associated businesses. In 1782, for example, the Gazetteer advertised the sale of a plot in Bethnal Green where the ‘farmer and cow-keeper’ Pearce Dunn kept cows on premises which he shared with a dealer in yeast and stale beer. In common with many other operators, Dunn also maintained a pigsty, recycling the protein-rich whey from his herd’s milk.

The Minories, Whitechapel, Mile End and Stepney housed many of the pigs kept in Georgian London. Although we have come to associate urban sties with poverty and disease, pig-keeping offered a profitable and relatively respectable side-line for entrepreneurial Londoners. In 1776, the Whitechapel distiller Samuel Liptrap contracted with the Navy (which had victualling yards at Tower Hill and Deptford) for £8,200 to supply two thousand hogs, which he delivered in six batches of around three hundred animals.

The East End teemed with inns, taverns, chop houses, pie shops and bakeries, and each of these businesses provided an opportunity for pigs to serve as live recycling plants. In the seventeen-nineties, you find the keepers of a chandler’s shop in East Smithfield and a ‘cook-shop’ in Brick Lane each fattening four pigs. Meanwhile, many victuallers took advantage of substantial yards to erect sties and fed their animals with stale beer and scraps. We know this because these well-fed pigs attracted so much unwanted attention – in 1794, William Goodall of the Ram Inn, West Smithfield, apprehended a man stealing a pregnant sow which, as he proudly informed the Old Bailey, he had bred himself.

To accelerate our progress from Marylebone, we have joined the New Rd or, as you may know it, the Euston Rd. Apologies for the stench and dust – the Paddington to Islington New Rd was created in the 1750s as a bypass to divert livestock droves and waggons out of the West End and Holborn. We have just overtaken a large drove of rather tired black cattle who have walked all the way from Devon to be sold at Smithfield Market.

Located just outside the City walls, Smithfield has been in use as a suburban cattle market since 950 AD. In 1300, it was set in open countryside but, by 1700, it lay at the heart of a heavily populated commercial district. In the Georgian period, the sale of bullocks, sheep, lambs, calves and hogs took place on Mondays and Fridays. By 1822, the market was processing an astonishing 1.7 million animals per year (1,507,096 sheep, 149,885 cattle, 24,609 calves and 20,020 pigs), all transported on the hoof through the city. Cattle sales at Smithfield only reached their peak of 277,000 in 1853, just two years before the trade was moved to Islington.

London’s expansion not only increased demand for meat, it meant livestock had to be driven greater distances through more congested streets. On the night preceding market day, cattle and sheep were collected from suburban pens which encircled the metropolis. From outposts at Islington, Holloway, Mile End, Knightsbridge, Paddington and Newington, drovers converged on the city like swarm. Once their charges were sold, drovers led some animals directly to Smithfield’s slaughterhouses but many more beasts were forced to walk as far as St James’s to meet their demise.

The Smithfield trade inflicted suffering on Londoners as well as their animals. Cattle regularly tossed, gored and trampled people in the streets, leaving them with broken ribs and limbs, fractured skulls, severe bruising and deep puncture wounds. In October 1820, the London Chronicle reported that a bullock running down the Minories from Whitechapel had charged at several women stallholders, leaving them badly injured. Then the enraged animal ran through a court into Rosemary Lane, where it plunged its horns into a cart horse’s belly. Finally, as the horse fell backwards, a porter was crushed to death.

In spite of this chaos, Smithfield remained an economic powerhouse and an awe-inspiring showcase of Britain’s agricultural progress. Its profitability and close relationship with neighbouring banks, inns and other businesses explain why it has resisted attempts to remove it for so long.

Weary of the New Rd, we turn south into Islington passing the fields and barns of some of the city’s most successful dairy farmers, Charles Laycock among them. Keen to avoid Smithfield’s droves and Holborn’s waggon traffic, we turn east to join Old St. One of London’s most frenetic and pungent industrial zones extends between here and Whitechapel, including breweries to paint manufacturers, both of which rely on horse-powered machinery.

By the eighteen-twenties, there were at least forty-two ‘colour-makers’ trading in the capital, mostly in Old St, Whitechapel and Southwark. The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion in the market for house paint, driven by metropolitan building booms and a growing taste for multi-coloured interiors. By the seventeen-forties, some manufacturers were using horse mills to grind up minerals, plants, shells and bone to extract pigments. Substituting horses for human hands saved huge amounts of money which vendors passed on to consumers. This was the origin of Britain’s do-it-yourself culture. London’s paint manufacturers rendered many house painters redundant because their pigments could be mixed with oil at home and applied by a servant. Some became big businesses in the same league as brewers, London’s leading industrialists.

Traditionally, brewing’s most energy-intensive processes – grinding malt, pumping water and drawing liquid wort from the mash ton into the copper – had been powered by man power as well as horse power. This all changed in the first half of the eighteenth century when breweries installed mill wheels driven by horses which, when linked to a gearing system, enabled them to mill and pump simultaneously. By increasing efficiency and cutting the cost of human labour, mill horses facilitated a revolution in brewing. Brewers had to expand their haulage operations to deliver beer to the pubs which were springing up across an expanding metropolis. It was for this reason that the Black Eagle’s dray horse stable almost doubled from 57 to 103 between 1810 and 1835.

These were some of the finest heavy horses in the country, admired for their strength and stamina but also for their intelligence. Visitors to the capital were astonished to observe that dray horses could raise and lower barrels without instruction. These animals were worked extremely hard. In 1764, a brewer in Hackney confirmed that his stables were never locked ‘because we are fetching the horses out almost all hours of the night’. Although this created suffering, equally brewing was at the forefront of improvements in horse breeding, stabling, feeding and farriery. In 1837, Truman’s unveiled a state-of-the-art stable for one hundred and fourteen, costing almost the same as Lambeth’s Church of St Andrew.

Virtually every business relied on cart horses, not least London’s construction trades. One of the most important in the East End was brick-making. In this period, bricks were made using horse-powered pugging mills and transported to building sites in carts. As an Old Bailey trial from 1809 reveals, this created heavy work for both men and horses.

On 20th September, Benjamin Hall set off from a brickmaker’s yard at Whitechapel Mount with a horse and cart crammed with five hundred bricks. After unloading at Wentworth Street in Spitalfields, the co-workers delivered a thousand bricks in two outings to the Swan Tavern in Bethnal Green. By then, Hall’s horse had hauled more than four tons of bricks over a total distance of eleven kilometres and this only amounted to half a day’s work. In the afternoon, the pair headed to Truman’s with another load. Hall claimed that, on arrival, he left his horse and cart in the care of a boy, went for a beer, and when he returned the bricks had gone. Hall was publicly whipped though Whitechapel and put to hard labour for six months. We cannot be sure of his guilt but carters lived tough lives, so I would not put it past or hold it against him.

Hurrying to catch a train a few weeks ago, I ended up retracing part of Hall’s fateful delivery route. I cannot walk anywhere in London now without thinking about what animal-related activity took place there. The survival of Georgian and Victorian architecture obviously makes this imaginative leap easier and more thrilling which is why I feel the loss when buildings like Tadmans on Jubilee St are destroyed. My ancestor’s sugar refinery has been gone for much longer but I still visit where it used to be and try, in vain, to picture it.

I hope my book offers new insights into the lives of Georgian Londoners and the workings and character of their city. I have found that even the most utilitarian old buildings, including stables and workshops, have extraordinary stories to tell.

The Second Stage of Cruelty by William Hogarth, 1751 (courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art)

(click on image to enlarge) The London Hospital Whitechapel, seen from the northern side of Whitechapel Rd, showing dozens of cattle being goaded by drovers, surrounded by waggons, carriages, riders and pedestrians. c. 1753 (courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

Smithfield Drover from Pyne’s Costume of Great Britain, 1804 (courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Brick maker from Pyne’s Costume of Great Britain, 1804 (courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Truman’s dray horses in the twentieth century (courtesy of Truman’s Beer)

Geoffrey Fletcher’s drawing of Tadmans from ‘The London Nobody Knows,’ 1962 shows a horse-drawn funeral hearse

Click here to order a copy of Thomas Almeroth Williams’ CITY OF BEASTS

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. David Wilson permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Are you sure that the picture by Agasse at the top of the page and (I realise) the cover of your book, really is an image of Smithfield, LONDON? As you state, in the 19th Century, London’s Smithfield was a vast outdoor cattle and sheep market (and abattoir), with standing pens to contain the animals.

    However in DUBLIN’s Smithfield, a monthly horse fair was held (and still takes place, though now only twice a year).

    There isn’t a single cow or sheep in the Agasse picture, nor evidence of any cattle pens. Only horses (and a dog).

  2. Pamela Traves permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Such Beautiful Animals!! They were a Treat!!

  3. Geoff Nicholls permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Perhaps worth mentioning that the Peoples’ Dispensary for Sick Animals(PDSA) was set up by Maria Dickin in 1917 in the East End of London, the first clinic opening in Whitechapel.

  4. lyn wills permalink
    July 25, 2019

    fascinating article. never realised that keeping animals in the city was so “normal” in the 18th century. Terrible cruelty though that the horses especially went through. i know this must be judged against the standards of the time but still very upsetting.

  5. Max Reeves permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Great article. Thanks.

    I’m curious in the 3rd picture of Whitechapel Hospital (amazing pic), there is a large Hill to the west of it. Does anyone know anything about that?


  6. Adriaane Pielou permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Wonderful. What a fascinating story and piece of research.
    Thank you.

  7. July 25, 2019

    To answer David’s question, Agasse depicts London’s Smithfield market for horses which took place every Friday soon after the departure of the cattle, sheep and pigs. Horse trading had taken place in Smithfield from at least the 12th century. This image is also given the title ‘A View of Smithfield on a Friday Afternoon’ (British Museum and Museum of London). In the 1730s at least Dublin’s horse market took place on Thursdays. There are also striking similarities between the architecture in Agasse’s image and that in Pugin & Rowlandson’s bird’s eye view of the market when it was filled with livestock.

    Agasse was well-known and respected for his horse sense among London’s dealers, grooms and equestrians. I’m not aware of any evidence that Agasse ever travelled to Ireland. He moved permanently to London in 1800 and lived there until his death in 1849.

    I think it’s fair to say that Agasse made the Smithfield horse trade look a little more respectable than it actually was. By the late 18th century, it had a pretty bad reputation for criminality, raucous behaviour and cruelty. Agasse depicts a fine dray horse and some elegant riding horses but no knackers despite there being a thriving trade in them.

  8. July 25, 2019

    To answer Max’s question, this hill was called Whitechapel Mount. It was levelled in the early 1800s. It’s had some attention but beware some of the myths about its origins. I hope this is a helpful starting point:

  9. July 25, 2019

    Absolutely fascinating article and such an amazing body of research.
    Thank you for sharing this with the Gentle Author ‘s devotees!

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Growing up in the Borough of Wandsworth I remember well the horse-drawn drays of Young’s Brewery. Magnificent horses that coped well with the traffic – but I’m not sure the traffic coped with them much of the time. They were still being used into this century.

  11. David Wilson permalink
    July 25, 2019

    Thanks Thomas, that’s good to hear. I bought a copy the Lewis print of the painting some years ago, assuming it was the London Smithfield, which it certainly resembled. But then I saw contradictory information on the internet, and wasn’t sure if it mightn’t be Dublin after all. Your information clearly knocks that theory out of the water.

  12. July 26, 2019

    Many thanks everyone for your kind words about the post plus your great questions, memories and insights about London’s animals, post-Georgian. I’m really enjoying reading them. Keep them coming and I hope you’ll go on to enjoy the book.

  13. Judithhb permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Yet another fascinating introduction to an earlier life in the city in which I knew many years ago. Thank you.

  14. Derek Stride permalink
    August 29, 2019

    I remember being told about some research on the the large sample of Georgian remains from Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt that showed some with broken ribs, sometimes healed. Apparently, this was a recognised injury, due to people walking on pavements being hit by horses, carts and carriages, as they struggled along congested streets.

  15. Benedict Cruft permalink
    January 5, 2021

    I have recently read Thomas Almeroth-Williams’ fascinating book “City of Beasts” and thoroughly recommend it to everybody who is interested in the mainly forgotten aspects of life in pre-motorised London. Of lot of the things he writes about (pigs being very successfully reared in distilleries and breweries on the waste products) and the keeping of urban milch cows in central London were almost unknown to me. I do however recall reading in the conductor Sir Adrian Boult’s 1973 autobiography “My Own Trumpet”, when he was writing about his schooldays at Westminster School, that at the Trafalgar Square end of the Mall “where Admiralty Arch now stands, I can actually remember a farmyard on the site, through the mud and manure of which foot-passengers could get to Trafalgar Square, buying, if they wished, a drink ‘warm from the cow’, milked specially for each customer for a halfpenny.”

    Mr Almeroth-Williams is particularly good on the droving of cattle and sheep from Scotland and Wales to London’s Smithfield Market, but this led me to consider what kind of droving had happened to the South of the river Thames, something that is much harder to find out, though there is a quite well-known drove road in the Tolworth area. The Old Kent Road has a Vietnamese restaurant that is in an old established pub called the Kentish Drovers. On the north side of Kennington Lane in Greenwood’s 1826 map there is a “Cattle Yard” indicated, and in Horwood’s 1819 revision by Faden — — the same place is marked as “Cattle Penns”. As there were few grazing fields left in this area of London near the Elephant and Castle, presumably these were holding pens for cattle being driven up to market. Clapham Road and Kennington Park Road have Georgian houses widely spaced opposite each other, and there was a toll booth by St Mark’s Church at the Oval. I have to envision a tightly packed herd of animals being walked up to London as far as Newington Butts and kept there for the night before being walked over a bridge to Smithfields.

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