W G Gordon’s The Horse World of London is a remarkable book. Published in 1893, it’s an attempt to document not just the numbers and logistics of the army of horse power that kept the capital city functioning, but also to give a reporter’s eye view of the stables, horses and people involved, from the names of the horses in different jobs to the doses of whisky given out to those horses. It has an immediacy that’s kept me returning to it as a source.
Today I undertook a fan’s pilgrimage to a stable that features heavily in the chapter on carriers’ horses. I’ve used material about this stable in, I think, both If Wishes Were Horses and The Age of the Horse. Miraculously, it still stands between South Wharf Road and Winsland Street, right next to Paddington station. Built in 1873, it once housed 600 horses for the Great Western Railways, from vanners to shunters. It is now the Mint Wing of St Mary’s hospital, rather shabby but grade II listed.
My guess is that those two expanses of concrete fill in large doors that once let carts in and out. The building was refurbished extensively in the 1920s. The horses lived on multiple floors when it was still a stable. Here are some more stable-y windows on the South Wharf Road:
According to Gordon, there were four floors of horses originally, plus an additional stable near the goods station for 140 horses and a further infirmary for the sick. The stables were high tech for the time, with electrical lighting and good ventilation. An old army man was in charge when Gordon visited in the 1890s, and the horses were filed by colour. The walls inside were white, with varnished pine ceilings and blue brick ramps kept immaculately clear of kit or obstacles. The partitions between the horses were hung from the ceiling, with quick release should a horse kick and get a leg stuck.
Veteran horses were semi-retired but still used as extra muscle for particular loads (given that the horses in the stable generally only had a full-time workspan of five years, this wasn’t too bad a fate). The first horses went out at 2am.
Inside the yard, it’s oddly maze-like, with three smaller crooks of space. You can still see the ramps the horses used and, at the top, the old open walkways where horses were groomed have been glassed in.
The building is clearly still in heavy use but needs a makeover – hopefully its listing will mean it’s preserved as a rare piece of industrial heritage. Maybe one day we will have horse museums in places like this and not just in palaces like Chantilly and Versailles.
A short walk away, heading for Hyde Park, I saw a sign warning that horses used the nearby streets. We were yards away from the old Hyde Park Stables – a pony club centre and riding school in what must be one of the last mews used for its original purpose in London. I’d read that the stable had shut down a few months ago, but there was fresh horse poop on the road. So I went to look and got confused. It looks as though the Ross Nye stables closed but the Hyde Park stables are still open, although they seem to be on pretty much the same premises. [UPDATE: with thanks to Maria, I was wrong – Ross Nye is still open and Hyde Park closed] Anyhoo, here’s a short of Bathurst Mews, complete with horses:
I rounded off my horsey day in London by nearly being run over by this fine pair of police horses, who appeared from nowhere on the Southbank as I was resting on a bench:London is still a little bit horse powered after all.
Thank you, that is just amazing to think about.
Wonderful investigating—thank you and happy Christmas!
Thanks, Susanna, for all your interesting posts and also for your magnificent books, which I enjoyed very much. The only thing is, you never explained how you learnt to write so wonderfully well. I, too, ride and am interesting in preserving what’s left of our vanishing equine architecture. Have you seen what they propose doing to the 18th Century indoor riding school and stables as part of the restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse? It is terrific that the house is being restored to its former glory, but they plan to turn the indoor school and stables into commercial units, and a wedding reception venue! The philistinism and cultural vandalism is breath taking! When you think what the French have made of the stables at Chantilly, with its Musee du Cheval Vivant, or Versailles,or their National Equitation Centre at Tours, or the fabulous National Studs at Haras du Pins in Normandy, or Pompadour and elsewhere, no wonder France has 60 million tourists a year, and all the income which that brings to the country: the difference in imagination and respect for history and architecture is staggering, not just equine of course, they really know how to look after their national heritage! And it isn’t as if using the buildings for their original purpose as equitation premises wouldn’t be income generating in itself, as well as being much more in keeping with the house and grounds. They have plenty of space for grazing and out riding, for a cross country course, show jumping areas and vocational, educational and sports training facilities. I suppose the Trustees are unaware that the equine industry is the fourth largest in the country, and that’s without including the multi-million sport of horse racing. Surely such an approach would attract Lottery and other funding on cultural, educational and sports promotion grounds? The commercial units and wedding reception facilities could, too, be housed elsewhere if they wish, so no loss of income from that source need be incurred. The house is near the cities of Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley, therefore there ought to be plenty of demand for such a venue, which would likely become a regional, national and international attraction, too, with all the potential that promises for local employment and economic growth opportunities. I have to add that I haven’t yet had the opportunity of visiting the site so cannot be sure the information above is correct: I do, though, plan to as soon as possible. But assuming it is, do you think it is too late to interest the Trustees in such an approach, or at least in saving the buildings? Perhaps an application for listing them as of historical interest might be a start? Given your longstanding concern for this issue, do you have any ideas or contacts that might be of help? I’d be interested in any thoughts you might have. Perhaps a letter to the Trustees on the subject might help too. As, no doub,t a visit to it yourself. I trust this is of interest, Kindest regards, Stephen (Smith) P s The National Trust is one of the worst offenders of the misuse of equine architecture: they usually turn th
Thank you for this, Stephen. I’m sorry to hear this. When the book came out, I tried to pitch an exhibit on horsey history in London to the London Museum, but no dice. I have notes for plenty of articles on the subject but not the time. I did not know about the Wentworth Woodhouse riding house! I thought there were hardly any in the UK. There’s Bolsover and one in Dorset (Wolfeton: https://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/news/748455.Chance_to_make_historic_decision/) and maybe some in London, but this is news. I’ll pass on word to the horse history folk. I’ll investigate!
Fascinating, Susanna. I never knew that stabling could be on multiple storeys. Horses can get used to anything! I haven’t seen your blog before but I’m subscribing to it. I’m a longtime Londoner and longtime horse owner, always fascinated to see the traces of our rich equestrian past.
Once you start to see the stables, you see them everywhere!
Lovely read. It’s Ross Nye who was still open (hopefully still are) and Hyde Park Stable who closed 2018.
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