13 Fascinating London Horse Facts

By Laurence Scales Last edited 15 months ago

Last Updated 24 March 2023

13 Fascinating London Horse Facts

Apart from the occasional horse trough in the high street, it's easy to forget that for hundreds of years London's streets were nose to tail with neighing nags. We look at the often odd legacy left in London by the horse.

A horse tows a barge along the Regent's Canal

1. Not breaking the mould

Horse manure was still used to make the moulds used to form the outside of the bells at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, before its recent closure. The dung for the dongs is mixed with sand and goat hair.

The bells, the bells.Forged using horse manure (the smells, the smells)

2. The horse has now bolted

As the Rotherhithe Tunnel was opened in 1904 it was built for horse traffic so it has particularly gentle approaches and one reason they curve gently away from the line of the tunnel is so the horses did not try to bolt for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel

3. Horses hospital

In the days of steam the great railway stations had a large retinue of horses for local deliveries, but also sometimes for shunting small wagons. The railway stable at Paddington still stands and its ramps for horses to reach the upper storey stables are still visible. The building is now an outbuilding of St Mary’s Hospital. Please do not bring your horse to A&E.

4. Leading horses to water

It is well known that horses used to tow barges along the canals. (An on-board engine and fuel encroached on lucrative cargo space.) Barges have quite a lot of momentum but no brakes so the animals were sometimes yanked into the water. Also, in cities near noisy railways, sudden whistles might make the horses jump off the towpath. So canals had these 'horse slips' to help them climb out:

5. Clip clop

Horses got used to London's different road surfaces and developed preferences. So a horse that was used to wood, did not like to walk on stone. The wood paving, which you sometimes find preserved in manhole covers, was quieter and less slippery than stone.

6. Off for a gallop without your horse

A piece of personal gym equipment in the 18th century included a chamber horse to bounce on. This is the high horse that preacher John Wesley's got up on when the weather was too dreek to go out on the real thing:

7. No room to swing a horse

Access to Putney Bus Garage involves an unusually tight turn in a narrow side street. The original garage for small horse-drawn buses on the site is long gone. But the tight turn remains.

8. Horse sense

Basil Spence's design for Hyde Park Barracks included a top floor officers' mess with an amazing view of the park and surrounding city. But the design was changed for practical reasons — there being a cavalry tradition on special occasions to ride into the officers' mess on a horse. It was not cost effective to provide a lift with height from hoof to ostrich plume.

A horse-drawn coach hurtles through modern London

9. Pony and trap

When the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after the fire of 1834 they suffered from numerous troubles related to heat and ventilation. At one time the smells from horses waiting outside the entrance to the Ladies Gallery were sucked into the House of Commons. It was therefore decided that the horses should wait elsewhere. This measure persisted into modern times as an anachronistic car parking restriction.

10. Living in a stable

London has hundreds of mews streets where the horses and their handlers lived behind the great white houses of the affluent. These bijou residences are a particularly noticeable feature of Belgravia, Kensington and Bayswater. Only one mews stable remains, at Bathurst Mews, about a furlong from Hyde Park.

11. Hippodrome

We can guess that Haymarket was for hay and Horseferry Road was where you drove in your carriage to cross the river. Looking elsewhere, some streets form concentric circles in Notting Hill. This particular knoll used to be a natural grandstand and in 1837 a circuit for horses used to run round it. Indeed a local street is called Hippodrome Place (Greek='horse course'). The sticky clay soil was not very good going and injured the animals, so the enterprise was abandoned.

12. Dark horse

The old buildings of Camden Market are associated with an old railway yard and include a horse hospital, stables and horse ramps. There are also horse tunnels that kept the horses out of the way of the trains. Iron gratings here are not drain covers — they were installed to light and ventilate the horse tunnels.

13. Making a molehill out of a mounting

Mind the gap. Step free access to your steed was never achieved. But sometimes a gesture was made in the form of a platform from which to mount. The famous examples in London were provided for the Duke of Wellington but if you see a mysterious monolith in the older parts of town it could well be a mounting block.