When Londoners Ate Horses

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 85 months ago
When Londoners Ate Horses
A horse in Ealing that is unquestionably inedible, due to its being bronze. Photo: Matt Brown

A veritable stable of equestrian statues — not to mention actual stables — it is fair to say London has great respect for its equine brethren. Although eating horse in many countries on the continent is everyday practise, here it has often been considered 'pagan' since Anglo-Saxon times.

That's not to say London hasn't dabbled with dobbin. On and off through history, Londoners have served up horses for courses — in the good times, tough times, and in recent times. Here are three key moments from the last 150 years.

A Victorian horse banquet at the Langham

The Langham Hotel hosted a Banquet Hippophagique in 1868. Photo: Matt Brown

In the mid-1860s, Britain was blighted by rinderpest, which killed off much of its cattle. On 6 February 1868, the Langham Hotel hosted a campaign to get Londoners eating a beef substitute — horse. The Banquet Hippophagique invited guests to tuck into a feast of horsey delights, including horse soup, horse foot jelly, collard horse head and boiled withers. As the Penny Illustrated Paper reported a few days later, over 160 gentlemen asked "Can you compose the stomach and banish all qualms?" On the whole the answer (for the diners at least) appeared to be yes. After a couple of iffy starters...

Image © The British Library Board

One thing we might have changed about the evening: "Three horses contributed to this dinner. Their photographs were handed round. If you yielded to sentiment it was sad to look at the living image of the grey horse you were then eating in soup." If they did that at Nando's there'd be uproar.

The horse meat scandal of the 1940s

In 1940s London, it wasn't unusual to come across adverts like this one, from the Chelsea News and General Advertiser:

Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board

The end of rationing was still a way off, and Londoners hankering after their meat and two veg were suddenly unabashed at tucking into the taboo. Horse slaughter in London rose 30% in 1948. But of the three million people in the UK who were buying horse flesh every week, only a third were buying it legally from their butcher, as this British Pathe video explains:

It was a strange and complicated scandal; while some probably guessed they were munching black market meat, others were genuinely horrified to discover they'd put horse in their mouth. Even during the war — when London was stretched to breaking point — illegal horse meat was not taken lightly; on 30 July 1942, The Daily Mirror reported on the sacking of a catering officer, after horse flesh was found in a meat roll, served at the British Palmadium Restaurant in Southgate.

A modern day horse feast at the National Gallery

A 'horse skeleton' outside the National Gallery. We presume Peyton sourced his meat elsewhere. Photo: Guy Tyler

In an echo of the Langham Hotel feast 145 year previous, restaurateur Oliver Peyton held an equine banquet at his National Gallery café, in February 2013. Dishes included a horse jerky snack, horse tartare, horse sirloin baked in salt lick, and (nice touch this) carrot cake, oats and cream. How did it taste? Said one blogger, "By and large, most of us decided that it was very similar, if not exactly the same as beef." Anyway, the stunt had been a clever, if brave, one by Peyton — who was pouncing on the horse meat scandal that'd been blighting supermarket lasagnas that same year.

Though the banquet was a one-off event, there are still places around the capital where you can tuck into horse anytime: zany Southwark pub The Lord Nelson does horse burgers (even if it does sound like the mozzarella ball on top is the best bit); so does the Exotic Meat Company at Borough Market. There is also an occasional secret supper club dedicated to those eager to dine equine.

Horse meat will always be a thing — if a niche thing — in London, despite the neigh-sayers.

Last Updated 09 March 2017