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RITES OF PASSAGE FOR A MODEL RAILWAY - 30: NON LOCOMOTIVE OPERATIONS [2] Horses For Courses

Updated on July 31, 2017

Horse shunters... ultimate locomotives by-passing steam or diesel motive power

'Charlie', the last shunting horse based at Newmarket, Suffolk, seen here with his handler 'Lol' (Lawrence) Kelly before retirement in 1967. Painting by R Tetley
'Charlie', the last shunting horse based at Newmarket, Suffolk, seen here with his handler 'Lol' (Lawrence) Kelly before retirement in 1967. Painting by R Tetley | Source
Shunting horse with driver. The horses used tended to be the 'Shire' type, Clydesdales or Suffolks
Shunting horse with driver. The horses used tended to be the 'Shire' type, Clydesdales or Suffolks | Source
Shunting with trace horse and International tractor, a test of team work at Horsehay Iron Works, Shropshire
Shunting with trace horse and International tractor, a test of team work at Horsehay Iron Works, Shropshire | Source
Horse shunting at Witham, Essex. Much of the land in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk was fairly level - which probably gave someone the notion of using horses for shunting purposes long after the advent of steam
Horse shunting at Witham, Essex. Much of the land in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk was fairly level - which probably gave someone the notion of using horses for shunting purposes long after the advent of steam | Source

Until well into the 20th Century horses had an important role to play in running Britain's railways. How? Read on...

In the very early days of railway operation horses were usually employed to pull light rail traffic - single carriages, individual or short trains of chaldron wagons - until largely superseded by the steam locomotive. Thousands of horses up and down mainland Britain and Ireland were employed by the railway companies to shunt goods yards and road haulage delivery until nationalisation in 1948.

Shunting horses were found to be more efficient and effective than many steam locomotives, although they were prone to injury in catching their hooves on or between rails, or tripping on the many bars and wires when they came close to busy junctions..

Mechanical horses and small tractors began to take over road and yard duties, although horses - usually the 'Shire' type, Clydesdales and Suffolks - still shunted individual wagons in the largely flat Eastern Counties, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The last horse to be retired outlasted steam in East Anglia. 'Charlie', a large Clydesdale stallion was one of a last pair retired from horse-racing town Newmarket in 1967. The colour picture (top) shows him being handled past horse boxes in the yard by 'Lol' (Lawrence) Kelly.

Besides small tractors, hydraulic or electric capstans in larger depots saw horses phased out from shunting duties.

Whilst it would probably be impossible to have a working model - short of shrinking a Clydesdale down to size - a diorama would not be out of the question, although you could have a trackside cameo if you've planned an East Anglian station layout. A harnessed horse could be moved about, with handler and wagon or van behind, or just the horse and handler on their way to the next job. You'd probably have one of the few such layouts in existence, and a likely draw at an exhibition (especially in East Anglia or Essex).

The railway horse on the highway or in stables

Four-legged horse meets mechanical horse - the driver greets the horse, possibly his charge before being transferred to the motor pool
Four-legged horse meets mechanical horse - the driver greets the horse, possibly his charge before being transferred to the motor pool | Source
A groom clips one of the 'fleet' before passing it for duty. This was the former Midland Railway premises at the King's Road stables, St. Pancras, London NW1
A groom clips one of the 'fleet' before passing it for duty. This was the former Midland Railway premises at the King's Road stables, St. Pancras, London NW1 | Source

In 1904 ownership of horses by the foremost railway companies numbered in their thousands.

The London & North Western (LNWR) and Midland (MR) Railway companies each had 5,000, the Great Northern (GNR) 2,782, the Great Western (GWR) 2,668, the Lancashire & Yorkshire (L&YR) 1,867 and the Great Eastern (GER) 1,745.

Stabling hundreds of horses in big cities such as London, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool or Birmingham was expensive, as most horses were needed close to central goods hubs. Companies sometimes rebuilt viaducts into stabling, and underground facilities were also established under railway buildings. More modern stables built early in the 20th Century were added to upper floors of premises. In 1904 GWR stables near Paddington housed 626 horses in a four storey building. The GNR housed 189 horses in three storeys over the goods warehouse in Clerkenwell at Farringdon Station (still in situ until rebuilding in the 1990s)

Other buildings were needed at or near sites with associated jobs, to provide stores, smithies (shoeing and bridle or trace brasswork). There were harness makers and horse 'hospitals'. A store was constructed by the GER at Romford near London to make the feed mixture for its 1,745 horses.

After WWI, due to a shortage of horses, they were gradually replaced in the delivery roster by motor vehicles. Yet at the time of Nationalisation in 1948 the newly-established British Transport Commission had more than 9,000 horses on its books. I can remember back in the early 1950s when our coal deliveries were made by horse-drawn cart, and that wasn't the sole horse-drawn delivery business. Milk and groceries also came behind an ''oss' (horse) where I lived near Middlesbrough on Teesside - although it was widespread, if you've ever seen early 'Carry On' films made in the late 1950s, or Norman Wisdom films, where he 'drove' a horse-drawn milk float. It was only on the cusp of the 1960s that deliveries were made by motorised vehicles only. Although as you can see above, 'Charlie' was still hard at work shunting wagons at Newmarket until 1967.

Delivered to your door...

In WWI, Women loading coal for household deliveries - the men were away at the Front
In WWI, Women loading coal for household deliveries - the men were away at the Front | Source
Horse-drawn coal delivery cart in model form from Hobby's UK - the railway companies also owned delivery carts
Horse-drawn coal delivery cart in model form from Hobby's UK - the railway companies also owned delivery carts | Source
Two-horse London & North Western Railway delivery cart loaded up and ready to go from Broad Street Goods Depot, Central London (next door to the Great Eastern's Liverpool Street Station, EC2) - you can almost hear the springs groan!
Two-horse London & North Western Railway delivery cart loaded up and ready to go from Broad Street Goods Depot, Central London (next door to the Great Eastern's Liverpool Street Station, EC2) - you can almost hear the springs groan!

Railway-owned horse-buses, horse-drawn carriages, chaldron and other goods wagons, and Dandy wagons

Period painting of a Neilston Bank chaldron wagon (western Scotland) with coal load for shipping from the Clyde
Period painting of a Neilston Bank chaldron wagon (western Scotland) with coal load for shipping from the Clyde | Source
'The Union', one of the Stockton & Darlington Railway's horse-drawn railway coaches resembled the mail coaches that still ran on poorly maintaind roads
'The Union', one of the Stockton & Darlington Railway's horse-drawn railway coaches resembled the mail coaches that still ran on poorly maintaind roads | Source
Scale model of an S&DR horse-drawn 2nd Class carriage. A full-sized one can be seen at 'Head of Steam', the North Road Station Museum, Darlington
Scale model of an S&DR horse-drawn 2nd Class carriage. A full-sized one can be seen at 'Head of Steam', the North Road Station Museum, Darlington | Source
This sign is situated at what is now the foot tunnel, Grosmont (NYMR), to show the sort of horse-drawn carriage seen on the Whitby & Pickering Railway in the mid-1830s after opening
This sign is situated at what is now the foot tunnel, Grosmont (NYMR), to show the sort of horse-drawn carriage seen on the Whitby & Pickering Railway in the mid-1830s after opening | Source
A horse 'Dandy'' wagon seen at Locomotion Shildon - one of these ran at the tail of trains for the horse to ride in when going downhill
A horse 'Dandy'' wagon seen at Locomotion Shildon - one of these ran at the tail of trains for the horse to ride in when going downhill | Source
April 14th, 1914 was the last day of operation for the North British Railway owned Port Carlisle 'Dandy' car
April 14th, 1914 was the last day of operation for the North British Railway owned Port Carlisle 'Dandy' car | Source
The preserved Port Carlisle 'Dandy' car seen here in close-up at the National Railway Museum, York
The preserved Port Carlisle 'Dandy' car seen here in close-up at the National Railway Museum, York | Source
The railway bus, Inchture, Perhshire, Scotland became a later casualty to steam haulage
The railway bus, Inchture, Perhshire, Scotland became a later casualty to steam haulage | Source
Horse-drawn wagons on the Talsam Railway, 1962 - the railway was situated near Lampeter in Pembrokeshire, SW Wales
Horse-drawn wagons on the Talsam Railway, 1962 - the railway was situated near Lampeter in Pembrokeshire, SW Wales | Source

Two horse-drawn passenger services still ran in the early 20th Century.

One was at Port Carlisle in the north-west of England, that ran until 14th April, 1914, connecting the town with the city of Carlisle inland, when horse power was superseded by steam a fortnight later. The Port Carlisle railway was owned by the North British Railway. In Perthshire, in the far north of Scotland the longer Inchture horse-drawn railway bus still ran until 1917.

These were by no means the first horse-drawn passenger services that operated in mainland Britain. In the North East the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) may have opened with Stephenson's Locomotion No. 1 hauling a mixed train in September, 1825, but for a long time after that passenger services were horse-drawn. Carriages that closely resembled the road-borne mail coaches were introduced for First and Second Class passengers. Third Class was a lot more rudimentary, more like boxes on wheels. By the time passenger services were steam hauled on the S&DR - a decade or so on from opening - the situation hadn't changed a great deal.

Further south, on the Whitby & Pickering Railway (W&PR) horse-drawn carriages ran between the two towns by way of Grosmont, Goathland and Levisham, with short, low platforms for passengers to flag the carriages down. A drawing of one of the carriages can be seen at the northern mouth of the tunnel, the first such in the world.

Long before passengers were considered, horse-drawn chaldron wagons took coal and other minerals to towns or ports in the North East and elsewhere, where minerals were mined and needed to be transported for processing. One such was at Neilston Bank in Renfrewshire, close to the Clyde.

There are several images of draught horses employed in goods and coal yards in Bob Essery's book. Close together on pp.47 and 49 are some first rate views of horses in a goods yard situation. Page 47 (lower) shows a line of horse-drawn delivery vehicles on a queue at a weigh bridge - no computers or calculators then! - with an open wagon in front of the weigh office. Behind is a container drawn by a pair of horses with three shorter vehicles after.that. On page 49 (upper) are several laden horse-drawn vehicles at a Midland Railway goods warehouse, the nearest with its 'locomotive' power a cart laden with crates and a single horse. On page 71 the majority of delivery vehicles in the yard at Stewarts Lane, South East London are horse-drawn, the vehicle on the right being a steam lorry - the beginning of the end for draught horses? The top image of a Midland Railway coal yard shows lines of wagons, with a horse-drawn coal dray on the far left. The horse is only just visible in this monochrome image, where the front end is skewed. The back end is open to the wagon door for bagging direct from the wagon floor.

What were the horses replaced with? The Mechanical Horse was no comical sci-fi solution...

As indicated earlier, one solution to replacing horses as motive power for shunting outlying stations was in the introduction of tractors
As indicated earlier, one solution to replacing horses as motive power for shunting outlying stations was in the introduction of tractors
A 1936 Southern Railway-owned Scammell mechanical horse, a three-wheeled tractor unit for tight curves with fittings to take a divers range of two-wheeled trailers and release them for unloading at clients' premises
A 1936 Southern Railway-owned Scammell mechanical horse, a three-wheeled tractor unit for tight curves with fittings to take a divers range of two-wheeled trailers and release them for unloading at clients' premises | Source
A model PCH 1927 Karrier mechanical horse in LNER livery. These vehicles were furnished with a  narrow, tapered cab and engine housing
A model PCH 1927 Karrier mechanical horse in LNER livery. These vehicles were furnished with a narrow, tapered cab and engine housing | Source
An earlier Scammell mechanical horse in early British Railways livery. The later Scammell Scarab was still in service for deliveries into the early 1970s
An earlier Scammell mechanical horse in early British Railways livery. The later Scammell Scarab was still in service for deliveries into the early 1970s | Source
The later Scammell Scarab mechanical horse, introduced in the late 1940s and still in service over two decades later
The later Scammell Scarab mechanical horse, introduced in the late 1940s and still in service over two decades later | Source

Production of the three-wheeled mechanical horse began in 1934.

Conceived in response to a commission from the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), the company of Napier & Son had hitherto undertaken designs for quality car and aero engines. The problem posed by the LNER was to replace horses for local deliveries whilst maintaining the flexibility of changing wagons, and manoeuvrability of horse and wagon.

Scammell Lorries Ltd. bought the three-wheeled tractor design from Napier in 1933. The design was refined in 1933 by Oliver Danson North, who modified the original prototype, which featured automatic trailer-coupling and a single front wheel that could be steered through a 360 degree turn. Many factories or warehouse premises were cramped, and loading bays seemed to be an afterthought when roadside loading or unloading presented problems of security in the case of valuable loads (cigarettes and spirits or electrical goods).

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    • alancaster149 profile image
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      Alan R Lancaster 4 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Well Bill, as I mentioned to Dedyrw, there'll be more to add to this (in terms of pointers for modellers and so on). Keep a weather eye out for more. I think I'll make this one the last in the series. TTFN

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I just find it all fascinating, and I thank you for bringing it to life for me. Well done my friend.

    • alancaster149 profile image
      Author

      Alan R Lancaster 4 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      There's a bit more to add on this page yet, Dedyrw. Glad to see it meets your approval, however. Seen the rest of the series?

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      Dedyrw 4 months ago

      wow this is amazingg