Saturday, December 15, 2012
The Black Brigade: Funeral Horses of Victorian London
The following are excepts from one of my favorite writings on Victorian London: The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 about the funeral business which is charming and amusing...
"A GOOD many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as the 'black brigade'; but the real black brigade of London's trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the job-master is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The 'funeral furnisher' is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal.
Dottridge's are 'at the back' of all the big funerals in London. They buried Mr. Spurgeon; they buried Mrs. Booth; years ago they buried Cardinal Wiseman, the biggest 'black horse job' ever known, for the Roman Catholics will always have black horses if they can get them.
Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing in fact, they begin work as what we may call the 'half-timers' of the London horse-world.
Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth, for instance, is 'most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud' ; all the Salvationists 'are doing well,' except Railton, 'who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.' Stead, according to his keeper, is 'a good horse, a capital horse - showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn't work with Huxley at any price!' Curiously enough, Huxley 'will not work with Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. Barnardo.' Tyndall, on the other hand, 'goes well with Dickens,' but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. Morley works 'comfortably' with Balfour, but Harcourt and Davitt 'won't do as a pair anyhow.' An ideal team seems to consist of Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. Adler, and Cardinal Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel, dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. 'All the horses,' the horsekeeper says, 'named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!' And so we leave Canon Farrar, and Canon Liddon, and Dr. Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now 'out on a job,' and meet in turn with Sequah and Pasteur, Mesmer and Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.
'Why don't you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?'
'They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians - well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!' "
To read the article in its entirety: