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From working horses to iron horses: Change on the railways

Published: 11 May 2022

What do musical horses have to do with railways? Thinking of early rail travel conjures images of puffing steam engines and mighty machines. But horses also had a role to play—until their mechanical counterparts finally put them out of work, and horses had to sing for their supper. 

Steam power versus horse power

When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 it was the world’s first steam-powered inter-urban railway designed to transport both passengers and goods. It caused a sensation, being commemorated not only in the illustrated news but also on mugs, bowls, and medals. 

On this side of the mug we can see the railway’s entrance. On the other side of the mug is a depiction of a train en route.

Ceramic mug illustrated in blue with a railway arch and two locomotives on tracks Science Museum Group Collection
Mug depicting the Liverpool & Manchester Railway moorish arch and 'Novelty' type locomotive, 1830
Blue-patterned mug depicting an early 19th-century steam train
The other side of the mug shows a train on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Virtual travel on the railways

Another commemorative object, this is a miniature moving panorama depicting two of the railway’s locomotives, Stephenson’s Rocket pulling a passenger train and Sans Pareil pulling a goods train. Optical toys like this were very popular in the 19th century. When a user operates the panorama, the print scrolls from right to left, creating the suggestion of movement through the depicted landscape.

Scroll of paper with illustration of a railway visible at the end Science Museum Group Collection
Miniature moving panorama depicting the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, by an unknown maker, c.1831–1835
Long thin strip of paper  in three sections with a print of trains on a railway Science Museum Group Collection
The panorama when unrolled

Larger moving panoramas were also popular. They were like the modern experience of going to the cinema: audiences sat facing a screen upon which images would scroll past. But movies would not be invented until the 1890s. As this illustration shows, a cranking mechanism behind the print allowed operators to move the print along. The panorama was usually bordered by a proscenium arch (not pictured), much like you’d find around a theatre stage, which allowed operators to remain unseen from the audience.

1848 illustration of a moving panorama designed by John Banvard

Six musical horses

York’s Theatre Royal, which opened in 1744 and is one of the oldest theatres in the country, hosted a moving panorama show in 1831. Like the miniature panorama above, this show depicted the route of the newly-opened Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Those who could not ride the railway now had the chance to experience it another way. Accompanying the panorama were “Six Musical Horses”…

According to the playbill, the musical horses performed a “quadrille,” the name of a popular dance that had been introduced to England around 1808.

This print shows “the first quadrille” in England. Confusingly, there is also a dressage dance with the same name, which developed in France. This horse-riding version was named after the human dance. It is therefore unclear whether the Theatre Royal show featured real horses or people in horse costumes. But what do musical horses have to do with railways? 

The decline of the stagecoach

Before the railway, horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, such as the one pictured here, were the only viable method of transport between Liverpool and Manchester besides the canal network. But both had their problems. Canal travel was slow, taking 12 hours. And although horse-drawn vehicles were quicker, the roads were congested, narrow, and very dangerous. Passengers were often injured and goods damaged. 

Stagecoach pulled by four horses, with passengers sitting atop and inside the carriage Science Museum Group Collection
Oil painting by J Cordrey of the London to Birmingham stagecoach, 1801

The railway changed everything. People now had a quick and safe method of getting between the two cities. This particularly affected the cotton industry: Manchester had many cotton mills and Liverpool was England’s main port for raw cotton. Much of the cotton came from the US and had been picked by enslaved people.

A derelict stagecoach with a new railway station visible in the background
'Past and Present', print by Leighton Brothers, 1845

The success of the railways threatened canal boats and, as pictured here, horse-drawn vehicles. This stagecoach has fallen derelict from lack of use, its unemployed horse loitering next to it. In the background, by way of contrast, a steam train passes a new railway station. 

Horses out of work

The Theatre Royal playbill introduced the dancing horses as one of the “Effects of the Rail Road on the Brute Creation [i.e. the animal kingdom]”. Here we see that phrase again, in a satirical print published a year after the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened.

Drawing of a group of horses with speech bubbles rising above them Science Museum Group Collection
'Effects of the Rail Road on the Brute Creation', Ino Townsend (publisher), 1831

In the foreground, a group of agitated horses speak to each other, while in the background a steam locomotive passes by. One particularly vocal horse recounts the jobs that its “old friends” have taken up since the railway has put them out of work:

Old Tim’s Dragging a Coal Boat … Paddy’s working at a Coal Pit! Jack’s gone to live in a Gentleman’s Family! Tim’s listed for a Soldier! … Bill’s pulling a Fire Engine! Old Pat & Old Billy are gone a Fiddling up the Country!

The idea of the fiddling horse proved popular. This, another print depicting the “Effects of the Rail Road on the Brute Creation”, depicts a group of musical horses: one plays the fiddle and another the cello, while the third dances.

Illustration of a man pointing at three horses playing the fiddle. Other horses gallop in the background Science Museum Group Collection
'Effects of the Railroad on the Brute Creation', print by an unknown maker, c.1833

These street musicians have a bucket for donations with a sign that reads “Remember the poor old horses”. In the middle ground, two angry horses chase a policeman holding a sign pointing the way to the railway station. In the background, an aggrieved horse delivers a kick to a passing steam train. This popular print was widely reproduced: versions were printed on cloth for use as handkerchiefs, and a version in oils was painted by a folk artist in 1838.

Fear of the railway

Pencil sketch showing horses and cattle running across a landscape while a group of people look on with raised hands Science Museum Group Collection
Pencil drawing with caption reading "Glorious!! Don't you admire Steam! O precious discovery, how well it makes everything go!!!!" Unknown maker, c.1845

The horses in this drawing also hate the locomotive in the background, but for a different reason. With the rise of steam, some farmers complained that the thunderous trains spooked livestock in nearby fields. The caption puns on the idea that steam makes things “go”—not only trains, as intended, but animals too. These anti-railway cartoons express the attitudes and fears people felt toward this ground-breaking new technology. 

But reports of hostility between horses and trains were greatly exaggerated. This lithograph was produced soon after the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened and shows the different styles of carriage used for people and goods.

Illustration showing side view of three trains made up of different types of carriages Science Museum Group Collection
W Crane, 'Sketch of the carriages on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway', 1831

A horse-drawn carriage, far from lying decrepit through neglect, is being transported on the railway itself, visible in the far left of image. Likewise, in the middle of the bottom row there is a horse being transported among a train of cattle and goods. 

Horses on the rails

The railways proved a popular method of transporting horses. Custom-built carriages, called horse boxes, became increasingly sophisticated in subsequent decades. This mid-20th-century box was built by British Railways and includes stalls for three horses, storage space for fodder, as well as a compartment and toilet for a groom—a person who provides maintenance and care to horses.

Side view of a railway horse carriage with the doors open as two people clean it
British Railways horse box no. S96369, built at Earlestown Carriage & Wagon Works in 1957 and withdrawn in 1971.

The last shunting horse

Railways reduced demand for horse-drawn carriages, but they also created a new job for horses: moving trains from one line to another, known as shunting. Even after the advent of motorised alternatives, it took many decades before horses were completely replaced. Agile and cheap, horses particularly suited smaller jobs. This painting depicts Charlie, the last British Railways shunting horse. He retired in 1967, after shunting his own horse box onto the train that would carry him to retirement. 

Painting of a bay horse being driven by a man alongside a train carriage Science Museum Group Collection
'Charlie, the last British Railways shunting horse', R Tetley, 1965–1985

From the early days of steam power, horses were closely linked with the railways. How these animals were represented in popular culture often revealed human fears about technological progress. But technology sometimes develops at a slower pace than we’d expect, and so the real “effects of the rail road on brute creation” were more varied than these anti-railway caricatures suggest. Horses proved so invaluable in the work of shunting rail vehicles that it took decades for them to be entirely replaced by mechanical alternatives—as it turned out, old-fashioned horsepower was hard to beat!

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