Today (August 4) in London History – Donkeys and Ponies

Something a bit different today. The Annual Costermongers’ Pony & Donkey Show. Today’s Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I like this one because it’s steeped in feeling. And because it’s full spectrum social. And because it’s a window on a lost world. And because it’s both hopeful and, yes, has a dark side. And because it’s about people and animals. And because it’s about pride. And because in places it’s very funny. And because – poignance here, it’s not going to last, its days are numbered. And most of all because it’s very London. 

Our date is today, August 4th. August 4th, 1888. The story is running in that treasure trove, the Illustrated London News. Some context for that same summer, that same part of London. The famous strike by about a thousand girls – the ILN’s word, not mine – at Bryant and May’s match factory has just ended. And Jack the Ripper is stalking London – he’ll be in Whitechapel at the end of the month.

Our story, though, is, in ways, a richer repast. 

It’s the annual show of donkeys and ponies belonging to costermongers and other street traders. It’s held on the grounds of the People’s Palace, Mile End.

The article provides me with a couple of leads, the first one being that the show originated with the late Earl of Shaftesbury – yes, that Earl of Shaftesbury – the famous Victorian philanthropist honoured by the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus. It seems that there came a day when some costermongers presented the Earl with a prize animal in recognition of his sympathy for their class. 

One thing led to another and in due course London had an annual pony and donkey show. 

To be sure, the better sort of people who took the project in hand made sure the exhibiting costermongers weren’t spoiled with proper prizes, let alone anything so vulgar as filthy lucre. Instead of prizes, “certificates were given to the owners of all animals which, in the opinion of the judges, showed evidences of good grooming, careful attention, and being in sound condition for work.” The ILN piece continues, “the object of the promoters is not so much to encourage the breeding of prize animals as to put a premium upon their kind treatment.” That said, the certificates were accompanied by an allowance of 7 and 6 – seven shillings and sixpence per day – subsistence money in compensation for any loss of trade during the days the show was open.

Well, I was intrigued. Wanted to find out more. So I got digging.

The earliest press coverage I was able to uncover was a Daily Telegraph piece that ran on July 4th,  1883, five years before that first bread crumb, the 1888 ILN story.

The Telegraph piece informs us that the very first pony and donkey show took place in the summer of 1876.

I’m going to read a couple of extracts from that Telegraph piece. It mainlines us into the class and gender relations and social attitudes of the London of 146 years ago. Of the rich and poor divide, of the East is East and West is West yawning gulf – and never the twain shall meet.

The story begins – and look, it’s very moving, even harrowing – the story begins, “It is now seven years since Lord Shaftesbury, with a heart of compassion for the humblest of God’s creatures, took a leading part in the seemingly almost hopeless task of making more endurable the existence of that patient little beast of burden, the ass. The difficulties with which the good intent were beset were formidable. In the first place, the animals in question were for the most part in the possession of a class of persons on whom sentimental appeal would certainly be wasted. The London barrowman of the period was, it should be borne in mind, a very different individual from the barrowman of the present day. His bringing up from earliest childhood was not of a kind calculated to impress in his bosom generous consideration for brute creation. A “chip of the old block,” he had but little experience in the doctrine that “persuasion is better than force.” His father ruled his household by fist law. [That one was new to me – hadn’t heard the telling phrase fist-law before I made its acquaintance in this 140-year-old London newspaper. When his children offended him, they were made to knuckle under literally, and any disagreement between himself and the partner of his joys and sorrows was settled in the same summary manner. His treatment of the animal on which he so largely depended to assist him in his business was of a similar character, nor can it be said that he was instigated by cruelty or malice. It was the fixed conviction of the costermonger of twenty years ago that the only way to secure domestic harmony and keep his wife and children in respectful awe of him, was to administer to them an occasional ‘licking,’ and his argument was that what was good for a woman could not be bad for a donkey. He was further of the opinion that strong doses of his approved corrective were better than to administer the physic in a diluted form and at lengthy intervals. Consequently, he never accompanied the poor beast tackled to his barrow-shafts without carrying with him a weapon suitable for the purpose, and which commonly took the shape of a stout ash sapling or the brass-bound handle of an old carthorse whip, and which, as occasion required, he applied with an amount of muscular exertion according to his belief in the roughness of ass hide. The prevalent idea was that such was the creature’s insensibility to flogging that unless its ribs were kept well developed it was a mere waste of stick to peg away at it. And here came in the food question. The natural result of a too generous diet would be to overlay the animal’s most vulnerable parts with a shield of fat that would make it more defiant than ever of chastisement. To obviate such an undesired consummation there was but one course – to regulate its ration and keep it high in bone, so that its body, between the hips and shoulders, resembled a hooped barrel. Vegetable refuse, chopped straw, anything that served to keep life in the poor beast, was thought food enough for it. Indeed, a familiar saying among the costermonger fraternity in expressing a strong opinion as to any act of needless waste or extravagance was that it was ‘like giving a donkey oats.’ Ill-treated, miserably stabled, half-starved, it was not to be wondered at if the animal’s better nature became deteriorated, and if at times, despairing of gaining its master’s goodwill and confidence by exemplary behaviour, it sought satisfaction in being wilfully wrong-headed and stubborn.

Such being the condition of affairs when Lord Shaftesbury and his friends took the cause 

of the ill-used creature in question in hand, it was not surprising that the general opinion was that but a small measure of success would attend his philanthropic design.”

Well, in the event – and against all odds – Lord Shaftesbury’s project enjoyed some success. It give rise to organisations such as Our Dumb Friends League – so Queen Victoria had referred to them, the quadrupeds not the people – the Blue Cross and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In time those organisations took it upon themselves to organise and sponsor the annual Costers’ Pony and Donkey Show.

By the 1920s the show had come up west. It was held in Kensington Palace Field. The 1927 Times article I’m looking at now says “barrows and donkeys were smartly turned out and ‘pearly kings and queens’ rode in state. Well fed and well groomed, both ponies and donkeys were a credit to the care taken of them by their owners.

Two final points about the press coverage. First, it provides us with a core sample of the trades, the activities, the jobs the donkeys and ponies did. Here – across a range of nearly 40 years – we see what would have been daily London street scenes for our forbears. 

In 1898 we meet, for example, Mike, a sprightly eight-year-old Jack donkey whose master, J. Reeves, was a hawker of rags and bones. Then there was six-year-old Little Tom, who belonged to Londoner H. Vincer, whose occupation was “collecting corks.”

Then there was Polly, who won the blue ribbon in the Jenny Donkeys competition. Polly was engaged in the greengrocery trade.

Fast forward to 1936 we find that donkeys still find many spheres of usefulness in London – log-carting, greengrocery rounds, hawking and pulling street organs being included in their duties. In 1936 prizes were given for the best, the oldest, the smallest and the best-groomed donkeys. The veteran of the 1936 show was a twenty-five-year-old gelding donkey whose ordinary work was classed as “anything.”

What’s particularly pleasing about some of these later stories is that the prize-giving extended to the donkey as well as to the owner. Yes, the winning donkeys each got a sack of oats.

If I were awarding prizes to the nearly half-century of press coverage of London’s pony and donkey shows, the gold medal would go to the Telegraph’s story for the 1932 show. It both informed and entertained. 

It begins, “the weather is a practised kill-joy but for all its efforts yesterday the annual Costers’ and Street Traders’ Pony and Donkey show (organised by our Dumb Friends League) drew an entry of over 100 to the Inner Circle, Regent’s Park. 

One thing the day made plain was an essential difference between horse and ass. The ponies defied the elements with patience, and came to take their prizes with a high-stepping dance of personal triumph. 

Donkeys, on the other hand, make no pretence at amphibiousness. In heat or cold they will match anything in endurance; but water is not their element. Yesterday they stood, backs arched, hind-quarters tucked well in, heads turned from the rain, and eyes closed in obvious prayer for death. It is commonly said that no one ever sees a dead donkey – perhaps in exceptionally heavy rain they quietly dissolve in sheer misery.

And let the annual London pony and donkey show quietly dissolve in  World War II. Yes, the press trail goes cold – no more bread crumbs to lead this Hansel on – after the 1930s. So that London became a lost London. Succumbing at the last to the war and the internal combustion engine. But if you’ve got an eye for these things – have a bit of London imagination – have some London fancy about you, well, the next time you see an Ocado van moving down your street if you squint very hard, there, under the skin of the Ocado van, is a costermonger’s green-grocer cart drawn by Mike or Polly or Ginger or Billy Boy. If they stop outside your house be sure to offer Mr Smith, the coster, a cup of tea. And maybe some oats – if you’ve got some in the cupboard – for Mike or Polly or Ginger or Billy Boy.

And for a Today in London recommendation. In the London Walks stable of guides there’s an expert on this very subject (or at least a close cousin subject-wise: Charley Foreman. So, one for your diary, Charley’s Horses Past, Horses Present – Horse Power in London Society walk will take place on Saturday morning, October 15th at 10.45 am. 

It goes from Victoria Underground station (meet outside the Wilton Road exit, opposite the Apollo Victoria Theatre).

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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