The capacities of the horse created and constrained Melbourne's city growth, and for a century grounded its citizens' experience of time, space and the sensory. Where once the ubiquitous horse was king, it is now an anachronism. The sight of horse-drawn carriages conveying tourists or wedding parties through Central Melbourne streets, or the Clydesdale teams drawing brewery drays in historic re-enactment, is now cause for curiosity and nostalgia. The city's most famous horse remains the racehorse Phar Lap, now displayed in the Melbourne Museum. But the 'horse cult' was never more alive than in 19th-century Melbourne.
Melbourne's first horses came in the mid-1830s with overstraiters from Tasmania and then overland from Sydney. With bullocks, which they eventually superseded in urbanising areas, horses provided the source of motive power on which the city was built, industry, agriculture and transport depended, and the economy was ultimately founded. By the 1880s Richard Twopeny in Town life in Australia (1883) was struck with the number of horsemen encountered on city streets:
The horses at first sight strike the eye unpleasantly. They look rough, and are rarely properly groomed. But, as experience will soon teach the stranger, they are far less delicate than English horses. They get through a considerably greater quantity of work, and are less fatigued at the end of it.
Local climate and working conditions required specialised animals. Melbourne was from its earliest years an important centre of horse-breeding from both imported and colonial-bred stock, providing the well-built draught horse for pulling heavily loaded wagons, the harness horse for delivery work and drawing coaches, and the saddle-horse used for riding. Stud breeding facilities were advertised from the early 1840s. By the 1870s the horse export trade was thriving, and the Port of Melbourne was the country's busiest exporter of horses to Indian, Asian and New Zealand markets.
Kirk's Melbourne Horse and Carriage Bazaar in Bourke Street first advertised for business in 1840, and by the 1850s Bourke Street West was famed for its horse bazaars and saleyards. The congregation of harness rooms, haylofts, granaries, farriers, saddlers, and the 'bull ring' for unbroken horses, lent this part of town a vibrant and hectic atmosphere, parodied as the 'Wild Sports of the West' in Melbourne Punch newspaper in 1857. Other well-known Bourke Street establishments included Henry Hoyt's New York stables and the Royal Horse Bazaar. Tattersall's Horse Bazaar, which opened in Lonsdale Street opposite the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital in 1853, appears in an S.T. Gill lithograph from that year. Horse sales - and their accompanying parades of mares and stallions with decorated equipment along Bourke and Queen streets - were red-letter days on Melbourne's calendar and popular subjects for wood engravings reproduced in illustrated newspapers. The annual sale at Kirk's on the Monday following the Royal Agricultural Show drew crowds of prospective buyers including tradesmen, doctors and other professionals, and ardent devotees from the horseracing and hunting fraternities. Immigrants such as the Irish, whose skills were essentially rural-based, predominated as horse traders, racehorse owners, jockeys, grooms and drivers.
Horse-drawn omnibuses were the backbone of the public transport system until the 1870s. As a means of private transport, horses were slowly displaced, initially by bicycles and from the early 20th century by the motor car. Until then hansom cabs served the expanding central city area and coaching companies such as Cobb & Co. provided services to regional areas, while a great variety of private horse-drawn vehicles plied the streets of city and suburbs. Two-wheeled vehicles included lightweight dog-carts, traps, gigs and sulkies, more robust drays and carts, and the covered jingle. Four-wheeled varieties included popular lightweight buggies, uncovered wagonettes with two facing seats down the sides, closed broughams drawn by a single horse, growlers (four-wheeled cabs), open phaetons drawn by two horses, medium-weight box wagons and heavier wagons. Many private equipages were imported from Britain and subsequently North America, and a thriving local vehicle manufacturing industry developed. Coachbuilders in 1849 included Heales & Carter (Richard Heales was Premier of Victoria in 1860-61), Liddy & Passfield, and James Rolleston. Later firms such as Dan White & Co. made the transition from coachbuilding to the automobile business in the early 20th century.
The variety of horse-drawn vehicles seen on Melbourne's streets at different periods of its history was subject to changing fashions and technological improvements. A class element was implicit in the quality and number of horses or the turnout of a vehicle, the wealthy able to afford expensive carriages attended by liveried flunkies. The 'carriage trade' was indeed a marker of social distinction; in the 1880s only the wealthiest 10% of Melburnians could afford to own a carriage. Social etiquette also governed public behaviour; in the 1880s a lady was advised to take the seat nearest the pavement when entering a hansom. The reality is, however, that many people walked when going about their daily business, and particularly in Melbourne's early decades, the expense of fodder, stabling and saddlery precluded all but merchants, professionals and wealthy gentlemen from owning their own animal. Most immigrants, for example, would have taken a week to reach the central Victorian goldfields on foot.
The ease, cost and safety of urban transportation was determined by the condition and location of the city's road network. Meandering horse tracks that suited travel through difficult terrain were later straightened by surveyors and subdividers. The poor condition of Melbourne's streets could make wet-weather travel a dangerous pursuit. A horse was reportedly drowned at the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth streets in the 1850s, and teams struggled with loaded drays up steep grades. In the 1880s the watering of wooden roads often led to surfaces becoming slippery and dangerous for traffic. It was a common sight for horses to fall as their legs went from under them on the treacherous wood blocks. Congestion also became a problem in the latter decades of the century. In 1884 'blocking' occurred daily in Flinders Lane West as carters left their horses to rest and feed, and many drivers found it almost impossible to drive through.
Mobs of animals being driven from the country for sale were regulated in 1857 by Melbourne City Council (MCC) By-Law No. 37, limiting the driving of working cattle or unbroken horses through the streets to the hours between midnight and 6 am, as such a practice was considered in the daytime to be 'fraught with danger and inconvenience to the citizens and others'. Across the city, stray animals were also confined in municipal pounds. The 'furious driving' of horses had been prohibited from Melbourne's earliest days under the Police Act, although racing and furious driving were a problem on St Kilda Road in the 1850s. William Howitt in Land, labour and gold (London, 1858) observed that in the central streets 'Everybody gallops ... or at least goes at a canter - which they call the Australian lope'. After increasing incidence of pedestrians being hit by speeding carts, By-Law No. 56 (1865) made it mandatory for vehicles to cross street intersections at a walking pace, although rapid driving across intersections continued to cause problems. Central intersections such as the junction of Swanston and Flinders streets were designated 'Walk Over Crossings'. The English tradition of keeping to the left, dating from mid-18th-century legislation, was echoed in an 1888 Melbourne regulation that vehicles keep to the left side of the carriageway except when overtaking or avoiding collision.
The pace, smell and sound of the horse-drawn age have long faded from the memories of Melburnians. From the 1830s horse manure had been the ever-present and ubiquitous urban smell that, however unpleasant, was generally not regarded as remarkable or pathological until the early 20th century. A special brigade of juvenile workers, known as orderly or scoop boys, was employed to clear the streets of horse litter, a sometimes risky enterprise as they dodged the city's traffic. The erection of orderly bins in the 1880s facilitated city cleanliness, and loads of street gleanings sent to the manure depot were often requested by private citizens or institutions for land-fill or for top-dressing gardens. In 1885 the 'crossing-sweeper nuisance' had many streets 'infested by boys alternately playing pitch & toss and begging off ladies & gentlemen as they pass up and down the footpath'. The nuisance of horse feed blowing from loose bags and boxes about the streets and into shops had also become serious enough by the 1910s for a by-law prohibiting the feeding of horses in the street except from nosebags.
Water troughs, generally located outside city hotels and at dray stands, catered for thirsty horses. The MCC standardised horse-trough design, requiring posts to be of red gum and troughs to be of standard pattern. By the 1890s many private troughs were erected in all shapes and colours (many of yellow rather than the requisite stone colour), most outside hotels in Bourke, King, Flinders and Spencer streets. While notices to remove obstructive or dilapidated troughs were frequently served in the latter decades of the century, provision of troughs was supported by the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (VSPCA), whose foundation in 1871 had been prompted by concern for the welfare of the over-burdened and maltreated working horse. In 1908 an outbreak of equine influenza forced the troughs to be kept empty. In 1926 the Purple Cross Society erected a memorial horse trough in St Kilda Road, and opened a rest home for horses in Ashburton. By 1927 the Society had erected 47 horse troughs in Melbourne suburbs, and distributed fodder and waterproof cloths among cab drivers. After his death in 1927 the estate of George Bills, who had been active in the VSPCA, provided for the erection of horse troughs in Melbourne and elsewhere, and 300 had been erected across Victoria by 1935.
The requirements of the horse-drawn age were stitched into the city's urban fabric, and can still be traced in its built heritage. Mac's Hotel accommodated the gold escort and had stabling for a hundred horses. Remnant stables or coach houses have been preserved and are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register: adjoining surviving Victorian-era houses and mansions such as Airlie in South Yarra, Royal Terrace in Fitzroy (1858), Canterbury Mansions (former Malone's Family Hotel, 1889) in Canterbury, and Burlington Terrace, East Melbourne (1866-71); as part of industrial or commercial buildings such as the former Yorkshire Brewery in Collingwood (1876) and the former Bates Building in Coburg (1888); and in transport facilities such as the former Melbourne Omnibus Co.'s stables in North Melbourne (1873). Stables were located at Government House (the largest domestic stables complex in Victoria), and Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road. The former Victoria Police Depot in Southbank (1912) includes one of the largest stables complexes in metropolitan Melbourne.
Elements of 1888 livery stables which operated until the late 1920s survive in Ola Cohn House in East Melbourne. The former Angliss stable in Little Bourke Street (1900), servicing butcher William Angliss' Bourke Street premises, is a rare surviving example of a two-storey stable building. The Northern Market Wall in Parkville is a remnant of the site that variously included hay, cattle, horse and pig markets from the 1850s to the 1930s. The former Melbourne Veterinary College in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy (1886), features a plaster horse's head over the entrance. Horse hitching posts, once a common element of street furniture, are now rare. An old post relocated to the Treasury Gardens once stood in Spring Street. In the late 1950s a number of historic posts could still be seen around the city, including a decorative brass pair outside the Carlton & United Brewery in Bouverie Street, Carlton, and a wooden post outside the Marine Hotel at Brighton which was reputedly used by poet Adam Lindsay Gordon to tether his horse during his residence there in 1869-70.
Horse numbers are difficult to estimate at a metropolitan level; in the 1880s there were perhaps 20 000 animals stabled in the city. Victoria-wide figures show a steady rise through the 19th century: 21 000 (1851), 77 000 (1861), 167 000 (1871), 276 000 (1881), 436 000 (1891). Depression and drought in the 1890s reduced numbers, which peaked again by 1921 at 488 000 before declining rapidly to 318 000 (1941), 186 000 (1951), and 64 000 (1961).
As early as the 1880s the city's horsepower system was running into difficulties due to the economics and logistics of bringing horse feed into the city. In Australians 1888 (1987) Graeme Davison has calculated that a working horse consumed around 14 kg of fodder a day or 5 t annually. With city growth, the expanding hinterland was increasingly devoted to the cultivation of oats and hay, and fodder prices at the markets reflected rising transport costs. In the late 1870s the Melbourne Omnibus Co. was already spending more on fodder than on wages.
By the 1920s the days of the horse-drawn age were numbered. Horses were increasingly blamed for traffic congestion and viewed as a menace to the health and cleanliness of the city. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade had fully motorised by 1919, and many organisations were turning to motor vehicles for their transport needs. In 1928 the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, opening the annual conference of the Royal Automobile Club (RACV), announced that the MCC was considering the diversion of horse-drawn traffic from certain parts of the city at peak hour. In the same year the post and telegraph services stopped using horses. In 1929 there was only one horse-drawn hearse in Melbourne, and from 1930 no horses were allowed to stand in the retail section of the Queen Victoria Market, horse-drawn vehicles being required to stand in a separate reserved area. By the 1930s stabling accommodation was estimated to require eight times the area of garaging a motor car.
A 'Back-to-Horse' pageant in April 1932 saw a thousand horses assemble in City Road before moving in spectacular procession down Swanston and Victoria streets en route to a carnival at the showgrounds. Harry Telford, the 5-year-old son of the man who trained Phar Lap, rode a grey pony over Princes Bridge wearing the great horse's red, white and black colours. Beer-lorries, police greys, war horses, stage-coaches, bakers' vans and ice-carts moved some observers to nostalgia, but while the Herald newspaper reported 'Yesterday Reborn in the City Streets', the assembled throng was recognised for what it was - the ghost of a bygone era.
Wartime petrol rationing led to a brief revival for the working horse, as suburban tradesmen, now used to motor delivery, took their old jinkers out of mothballs. By 1947, however, only 1.5% of city traffic was horse-drawn. In 1952 the large horse cartage company A. Kellet Pty Ltd sold its 250 horses and converted its Richmond stables to storage. The following year Melbourne's horse population was estimated at barely 500, mainly employed pulling milk and bakers' carts or council drays, or the odd butcher's and stationer's delivery wagon. At Station and Princes piers, wharf labourers refused to work with the six draught horses still being used to haul trolleys and which were soon superseded by the fork lift, semi-trailer and mobile crane. Where carefully trained horses had once shunted trains in city goods yards, a few hundred a week were now being killed at the abattoirs for pet and human consumption. The last MCC dray horse was withdrawn from service in 1958, and some of the few remaining working animals are used by the mounted police for crowd control at demonstrations. The death knell had also sounded for the associated trades of farrier, saddler and blacksmith.
The horse's intelligence and co-operation enabled milkmen to make deliveries without stopping and starting their vehicles. The milk round was perhaps the perfect communion between human and animal, and became the last haven of the once mighty and indispensable horse. Deliveries from some suburban dairies were made into the 1980s, and older Melburnians can still recall with fondness the before-dawn clippity-clop of the milkman's horse, the jingle of his bells, and the rattle of glass milk bottles.