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Widecombe History Group Talks
"Horses in Agriculture and Industry"
an illustrated talk given by Mr & Mrs Graham Williamson .
Graham began by referring to that majestic breed "The Shire" which he described as being the "Gentle Giants of the Equine World".
Horses have been used for many purposes for hundreds of years for the benefit of man. The Shire in particular came into its own in Medieval times by Knights of the Realm. Many Knights would have three horses at any one time. One for battle, one to carry all his equipment and the third for journeying. To travel to the Holy Land could take as long as eleven months during the Crusade period, so it was important to have animals that you could trust, be intelligent and be powerful.
In agriculture Oxen were at one time, c1800s, the principal 'work-horse' on the land but gradually the horse took over. There were other breeds as well, the Clydesdale, Percheron and Suffolk for example but the Shire was really the top of the range so to speak. At one time there were as many as 834,000 Shires in the country and add to that the young stock it could be as much as one million. A Shire at maturity should be between seventeen and nineteen 'hands high' and weigh a ton.
There were many other breeds that developed for a wide variety of uses. Welsh Cobs for carrying loads, Dartmoor & Exmoor, two native breeds to Devon that were used for many jobs on the farm from being ridden, carrying panniers, light work on the land and also many ended up being ‘pit ponies’ in various mining activities.
In industry they were used for haulage, coal merchants, brewers’ drays, transport of goods and people, buses, timber drawing, the list is endless. Delivery by tradesmen, butchers, bakers, milkmen, ambulances and hearses. In fact they did all the tasks now undertaken by mechanical means.
They were used for over two hundred years in the ‘pits’ or ‘mines’ and in many cases they replaced women and children and their use caused unrest when women lost their jobs as a result of their employment. The women ended up above ground as ‘ball women’ - knocking up large lumps of stone with a sledge hammer. They were tough in those days!
In 1911 a ‘Pit Pony Charter’ was introduced controlling how ponies were to be treated underground and there were still as many as 74,000 still in use then.
After WW1 pit ponies were drastically reduced and by 1984 only 55 were still employed, the last one was ‘retired’ in 1993.
We were then shown pictures of the streets of many large towns paved with ‘Granite Sets’ many made from Dartmoor Granite, which were hard wearing and saved damaging the roads. - Oh! the potholes of today! - Those old wagons and their iron wheels did not do half the damage we see today!
The coming of the railway in the 1850’s meant the end of a great deal of the horse transportation. The use of horsepower on the canals pulling industrial barges also came to an end by the mid 1950’s. A fine example here in Devon shows how that was replaced by tourism and with the Tiverton Canal and its now pleasure barges still pulled by horse power much to the delight of many hundreds of people each year.
It was appropriate to have this talk as 100 years ago saw the beginning of WW1 when so many of these Gentle Giants were taken into battle and the horror that they witnessed did not form part of this talk - perhaps another time!
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