Author’s favourite beasts

During my PhD, I spoke to a publisher about the possibility of my research evolving into a book. Everything was going well until they insisted that each chapter would have to start with and focus on one star animal, as in: ‘Percy, London’s smartest horse’. I begged to differ.

Of course, there were celebrity animals in Georgian London, mostly exotic imports but also gigantic livestock, such as the Durham Ox, which was exhibited in London in 1802. On the whole, however, surviving sources don’t provide the level of detail about an individual animal to justify giving them an entire chapter.

My main objection though was that while it would be lovely to tell a horse’s intimate life story, there are more important things to include in the kind of book I wanted to write, things like the huge impact that thousands of horses could have in a city, economy and society.

So I stuck to my guns and when the book is out I hope you will agree that was the right decision. In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to pick out three of the animals that I grew most fond of in the archives:

Pirate and Outlaw

OK, I’m cheating, I’m counting these two horses as one because they were the ultimate team. It is rare to discover the names of draught horses in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but a peculiar coming together of equestrian art and industrial tourism gave birth to a few fascinating portraits of named brewer’s horses in this period.

My favourite is John Christian Zeitter’s depiction of Pirate and Outlaw, a pair of youthful dray horses belonging to Reid’s Griffin brewery in Clerkenwell. They are shown, muscles bulging, confidently hauling up barrels from a cellar and one throws the viewer a cheeky “yeah, I know I’m magnificent” glance. Onlookers swoon.

Mr Hatfield’s hog

When I was a kid, my pig farmer dad always named one of his boars Tom in my honour. Obviously I demanded that this animal had to have the most impressive tusks. Alas, I have never found evidence of a Georgian pig named Tom and the only named hog that I’ve come across is Toby “the sapient pig", which was exhibited in London in the early nineteenth century.

In the book, I discuss not just the economic significance of pig-keeping in London but also the complex human-animal relationships which this activity fostered. Details about individual pigs are sketchy but when pigs were stolen from backyards, their owners could describe them in remarkable detail and with an intriguing whiff of fondness.

My favourite example is the pig belonging to William Hatfield of Kennington which, he recalled, ‘never strayed’. From what we can tell, Hatfield was an attentive pig-keeper, regularly cleaning his sow’s sty and trusting her to roam in his backyard. Perhaps this is why she was happy to stay with him, that and the delicious leftovers he threw her.

Bloomsbury’s bravest

Warning: dog lovers might find this one tough. The final chapter of the book considers the role that dogs played in protecting property from burglars in Georgian London. If you don’t mind me saying, it’s a fascinating subject and I was shocked by the canine drama which spilled out from the newspaper and Old Bailey trial reports as I was searching.

All of the dogs in Chapter 7 are heroic in one way or another but my favourite has to be the Bloomsbury grocer’s dog that stood firm one night in 1774 even when the poor creature was attacked with acid … that’s right, ACID!