Victorian traction: horse versus man and machine

Victorian London remained dependent on horses for the movement of goods and people despite the steam engine taking over ever more functions. Horses were so fundamental a power source that their service life became a business decision. Robert Bakewell, the best-known breeder of the eighteenth century, had sought to discover the animal that was the best machine for turning food into money.

The mid-century Victorian attitude was expressed as ‘sentiment pays no dividend’: the horse had to earn its place as a source of power in competition with both man and machine.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cost of keeping a horse was two to three times the hire of a day labourer, while the daily work of a horse was equal to that of five or six men. The cost of horse power was therefore about half that of manpower. It was reduced further over the next century, while the cost of manpower increased modestly.

The horse’s advantage over the machine started with low cost and flexibility, but as machines became more powerful, the horse had to work harder to compete. Competition with machines led to an increase in the size of horses, an increase in the horse’s workload, and a reduced working life. This trend was manifested by a US tram company that depreciated its horses at 7 per cent in 1880 and 16 per cent in 1885, an accountancy measure that reduced a fifteen-year working life to six years.

The weight of streetcar (tram) horses in the USA increased by 50 per cent between 1860 and 1880, allowing fewer horses per car. New York ‘street railway’ companies experimented with light steam-powered vehicles, but by 1870 these had been given up as too costly, the animal triumphing over the machine – with some help from regulation.

 Growth in rail passenger traffic was constrained by competition with omnibus and tram services. Passenger journeys by rail in London increased from about 174 million in 1875 to 400 million in 1896. However, the share of rail in passenger traffic fell from 60 per cent to 40 per cent over the same period (Simmons 1986), as its dominance was undermined by the development of cheaper modes of transport: first omnibus services and then, from 1870, trams, both horse-drawn. 

The image shows North Metropolitan trams at Camden Road station (courtesy of CLSAC).

The reductions in fares fostered the growth of suburbs and allowed workers to commute from more affordable parts of London. The competition not only captured much of rail’s market share but so reduced fares that certain rail services became unprofitable, notably workers’ trains. As implied by the logarithmic scale graph of population and horses in London over 1750 to 1910, the horse appears to have more than held its own against man and machine until the First World War.

To quote Simmons: ‘In late Victorian London the horse took his revenge on the locomotive.’