A Nation of Animal Lovers
A novelist contact of mine, MM Bennetts, who is far more of a historian than I shall ever be, has recently been blogging about horses. Basically, to try to help other writers, not overly familiar with hairy quadrupeds, to write about riding them in a more realistic manner. And it got me thinking about attitudes to horses in the early nineteenth century.
You’ve all probably heard of, if not actually read, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Published in 1877, just a few months prior to the author’s unfortunate death, it tells the story of a horse’s life in Victorian England from the horse’s point of view, something unheard of at that time. And it was immediately popular, which tells us that public attitudes to horses were undergoing significant change – the horse was no longer simply a mode of transport, as the car is today, but an individual. In fact the Victorian era was probably the first when the term ‘nation of animal lovers’ could be ascribed to the British.
So why was this?
The aristocracy had always loved their horses, of course. But not, usually, as pets. Having a well-bred stud of animals conferred status, though no doubt individual owners had their favourites. But the industrial revolution was the key.
From the mid 18th century, workers had steadily been leaving the heavy physical demands of agricultural work for apparently easier (though still terribly low-paid) jobs in towns and in factories. And by 1800, an urban generation was emerging who had no everyday contact with horses at all, and who must have seen, in the big, gentle animals working on the streets, a part of the old rural ways they had lost. In much the same way as townfolk today are attracted to horses of the Mounted Police.
Because of this, I suppose we should not be surprised that Captain Alexander Gordon of the 15th Hussars reported in his memoirs of the awful retreat to Corunna in 1809 that, when many of the cavalry mounts had to be destroyed because there was no transport to take them home, ‘the hearts of the soldiers were more affected with feelings of pity and grief than by all the calamities and misery they had witnessed during the retreat.’
I should darned well think so. And the army’s treatment of its horses is something I’ll return to in the future. But it just goes to show that, in an era when human life itself was still cheap, the beginnings of civilised society were emerging.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” ~Gandhi (1869-1948)
The Journal of a Cavalry Officer in the Corunna Campaign by Captain Alexander Gordon is published by Naval and Military Press.