Ninny-niawing, nip-necks, blorts and snorks

Despite the many new opportunities for storing and reading books electronically, there are still plenty of traditional bibliophiles about. I’m one of them. I’ve always had a lot of books, and I’ve always collected them, as far back as I can remember. Most are horse or history related. If there’s one question that annoys a bibliophile more than any other, it’s: “What a lot of books – have you read them all?”

I used to get asked this so often when I was a child that I developed a standard answer – “Yes, all except the Bible and the dictionary.” Well, I read all of the Bible for research purposes when I was working on an Egyptology database some years ago, so I can now tick that one off. And, in a way, I can also say I’ve read the dictionary, or at least one of the dictionaries, because that’s what I’ve done for this blog.

The dictionary in question is “The Scots Dialect Dictionary” compiled by Alexander Warrack MA, and a magnificent work it is too. A few years ago, I wrote about Robert Burns and his horses, and I decided it would be interesting to do a follow-up that would introduce some traditional Scottish words relating to horses. Many of these words are in Warrack’s dictionary, although some of them are sadly redundant now that there are no longer packmen and their “pownies”, and working horses have all but vanished from our cities and the land. Scots is such a magnificent language that I made many a happy detour along the way.

Shanks’s naggis

First of all, of course, you have to acquire a horse, otherwise you’ll be on Shanks’s pony, if you live in England, that’s to say on foot. But in Scotland, you’d be on Shanks’s nag, mare, naigie, naggis, noddy or pair. It’s more likely though, that you’d be on Tamson’s mear – Thomson’s mare.

So what kind of horse do you want? Obviously you don’t want one that’s sag-backit, or seg-backit, since it would have a sunken back, nor do you want one that’s suffering from cords, a disease of the muscles of the neck, or bats, the disease of the bot fly.

Perhaps you prefer a chastain (chestnut) or a grissel (grey), or one that’s snippy or snippet (has a white stripe on its face). It might be bausand (having white marks on its face and limbs) or a bawsie, which means it either has a white face or is old. Check out its boos (shoulders) and barrel (body), because you don’t want one that’s barrel-gird (its ribs are showing) or scrab (undergrown and scrawny).

Next, you go to the smiddy (smithy) to see the burnewin or brookie-face (the smith) and his chapper (the man who wields the hammer). If he’s good, you might pay him in smiddy boll, a payment of grain, but if he’s no good, you’d call him a smith-body quite contemptuously.

What noise does your horse make? He might sneer, which is a special type of snort as he chucks mucous from his nose all over you when he’s a bit snotty. In that case, he’s probably suffering from a gerse-cold. Or he might sneg,  which is a neigh or a snort. In that case, he’s a snegger, which is just another name for a horse. He can blort, too, another snorty noise. Or snork, which means he’s afraid – a snork is the snort of a fearful horse.

At the horse-tailor

You get your saddle-gear (tack) from a horse-tailor (saddler), where you’ll find bridle renzies (reins), britchin, and braichums (horse collars). If you want a collar made of straw, it’s a bass. You can buy selles, too, that’s your standard saddle, and a saddle-tae-side or saddle-tae-sidlins for riding side-legs (side-saddle).

As you might expect from a country that gave the world many leading agricultural developments, including the Clydesdale horse, there are lots of Scottish words relating to ploughing, with very specific terms relating to the position of horses themselves within a plough team. The “fur-beast” or “fur-horse” is the horse that walks in the furrow. The “fittie-lan'” is the near side horse of the last pair in a plough, which walks on the unploughed land,. And the “fur-ahin” is the hindmost right hand horse in a plough. On Orkney, however, where four-abreast plough teams were traditional, the “fur-scam” was the second horse from the right hand.

A “hanbeast” was a  horse a ploughman guided by the left hand, the “hand-afore” the forehorse on the left hand, and the “hand-ahin” the last horse on the left hand. Most ploughing items, like the horses, were distinguished by whether they were on the furrow side or the land side, with a “fur-side” being the iron plate in a plough for turning over the furrow, while the “fur-sin” was the cord to which the hook of a plough was attached.

Ploughmen, pleughmen or pleuchmen had several helpers, one of whom was the gundyman who used a long pole fastened to the plough beam to aid the ploughman by pushing off or up to him as required. The gadboy or gadman goaded the horses along. It was tough team work.

Hap! Hie-wo! Heck!

Potentially, the most confusing linguistic element came in verbally directing the horses, and this varied from district to district and undoubtedly from farmtoun to farmtoun. To move or turn to the left, “heck”, “heik”, “hie-here”, “come-ather”, “come-ether”, “hie-woe”, “maader”, “maether”, “hy” and “hie-wo” (the last, also, confusingly, could mean turn right) were used.

To go or turn right, “hup”, “hap”, “haap”, and “re” were used, along with several more. “Shug” was what you might use to bring your horses to your hand.

.In the stable, you’d feed your horse a mash of oats (what else, in Scotland!) and that would be his “bait”, fed to him or her in a bait-troch (trough). If it was the last meal of the day it would be the horse-supperin’, the horse’s evening meal. There’d be a fusschle, or small untidy bundle of hay, stuffed into the haik, the hay rack, taken from the hodlack, or hay rick.

In the days of the packmen, pedlars or pack-merchants, pack loads were “packalds” and they carried wallets, or puddills. Definitely not to be confused with the “peckmen”, who smuggled spirits in a special vessel similar to a peck measure. The “anker” was a liquid measure of four gallons used by the smugglers because that was a good load for a pony. Masses of clouds were often called “packies” after packmen, presumably because of the way they arrived suddenly in a group, and a particular type of cumulus cloud often visible in otherwise fine weather along the north east coast came to be called “Coldingham Packmen.”

Ca’ for the midwife

There are so many other horse-related words and phrases in this rich, rich language that it’s impossible to share them all. However, I will share a few of my favourites. “Ninny-niawing” is whinnying, and “nip-necks” is the scratching of one another’s necks that horses love to do. If you need to get somewhere at top speed, you ride at a “midwife-gallop”, which speaks for itself. A “meldrop” is foam or moisture dripping from the mouth or bit. “Sonk-pocks” were bags carried on the back of an ass in which a tinker family stowed all their bits and pieces, including, sometimes, children. “Shoe-the-auld-mare” was a dangerous game in which acrobatics were performed on a beam slung between two ropes.

And finally, the best, the very best of all. A horse with swollen pasterns was said to be “haggis-fitted” – it had its feet swelled up like a haggis.

A Fairytale of New York, or the Nightmare before Christmas?

This is a blog about Anna Sewell and some New York carriage drivers. Anna Sewell, author of the most famous book about horses and horse welfare ever written, never visited New York and so she did not meet any carriage drivers there; but nonetheless I believe that she knew them, and that’s what this story is about.

In the beginning

First of all, though, I need to take a 14,000 year detour which will eventually bring me back to New York. That is the increasingly accepted date for the earliest known domestication of animals, and the animal that was first domesticated was the reindeer. Prior to that, humans had of course hunted and eaten animals, and used their body parts as material for all sorts of things, but after this, the relationship between humans and animals changed; and humans were set on the path of new activities that would eventually lead to settlement, cities and civilisation. The nature of domestication, how it came about, is still a topic for discussion, and theories about it range from capture and control of animals by humans, to concepts of symbiotic shared “destinies” – and encompass all philosophical viewpoints in between.

Every step of the way along the human path, animals have accompanied us, a matter which was largely taken for granted for millennia. And then Anna Sewell wrote the most famous book on animal welfare that has ever been produced. “Black Beauty, his grooms and companions” has been in print continually since its first publication in 1877 and has sold millions of copies all over the world. In less than ten years after its publication, sales were heading towards the half million mark. It was written to educate people into a better understanding of the lives of working horses and their working people, and to alleviate the suffering that often accompanied their daily routines.

Anna_Sewell

Anna Sewell, author of the most famous and widely read book on working horse welfare ever written.

The horse-drawn world of Anna Sewell

Anna Sewell lived in a horse-drawn world, and perhaps could not imagine any other. Trains had entered that world towards the middle of the 19th century, but the necessity for horses had not diminished; rather it had increased along with growing commerce and industrialisation. In fact, without the effort of tens of thousands of working horses, the great engineering feats of Telford, Stephenson, Brunel and their followers would never have happened. Horse drawn vehicles carried people to and from the new train stations, the Hansom cabs clipping along at a tremendous rate as they nipped in and out of the bulkier carts, wagons, and eventually, horse-drawn buses.

Horses were present in every aspect of life. At birth, they bore the doctor swiftly to the house. Wealthy brides were carried to their weddings in decorated carriage – and a few were taken at a gallop towards the Scottish border to their “anvil weddings” at Gretna Green. The solemnity of funerals was enhanced by the rhythmic clatter of black-plumed horses as they bore the coffin and the mourners through silent streets with the public standing still in respect as the cortege passed by. Horses ploughed the land and fertilised it for the grain that fed nations. Horses dragged timber, carried coal and carted bottles, barrels and sacks. Horses brought the meat, the milk and the bread. The horse-drawn carts of rag and bone men took away household rubbish and recycled it, long before the word “recycling” was in fashion.

In Anna Sewell’s book, a good horseman – or woman – can come from any level of society. Similarly, the bad horsemen, the idle, the uncaring, the harsh, the brutal – they are not confined to any one class. However, the best horsemen of all, arguably are the working men of her book, such as John Manly, the groom, and the outstanding example of a truly great horseman is to be found in Jerry Barker, the London cabman.

A horse’s eye view

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877

The cover of the first edition of Black Beauty in 1877. It has never been out of print since.

Here is Jerry, as viewed through the eyes of his horse Black Beauty, renamed “Jack”: “Jerry took as much pains to see if the collar and bridle fitted comfortably as if he had been John Manly all over again. When the crupper was let out a hole or two, it all fitted well. There was no bearing rein or curb, nothing but a plain ring snaffle. What a blessing that was!” “I never knew a better man than my new master – kind and good, as strong for the right as John Manly, and so good-tempered and merry that very few people could pick a quarrel with him.” “It is always difficult to drive fast in the city in the middle of the day, when the streets are full of traffic, but we did what could be done; and when a good driver and a good horse, who understand each other, are of one mind, it is wonderful what they can do.”

Anna Sewell was an invalid. Injuries to both her ankles meant she could not walk properly for most of her life. She could, however, drive horses. Horses gave her the freedom that perhaps only a disabled person understands, to go out and explore a world that would otherwise have been closed to her. And in driving horses, in using them in her daily life, she came to understand them. This awareness only really comes to those who share their lives with them and experience how a telepathic bond develops. There is a huge amount of responsibility too, and that is what her book is all about – the responsibility of humans for working horses.

Sewell’s book had lessons for the working and middle classes alike. For the working class who were the ones who actually cared for horses and handled them every day, it had sound practical advice on care and management. This made it one of the most popular books read by literate ostlers, grooms, coachmen and the many others whose lives revolved around horses – and that was no insubstantial part of the population. Her book is full of examples of good practice, shared between working horsemen. To the middle classes, the book taught awareness of the working class and its skills, knowledge, strengths and the problems it faced every day.

Anna Sewell’s work appeared at a very auspicious time in a climate of growing middle-class outrage at what was often perceived as lower-class cruelty. In fact, by the mid-century, working-class England had, according to some social historians, already begun to accept animals as pets and ‘fellow sufferers‘.” – “The annotated Black Beauty”, introduced and annotated by Ellen B. Wells and Anne Grimshaw.

New York December 2014

It’s time to go to New York, where a battle is currently raging between some of the last working horsemen of the city, the carriage drivers of Central Park, and those who want them removed from the city streets entirely, ostensibly at least for reasons of safety, welfare and, perhaps surprisingly “morality”. I can’t help but wonder what Sewell would make of that. In her book, the best horsemen are sober, moral and working class. They don’t work on a Sunday and they don’t take on fares or work if they feel it is not right for them or their horse. Although they have to work for a living, and are proud of that, their god is not Mammon. Perhaps Sewell would have seen the irony in a situation where a politician lectures a working man (or horse) on matters of “immorality”. However, let’s not dwell on that. The fact is, that in the run-up to Christmas this year, the final decision has apparently been taken that the horse-drawn carriages will disappear from the city in a couple of years.

It’s become somewhat trite to use the phrase “What would [insert cultural and/or spiritual icon of choice here] do?” However, I’m asking myself just that question. What would Anna Sewell do? Where would she stand on this issue? For the carriage drivers and their horses – or for the bureaucrats and protestors who want them permanently removed? Anna Sewell was, above all, an educator. She wanted to educate the world about the conditions of working horses and she continues to do that, nearly 150 years after her death. At no point in her book will you read anything about the permanent removal of working horses, or that their non-existence would be an improvement to the world. Just the bettering of conditions for those that needed it. That’s all she ever wanted. Better understanding. The removal of ignorance. In fact, there are only two things that come in for serious criticism in her book: ignorance, and drink. Sewell believed that those two things were the cause of great poverty, cruelty and unhappiness. You can read articles by anti-carriage-horse protestors citing Sewell. I suspect they have never read her book, or they would realise that it in no way supports their cause.

This Christmas Eve, I will be raising a glass (possibly non-alcoholic in deference to her views on drink) to the memory of Anna Sewell and her wonderful creations, equine and human. And to all those who share their lives with horses, working and otherwise. I will do that after I’ve tended to my own two ponies and retired horse, because like Jerry Barker, John Manly, Beauty, Anna Sewell and those who have horses in their lives, I know that keeping horses is really about responsibility and commitment, not cruelty and exploitation. Merry Christmas!

A chase in a chaise for an anvil wedding at Gretna Green

When 78 year old William Hutton walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall (and back) in 1802, stating with great pride that he was the first, and probably the last to do so (how wrong he was there), he made a special detour to Gretna Green just over the border in Scotland:

“I saw Gretna Green, that source of repentance; but being myself half a century above par, and not having with me an amorous lass of eighteen with as many thousands, I had no occasion for the black-smith. My landlord and his wife, where I slept at S -, had been handsome. She told me that ‘hers was a Gretna Green wedding, which cost a few guineas; and that she was descended from a good family.’ But it was easy to see, that poverty, a pot of ale, and the sorrow of fifteen years, were the result.”

Hutton continues, “The Rev. John P -, however, does not always act the farce for a few guineas. Interest prompts him to carry a stamp of every dimension; and he sometimes procures a note of a hundred from the happy bridegroom, which stands a chance for payment should the lady’s papa come to a reconciliation.”

Hutton’s words show how firmly the Gretna legend – and reputation – was established by this point. As Olga Sinclair writes in “Gretna Green – a Romantic History”: “Mention Gretna Green and almost inevitably it raises a smile, a chuckle, not quite a dirty laugh, but certainly a mischievous grin.”

Gretna1In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ingredients of a runaway marriage – also known as a hot marriage – were: a dash up to Scotland on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, two witnesses, and a quick ceremony over the anvil, often performed by “The Rev. John P – .” If “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage”, then Gretna epitomised the phrase at this time.

The “Rev. John P – ” was the infamous roisterer John Pasley, or Paisley, of Gretna, frequently called the “Blacksmith Priest” – but was he truly a blacksmith? I’ll return to this shortly. In order to create the Gretna Green legend, certain elements had to come together, and the first of these was the 1754 Marriage Act instituted in England by Lord Hardwicke.

It often comes as a surprise to learn that prior to the 20th century, not all marriages were conducted by the Church, nor were they required to be. Marriages were either “regular” or “irregular”, and an irregular marriage was so-called simply because it was not carried out according to the form required by the Church or the State. It endowed the pair, however, with perfectly legal status as a married couple and all it needed was agreement between the participating adult parties, and the presence of two witnesses. The Fleet Prison in London was infamous for carrying out “irregular” marriages and the men who conducted the services were not priests or ministers, although some claimed that title – they did not need to be. Marriages could even be backdated, in one instance to 18 years previously.

Hardwicke’s Agretna2ct outlawed irregular marriages in England – and the legend of Gretna Green began. Irregular marriages were still perfectly legal in Scotland, and all a couple needed to do was hie themselves o’er the border with all speed, and find someone to carry out a brief “ceremony” in front of two witnesses. As long as they were over 16 (and were otherwise free to wed, of course), they did not require parental authority – and so another element of the Gretna Green wedding was created – the image of the runaway couple in a horse and carriage hotly pursued by (usually) the bride’s Papa.

One of the best known examples was that of the Earl of Westmoreland and Sarah Anne Child, daughter of a wealthy banker, Robert Child. (It has to be said that, as William Hutton’s words indicate, quite a few of the elopements involved wealthy heiresses, and some were as much abductions as seductions, but that does not seem to have been the case here.) During the course of a frantic pursuit, the Earl shot dead a horse ridden by a groom from the Child’s Northamptonshire home. Other versions of the story have the father shooting dead one of the carriage horses, only to find himself blocked by supporters of the lovers so that they could carry on to Gretna.

In fact, Gretna’s reputation mainly grew from its location, just over the border, but “irregular” marriages were taking place all over Scotland. They were mostly in inns, and not carried out by blacksmiths at all; so how did this part of the legend enter into it? And how did Gretna Green come to receive most of the attention?

It’s possible that the term “Blacksmith Wedding” is a continental concept, with clear symbolic meaning. After all, the blacksmith has always been a quasi-mystical figure, shrouded in his own mystery, legends and traditions. He works with fire and iron – and the Roman god Vulcan was married to the goddess of love, Venus. The smith can fuse hot metal together on the anvil; and Alan Air in “From the Hammer to the anvil: love, marriage and scandal at Gretna Green” alludes to this “horn shaped totem” which “grew all powerful in popular imagination.” Whatever the origin, it’s clear from Hutton’s words that Gretna and the blacksmith were already firmly joined together in popular thought by the early 19th century. That didn’t always go down well with the professional blacksmiths, though, who wished to disassociate themselves from this trade.

Ronald Webber, in his book “The Village Blacksmith” cites an early example of the use of the term “blacksmith marriage” in “The Diary of Mr Justice Rokeby”, published in 1693. In this instance a Mrs Seager had sued a Mr Hopkins for slander for proclaiming openly that they were united by a “blacksmith’s marriage.” Webber also notes that by 1639 “border marriages”, meaning exactly the same thing, were being performed in Scotland. He also suggests that the phrases “blacksmith wedding” or “blacksmith marriage” were known in Britain from the 15th century onwards.

The union of Gretna and the blacksmith seems to have emerged almost instantaneously with the Marriage Act. In 1783 a musical play “Gretna Green” was performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London. Its opening scene was set in a blacksmith’s shop. The “Famous Blacksmith’s Shop” at Gretna Green, however, was actually not put into service for marriages or blessings “over the anvil” until the early 20th century. Strictly speaking, it is in the village of Springfield, which is where many of the Gretna “blacksmith priests” originated, but the geographical line between Springfield and Gretna Green is very fine indeed. People were still mostly flocking to the inns or private houses to be wed in the late 18th century, and then the famous Sark Tollhouse, the first house in Scotland over the River Sark, became the obvious choice for those wanting to be “married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout.” From the 19th century onwards, Gretna Old Hall took up the lead in offering organised weddings to the public, adding more elegance to the proceedings, although its “blacksmith’s forge” was a later addition.

There is no evidence to show that Joseph Paisley, the most infamous of the anvil priests, was a blacksmith at all, although he was a man of immense strength and bulk, swelling in later life to over 25 stones in weight. He is credited with performing such feats as straightening a horseshoe with his bare hands. He’d almost certainly participated in the lucrative Solway smuggling trade until the discovery that marriages were just as lucrative, if not more so – and less risky. He was frequently drunk and one one occasion is said to have married two couples to the wrong partners, shrugging it off with the comment “Ah weel, just sort yersels oot.”

So there we have all the elements fused together – a young couple falling madly in love, the adrenaline fuelled dash to Gretna in a carrage drawn by galloping horses, the pursuers left behind, and the grand finale: the crashing down of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil so that the sparks stand witness to the union. It is summarised brilliantly in “Romances of Gretna Green” by “Lochinvar”: “If Gretna Green marriages do not always prove the happiest in the end, they are at least by far the merriest at the time; and Miss Lydia Languish was partly in the right when she pettishly remarked, that there was no fun in a love affair that did not lead to a leap from a window into a lover’s arms, a chase, a challenge, and, as a matter of course, a paragraph in the newspapers.” The Border poet Will Ogilvie captured the atmosphere of the pursuit and challenge perfectly in “A Ballad of Gretna Green”, based loosely on the Westmoreland elopement:

“The whip cut deep on the dapple greys
And the sorrels dropped to the dark behind
Then we saw the lights of Carlisle blaze,
And beyond them the road to the Border wind.
Our galloping hoofs from the stones struck stars,
And the men-folk guessed what our haste must mean,
And the maidens waved from their window bars,
And shouted ‘Safe journey to Gretna Green!'”
– Will. H. Ogilvie

Thus Gretna Green was – and is – celebrated in song and story. It is referenced in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” as well as one of her juvenile works. Gretna Green had major resurgences in the 19th century, with the arrival of the railways; and in the 20th century, when a dash for the border was made by dozens of youngsters who camped out about the place in order to fulfil the requirements to be resident in Scotland for three weeks. This was due to an amendment to the 1754 act, added by the 1856 Act of Lord Brougham, and summarised in the hilarious phrase “cooling off period,” which is also something that blacksmiths would understand and appreciate.

The blacksmith’s marriage, or blessing, has survived – and thrived on – changes in the law and in attitudes. The Famous Blacksmith’s Shop at Gretna was one of the first places in Scotland to provide civil ceremonies outside a register office. For some, Gretna Green is all about the spirit of “beautiful rebellion” as the current owner of the Famous Blacksmith’s Shop, Alasdair Houston puts it. Visitors still throng to this place that is filled with energy and excitement. And there’s a carriage museum at the Famous Blacksmith’s Shop, as a reminder of, and a tribute to, the thundering hoofs and throbbing hearts that galloped to the border long ago.

“How far, how far to Gretna?
‘Tis years and years away,
And chaise and four will never more
Fling dust across the day;
But as I ride the Carlisle road,
Where life and love have been,
I hear again the beating hoofs
Go through to Gretna Green.”

Having a party in your pink whirlicote

Where would popular music be without cars? Whether it’s the explicitly erotic charge of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” (especially as interpreted by Natalie Cole) or Golden Earring’s “Radar Love”, or the sun, surf ‘n sex appeal of the little deuce coupe and the fun, fun, fun of the T-Bird (till her daddy takes it away), cars are right there at the heart of it. Offering speed, comfort, the opportunity to get away, and of course, not forgetting the back seat, cars created opportunities for lovers that they just didn’t have at home, with the added frisson of taking a risk and perhaps being found out. And similarly,in their day, the vehicles that preceded automobiles – horse drawn coaches, carriages, gigs and broughams – offered exactly the same opportunities and had exactly the same mystique and reputation. And so did chariots. Chariots?

The earliest example that I’ve been able to trace of the theme is undoubtedly the ancient Egyptian example from a papyrus that is variously known as the Turin Erotic Papyrus or the Turin Satirical Papyrus. This fragmentary papyrus was probably created in the workmen’s town at Deir el Medina. Nothing is left to the imagination in this imagery. The scenes are explicit and graphic, and in one instance, a man and woman are having sex whilst the woman is in a chariot drawn by two other women and “driven” after a fashion, by a monkey standing on the yoke pole.

mahu-7Another less graphic ancient Egyptian example comes from the city of Akhetaten, built as a centre of worship to the Aten by King Akhenaten. One of the interesting aspects of Akhetaten is that it was built as a city with a road at its centre, and horse drawn chariots played a major part in daily life and ritual. In one very well known scene, Akhenaten and his great royal wife Nefertiti are shown embracing and kissing in a moving chariot under the protective rays of the Aten.

Royal women riding in a whirlicote - remind you of anything? One of them is being handed a little pet dog by a man on horseback.

Royal women riding in a whirlicote – remind you of anything? One of them is being handed a little pet dog by a man on horseback. Image from The Luttrell Psalter in the British Library.

Moving forward a few millennia, we find that apes or monkeys are still appearing as drivers of vehicles, in, for instance, the Luttrell Psalter; but of even greater interest from that document is one scene, showing a medieval conveyance for royal women. These vehicles are sometimes described as carriages, but in fact they are whirlicotes. These were long vehicles with fixed wheels that were only able to change direction by dragging the vehicle out of its position and into a new course. They were usually drawn by horses working as a team, three of them or more, in a single line. Whenever I look at the Luttrell Psalter whirlicote, I’m irresistibly reminded of girls having a night out in a stretch limousine.

The medieval whirlicote, whilst looking like the latest innovation in travelling in style and comfort, actually didn’t provide much of either of those qualities. This wasn’t entirely due to the springless and relatively unsophisticated vehicle itself, but also to the condition of the roads generally. Most men (and the majority of women too) preferred to travel on horseback until the middle of the 16th century, when innovations in horse drawn vehicles really began. The earliest true coaches were developed in Hungary, but it wasn’t long before they began to be used elsewhere in Europe. They were imported into England, and the first home-built coach was produced for the Duke of Rutland in 1555.

By the early 17th century, coaches and carriages were beginning to be widely used in and around London and they were no longer the prerogative of aristocracy or royalty. Their reputation as mobile love or lust nests was firmly established by the time Ben Jonson wrote his famous play, “Bartholmew Fair.”

Horse copers and fanciers, dealers, charlatans and all manner of rogues convene at the fair to drink, flirt, eat pig meat and buy presents. One group of rogues is determined to seduce the hitherto virtuous Win, a married woman of London. One of them, Knockem, describes her just as he would a horse.

“Is’t not pity my delicate dark chestnut here – with the fine lean head, large forehead, round eyes, even mouth, sharp ears, long neck, thin crest, close withers, plain back, deep sides, short fillets, and full flanks; with a round belly, a plump buttock, large thighs, knit knees, straight legs, short pasterns, smooth hoofs and short heels, should lead a dull, honest woman’s life, that might live the life of a lady?”

The rogues tell her she will be a free woman and a lady and have “green gowns and velvet petticoats”, elaborate hairdos and head-dresses, and one tells her that she will “ride to Ware and Romford i’ dy coash, shee de players, be in love vit ‘em; sup vit gallantsh, be drunk and cost de noting…and lie by twenty on ‘em if dou pleash, shweetheart.”

“Lord,” thinks Win, musing on the idea of roistering around in a coach after the confined life she has led with her husband, “What a fool have I been!”

Coaches play a major part in Kathleen Winsor’s famous novel set in Restoration London, “Forever Amber.” By this point the coach was a necessary item for the elite, and London traffic was already beginning to snarl up thanks to the sheer numbers of them. In one scene, Amber, who is working with a gang of robbers, goes to an inn to find a suitable dupe – a coney – that she can lure to be robbed. She sits discreetly at a table, pretending to be a fine lady waiting for her lover (who does not, of course, arrive), while she seeks out a suitably drunk and wealthy young man. Eventually one is drawn to here – and she suggests they leave together. He asks her how she got there.

“‘Why, I came in a hackney, sir,’ she replied, implying that no lady going to an assignation would be so foolish as to ride in her own coach which might be seen and reported.

“‘I protest, madame. So fine a person as yourself travelling about after nightfall in a hell-cart? Tush!’ He waggled an admonitory finger at her. ‘I have my coach just around the corner. Pray let me carry you to your home.’

Once in the coach, Amber pretends they already know each other. It doesn’t take much to convince him that he’s seen her in the King’s box at the theatre and that he’s already in love with her. He immediately attempts to seduce her.

“As his impetuosity mounted, Amber grew more coy, moving as far away as she could get, and giving a low giggle in the darkness so that he made a grab for her. They started to tussle, she yielding a little and then pushing him off as he tried to draw her against him, giving a cry of dismay as his hand went into her bodice and caught one breast.”

Amber gives him a slap which puts him off for a time, but it’s not long before he makes another attempt. Then they arrive at the place she pretends is her home, where the robbers are waiting for them.

“‘Sit up sir, for God’s sake.” She was straightening her clothes, pulling up her bodice, smoothing her hair…”

It’s not long before her victim is knocked on the head and all his valuables taken.

From the same historical period, but a factual account in this case, comes an account of purchasing a coach in the diary of Samuel Pepys. This is an important purchase and investment for the Pepyses, and receives quite a lot of attention in his diary. He’s almost decided on one at the coachmaker’s, when his mind is changed by the opinion of Mr Povey,which he values. “This done, he and I to talk of my coach, and I got him to go see it, where he finds most infinite fault with it, both as to being out of fashion and heavy, with so good reason that I am mightily glad of his having corrected me in it; and so I do resolve to have one of his build, and with his advice, both in coach and horses, he being the fittest man in the world for it, and do he carried me home, and said the same to my wife.”

He decides on one similar to Povey’s: “Thence with Mr. Povey spent all the afternoon going up and down among the coachmakers in Cow Lane, and did see several, and at last did pitch upon a little chariott, whose body was framed, but not covered, at the widow’s that made Mr. Lowther’s fine coach; and we are mightily pleased with it, it being light, and will be very genteel and sober; to be covered with leather, and yet will hold four. In typical Pepys’ fashion, he describes the first outing of the coach in sexual terms (“my wife, after dinner, went the first time abroad to take the maidenhead of her coach”) but is pretty soon disappointed by the breakages and expense. Prior to taking on this investment himself, he’s always ridden in other people’s or hired coaches. It’s costly to present an impression of status and wealth to the world, and maintaining a coach and horses is a good way to spend money rapidly. A stable is required, of course; somewhere to keep it; the right kind of horses and clothes for the coachman. It’s a great day when he buys his coach horses: “This day was brought home my pair of black coach-horses, the first I ever was master of. They cost me L50, and are a fine pair.” A little later, though, the cost of breaking a window and an accident when one of the horses gets a leg caught over the pole of the carriage, causes him concern.

If love, or lust, and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, then there’s one particular place and time that was most true – and I’ll be exploring that in my next blog.

Horses, history and humour in the “Mistress Meg and the Elizabethan Rogues” series

Mistress Meg and the Silver Bell cover

If you like horses and history, with a dash of humour and adventure, you’ll like the two novels that I’ve published so far in my series “Mistress Meg and the Elizabethan Rogues.”

The first book in the series is “Mistress Meg and the Prigger of Prancers”, in which we first meet cunning-woman Mistress Meg and her unusual servants Cornelius and Matthew, along with a “prigger of prancers” – a notorious horse thief – and many other characters. This is from the description of the book: “There’s mischief brewing in the town of Guildern. Mistress Meg and her servants are staying at the Goat in Chains Inn and her skills are already having an effect on the trade of the local cunning man. When a parcel of rogues arrives in Guildern, there’s sure to be trouble; and a valuable horse is at the centre of it.” It was first published in 2012. It’s available internationally for Amazon Kindle and there’s currently a promotion on this book on Amazon.com:

The next book in the series is “Mistress Meg and the Silver Bell” and it too is available as a Kindle download across all Amazon online stores: “As Mistress Meg and her loyal servants Matthew and Cornelius make their way to the town of Marcaster, the rogues are not too far behind them. If there’s opportunity for some underhand dealing involving a horse, the Jingler will be sure to discover it, and in the meantime he plans his revenge on Meg.”

History on Horseback – still history-ing, still horse-ing!

I’m just cantering through with a quick update. It’s been a long time since my last post but I’ve been busy – there’s a lot of activity on the History on Horseback Facebook page – why not join us there? I’ve also been making some History on Horseback products which you can find on Zazzle. I’ll be back again soon with more information, new posts and interviews – so watch this space! – Miriam

All the King’s horses

scan0018_638203The horse has always been associated with royalty, and rock royalty is no exception to the rule. In the history of rock and roll, there are many royals, but only one King: Elvis Aaron Presley.  One of the few remaining aspects of a life that is so otherwise so well known is his love of horses and riding. Lesley Pilling believes that Elvis spent his happiest times away from the celebrity circus, with his horses on his ranch, the Circle G. Lesley is now  on a quest to bring the place where he was most at home back to life, with the intention of making it a welcoming communal venue for visitors, locals and the disadvantaged. Lesley talked to Miriam Bibby about Elvis, the man, his horses, and her vision for the future of the Circle G Ranch.

Miriam Bibby:  Lesley, welcome to History on Horseback. Please tell us something about the Circle G and what it meant to Elvis.

Lesley Pilling: Thank you Miriam, it’s a pleasure to speak to you about Elvis, his love of horses and the Circle G Ranch. The Circle G Ranch is located about 15 miles south of Graceland (Elvis’ home in Memphis TN) in a place called Horn Lake just over the border in Mississippi. Elvis bought the ranch in February 1967. He first saw the ranch (then named Twinkeltown Farm) whilst out on a horse buying expedition. Driving by the ranch Elvis was attracted by the 75 white cross which was illuminated at night. As Elvis was quite a spiritual person and he was also looking for a place to house his ever increasing stable of horses, seeing the ranch for sale – Elvis being Elvis, bought the 163 acre property there and then – complete with its own herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle.

The Circle G Ranch was, Lesley believes, the place where Elvis spent his happiest times.  Priscilla Presley wrote in her autobiography of this time: "What seemed like a new life had begun.  We spent our honeymoon at the Circle G.  I look back at those weeks as a remarkable lull in the middle of a storm.  Elvis was between pictures.  I’ve never seen him so ‘free’, free of the entourage, the press, the Colonel and the incessant demands of his career.  It was just the two of us in our ranch house.  I loved cooking his breakfast....  After breakfast we’d saddle up our horses and ride them through the hills."

The Circle G Ranch was, Lesley believes, the place where Elvis spent his happiest times. Priscilla Presley wrote in her autobiography of this time: “What seemed like a new life had begun. We spent our honeymoon at the Circle G. I look back at those weeks as a remarkable lull in the middle of a storm. Elvis was between pictures. I’ve never seen him so ‘free’, free of the entourage, the press, the Colonel and the incessant demands of his career. It was just the two of us in our ranch house. I loved cooking his breakfast…. After breakfast we’d saddle up our horses and ride them through the hills.”

Elvis wanted to register the ranch as The Circle G, but as this name was already taken he registered it as The Flying Circle G – although to Elvis and his friends, family and fans it has always been known as The Circle G Ranch. Elvis’ ownership of the ranch took place at a time of great change in his life. In May 1967, after owning the ranch for around 4 months, Elvis married Priscilla in Las Vegas – they then returned to Memphis and moved onto the Circle G for the main part of their honeymoon. Priscilla is quoted as saying this was probably the happiest time of their married life. She got a chance to cook and clean and just take care of Elvis; they could actually be just a normal couple and she felt that Elvis was able, for the first time, to find peace at the ranch. Shortly after this Elvis would have found out that he was to become a father – another milestone in his life. His movie contracts were also coming to an end and we understand that the peace and freedom that the ranch afforded him enabled him to think very seriously about the direction his career might take in the coming years.

The ranch was a place where Elvis could escape the pressures of being ‘Elvis Presley’ and simply be a normal guy, hanging out with his friends and family and riding his horses.

MB: From your description, the Circle G and his horses were at the heart of Elvis’s life. The Circle G was clearly a place where he felt truly at home. Do we know when Elvis first rode a horse? What do we know about his relationship with them?

LP: Elvis loved horses. Although we’re not exactly sure if he had any experience of horses during his childhood years in Tupelo or Memphis, we do know that he rode horses as early as 1956 and at that time also spoke of his desire to own his own ranch. The collection of horses at Graceland began Christmas 1966 when Elvis bought a quarter horse named Domino for Priscilla as her Christmas gift. His enthusiasm for horses grew rapidly as he bought horses for his friends and family and soon the stable at Graceland was bursting at the seams.

We do know that Elvis loved to care for his horses and there are documented tales of the time and love he took in doing so. It wasn’t at all unusual for him to walk his horse Rising Sun for an hour after riding him for just 15 minutes just to make sure that the horse wasn’t harmed in any way. Elvis loved to work on his own tack – those times alone with his horses allowed him the peace and serenity that his hectic life style didn’t usually permit.

MB: How many horses did he keep on the ranch; and did he have favourites?

LP: We believe that Elvis kept over 24 horses on the Circle G – although we’re still researching. We recently spoke to a gentleman who sold Elvis horses and equipment and we’re constantly reaching out to acquire more information for our Circle G Memory Bank. His favourite had to be his American Quarter Horse, a Golden Palomino named Rising Sun. Most of the photographs you see of Elvis on horseback show him on Rising Sun. He loved that horse and Rising Sun loved Elvis. He did own another memorable horse, Bear – a beautiful black Tennessee walking horse.

Elvis Presley's favourite horse was the palomino Rising Sun. Priscilla Presley wrote: "I remember one day I happened to look out of the window.  It was twilight.  The sky was aglow in misty blue and radiant pink.  There was Elvis walking Rising Sun, his Golden Palomino.  I saw them as silhouettes against the darkening sky.  Elvis was walking slowly, I could practically hear him breathe.  His breath was easy, his body relaxed.  At that moment I was convinced that my husband had actually found peace.”

Elvis Presley’s favourite horse was the palomino Rising Sun. Priscilla Presley wrote: “I remember one day I happened to look out of the window. It was twilight. The sky was aglow in misty blue and radiant pink. There was Elvis walking Rising Sun, his Golden Palomino. I saw them as silhouettes against the darkening sky. Elvis was walking slowly, I could practically hear him breathe. His breath was easy, his body relaxed.
At that moment I was convinced that my husband had actually found peace.”

MB: What role did horses play in Elvis Presley’s professional life, in music and movies?

LP: Some of Elvis’ best known films featured horses – Love Me Tender, Flaming Star, Stay Away Joe and Charro. There was one hairy moment during the filming of Flaming Star when a horse ran away with Elvis – this understandably shook him up for a while but he quickly overcame his fear and was over it long before he bought the Circle G.

MB: It’s astonishing now to think of the many achievements of his all too brief life. What happened to the ranch after his death?

LP: Yes, Elvis achieved so much in a relatively short period of time. The world is aware of much of that but there is so much more to the man than is generally talked about.

Elvis was a very spiritual individual who was constantly searching and learning. He had a deep faith and the Circle G resonated with him for that reason. Even today when you stand and look at that 75 foot white cross that first drew Elvis there you can feel that calm and peace that Elvis did.

Elvis also did a great deal for charity, much of it anonymously. Here at the Circle G Foundation our aim is to continue his charitable and humanitarian legacy at the ranch. At the time of his passing Elvis didn’t own the ranch. Although we do have documented statements that he continued to visit the property throughout his life and spoke to friends and family about it fondly. The ranch has been in private hands for many years. We believe this is our chance to return Elvis’ spirit there and in doing so continue his legacy of helping those less fortunate.

MB: When you became involved with the Circle G, the germ of an idea began. How did your involvement come about?

LP: I have been an Elvis fan since 1968 (aged 7) so obviously I’ve known about the ranch. I didn’t get to visit Memphis until 2008 and then it wasn’t until 2010 when I got the chance to visit the Circle G. Finding it in the terrible state it’s in reduced me to tears and I promised myself (and Elvis) there and then to do whatever I could to save it. On returning home I launched the campaign on Facebook. Now three years later the Circle G Foundation has supporters all around the world. We have a Management Team and 29 Ambassadors working hard to spread the word – and our support grows daily.

MB: Since you first saw the potential in the Circle G, the possibilities have expanded immensely so that it’s now a very rich vision indeed. Tell us something about your plans for the future, and where you are currently.

LP: Yes, since we began in 2010 our vision for the ranch has clarified and expanded. As I mentioned previously we feel this is the ideal location to continue Elvis’ charitable and humanitarian legacy. We would like to establish facilities for the disabled (hopefully riding for the disabled), help the disadvantaged by running programmes on the property and also establish rest and recouperation for service veterans. Of course it will be a wonderful site for Elvis fans to visit and stay but we also want to attract families to what will be a unique visitor experience. We are currently reaching out to potential investors who can help us achieve our dream. Although we realise that there is no quick fix and that such plans take time to come to fruition – we have achieved an awful lot in the past three years. Our profile both inside and outside the Elvis world continues to grow – and we hope that through interviews such as this we can reach out to the equine community, we’d love them to be involved.

MB: Are you finding the support to bring this vision to reality, both locally and internationally?

LP: One of the very special things about Elvis Presley is that he continues to be a global phenomenon. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t recognise his name and there isn’t a country in the world where you can’t find an Elvis Presley Fan Club! Here at the Circle G Foundation we work very hard on this ‘international’ fan base. We have our own Ambassadors in Australia, South Africa, Italy, France, UK, Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, USA, Denmark – so we have the world pretty well covered and we’ve had messages of support from every continent – so yes, we are finding that international support. That doesn’t mean we will stop reaching out – supporters are always extremely welcome and we love them to get in touch, no matter what field they come from or what nationality they are. If anyone does want to get in touch with us they can visit our website  where they’ll find lots more detailed information, pictures and interesting items to look at. Use our Contact page to send us a message – we’d love to hear from your readers.

MB: How do you think Elvis would feel about the project? What would he say?

LP: This is a question we’ve asked ourselves many times. We hope that he’d be proud of his fans as we work towards continuing his charitable legacy on the ranch. We know he loved the Circle G and we want to return his spirit there. It’s a wonderful thought to imagine him smiling that million dollar smile and saying – ‘I have the best fans in the world!

MB Lesley, thank you – good luck with your project! If any followers of History on Horseback would like to know more, or get involved, check out the project web site at http://www.circlegfoundation.co.uk and the Circle G Facebook page.