The Welfare of Pit Ponies
Concern for animal welfare can be precarious, as the history of Britain’s pit ponies shows.
Britons, we are often told, are an animal-loving people. This comforting national myth has a long pedigree. As far back as 1860 The Times reassured its readers that:
‘Whatever may be our shortcomings as a nation ... we have little to blame ourselves with as far as animals are concerned.’
The widespread support enjoyed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), founded in 1824, was proof enough of how warmly the Victorian public regarded ‘dumb animals’.
If the RSPCA’s latest surveys are any guide, little has changed. Respondents routinely rate animal welfare more highly than human rights, global poverty and child welfare as a cause worthy of their support. Moreover, in the 2023 survey, an impressive 69 per cent self-identified as ‘animal lovers’, with a mere three per cent confessing that they did not like animals.
Beneath the headline figures, however, lurks a more complicated situation. Nearly three-quarters of Britons accept that chickens are sentient, yet more than 60 per cent see no compelling reason to move away from intensive agricultural methods. Likewise, while nearly half of the population believes that ‘humans should never use animals in ways that cause them harm for any reason’, well under 10 per cent of the UK follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. As the authors of the RSPCA’s 2023 report put it, when it comes to animals and their welfare, there are often glaring gaps between beliefs and actions.
Few animals have experienced this more profoundly than the horses sent underground to work in mines. These living haulage machines played a critical role in the expansion of the coal industry in the 19th century. Their job involved pulling tram-loads of coal from the coalfaces to the mine shafts. They were immensely powerful, highly manoeuvrable and had one great advantage over most alternative sources of motive power: they were unlikely to set fire to the combustible gases that could build up in the pits.
Horses were worked underground from at least the mid-18th century, but their numbers increased significantly as the coal industry boomed in the Victorian period. Precise figures are not available until the early 20th century, although it was estimated that there were 9,000 horses employed in the mines of South Wales alone in 1875. We are on safer ground when we get to the 1910s: no fewer than 71,526 horses were underground in Britain’s collieries in 1912.
The horses and ponies were subjected to the full gamut of human emotions. Many of the human workers they met underground treated them with great consideration; some positively doted on them. Keir Hardie, the future founder of the Labour Party, was famously attached to the horses he worked with as a young man in the pits of Lanarkshire. Jack Edwards, a miner in South Wales in the 1910s and 1920s, was determined that the horses did not suffer. He regularly brought apples and ‘little tit-bits from the garden for them’.
But for all the individual acts of kindness, the horses could be treated brutally by their human handlers. The abuses were shocking; in the very worst of cases, colliery companies pressed charges. Hauliers, frustrated with animals that refused to work, could mete out vicious beatings. Horses lost eyes, some had their tongues ripped out, others were thrashed with iron bars and pickaxes. Kickings with heavy hobnailed boots were routine. Some horses were even intentionally killed by workers. In such a dangerous workspace, it was easy enough to pass off an execution as an accident.
When such cases came to light, the public was outraged. There was great love for the pit horses in the mining communities; coalfield inhabitants were delighted to see the animals gambolling in fields after being brought to the surface during lengthy industrial disputes. And when, from the 1880s, special colliery horse shows were staged, huge crowds – including miners – flocked to see the animals enjoying a few hours in the fresh air and daylight.
Out of this great reservoir of public love for the colliery horses, a welfare organisation specifically set up to look after their interests emerged. It took a long time, however. From the 1820s, working horses at the surface could expect the RSPCA officers and members of the public to intervene if they were treated cruelly, but the Pit Ponies’ Protection Society was not formed until 1908. Those animals in the colliery were much more vulnerable. Mine officials refused RSPCA requests to be allowed underground to inspect horses on the grounds that the pits were too dangerous for visitors. They also claimed that horses were healthier for being kept underground; the warmer, unfluctuating temperatures meant they lived longer than their counterparts on the surface. Or so the argument ran.
One man, Francis A. Cox, was sceptical. In the 1900s, he collected testimonies from miners who were willing to act as whistleblowers. He wrote up their evidence in a series of hard-hitting pamphlets. He included examples of individual hauliers cruelly abusing their horses, but he was also keen to highlight the structural violence that shaped every working horse’s experience. He told of roofs being too low for horses to pass under without cutting themselves. He underlined the long hours the animals were expected to work. He pointed out how hungry and thirsty they were allowed to become while away from the underground stables. And he demolished the lie that living and working underground made for a healthier equine experience. The pits were terrifying places for such highly sensitive ‘flight’ animals.
Cox’s work achieved results. By founding the Protection Society he gave the welfare of the pit ponies an organisational focus. And thanks to him, the 1911 Coal Mines Act contained a battery of regulations all designed to improve the conditions under which the horses laboured. An inspectorate was set up with the task of ensuring the regulations were followed.
Nevertheless, as today, there remained a considerable gap between society’s beliefs about animal welfare and its actions. The pit horses were beloved in the mining communities and the nation at large. Concern for their welfare was genuine and widespread. Yet, ultimately, economic considerations determined the animals’ experience much more profoundly than did worries about their welfare. The practice of depriving horses of sunlight, fresh air and conditions in which they could live ‘normal’ lives continued until the 1990s. Human interests – even the interests of those who identified as animal lovers – always trumped the horses’ interests. Only when the last mines closed were the horses finally retired.
In 1999, Britain’s last two colliery horses, Robbie and Gremlin, worked their final shift. They were taken from South Wales to an RSPCA rest home near Milton Keynes. Thus ended two and a half centuries of underground equine labour. In the same year, Welsh artist Mike Petts unveiled his earthwork sculpture of a pit horse on the site of a former colliery near Caerphilly. Measuring some 200 metres from nose to tail, the carefree ‘Sultan’ is galloping joyfully in the daylight. Francis A. Cox, the ‘Pit Pony’s Friend’, would surely have approved.
Andy Croll is Principal Lecturer in History at the University of South Wales.