Death Traps In The London Street

Looking at photographs of the London streets around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, one thing that stands out – and stands out to such an extent that we often fail to notice it – is the number of horses that were to be seen on the busy streets of the London capital.

19th century London was a horse powered city, and thousands of horses, performing all manner of tasks, were to be seen trotting back and forth along its rutted thoroughfares.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned too much in the main accounts of the injustices and hardships that many of the Victorian residents endured is the dangers that the horses themselves actually faced on the busy, crowded streets of London.

But, it must be said, that life for many of the horses was one of extreme hardship and they faced daily dangers on the streets.


In February, 1889, The Pall Mall Gazette published the following article that was intended to draw the attention of their readers to some of the accidents that befell the poor horses whose daily lot it was to trot around the streets of London.

It is an interesting article in that it reminds us of the plights of some of these creatures, upon who the transport systems, the delivery networks, the civic amenities – indeed on which all aspects of Victorian society were dependent.

There had, apparently, been a heavy snow, followed by a frost in London just a few days prior to the article’s appearance, and this had highlighted the perils faced by London’s massive population of working horses.

The article read:-

“The recent snow and frost of a few days ago have again drawn the attention of the public to the case of London Horses versus the London Streets.

In all parts of London the cry is raised against the sufferings of the horses on the slippery, slushy streets; the battle of the patient workers is taken up by high and low and only the London vestries, in whose hands lie the remedies against the present state of things, wrap themselves in majestic silence and let the horses and the streets take care of themselves as best they may.

One of the first to lift up his voice in the cause of the horses was Mr. J. Atkinson, who is at the head of the Animals’ Institute, Wilton-place, and who is well known as the successor and former partner of the famous bone-setter John Hutton.

A horse pulls an omnibus through a London street.
A Horse drawn Omnibus


Mr. Atkinson, to whom the terrors which a frost-bound street presents to the poor London horse present themselves more vividly than to the general public, as case after case the injured horses come under his daily notice, called in Northumberland-street a day or two ago, determined, if possible, to bring the case of the horses before the public, in order that the vestries might be shaken out of their unpardonable lethargy.

“The recent state of things,” said Mr. Atkinson, “was really dreadful, and the number of accidents which happened to horses in the London streets during the storm was quite appalling.

Horse after horse was brought to our accident boxes at Wilton-place, and every day I was called out to aid or to destroy some poor creature that had slipped and was unable to get up.

The cases of this kind which come under my immediate notice are, of course, local cases only, but the same thing is going on all over London, and nothing, or next to nothing, is done to prevent these accidents; in fact, many of our streets are paved in a manner which makes them veritable death traps to the poor animals.”

“How is that, Mr. Atkinson?”


“What I mean is this. Many of our most frequented streets are constructed so that there is a considerable curve towards the gutter on either side, and this curve is the occasion of more accidents than almost anything else.

Take, for instance, Piccadilly hill. In some parts of it the curve is a large arch, in other parts it is considerably greater.

Now, supposing a horse is coming down the hill and feels its foot slip forward, it will try to save itself by getting a footing sideward, and then in turning its foot outward the curve in the pavement causes it to fall, and in most cases the consequence is a severe sprain, dislocation, or fracture of the shoulder: the sufferings of the animal are intense; in many cases it has to be immediately destroyed, and even if this is not actually necessary the horse is often weakened for life, though a cure may be effected after some weeks, and it is an open question whether it is not better, both from the sentimental and practical points of view, to kill the animal at once, as the injured limb mostly remains weak, and the horse is no longer fit for hard work, such as it is obliged to do in the London streets, while it is always more or less suffering from the weakness of the limb.

A horse pulling a road sweeper.
A Horse Drawn Road Sweeper


It is the same with other streets. Take an instance close by. The Knightsbridge-road is slightly curved above Wilton-place, and higher up, nearer Hyde Park-corner, the curve is much greater.

Below St. George’s Hospital it is the same, and cabmen from all parts of town have told me the same thing.

They all agree that the curved streets are the principal cause of accidents to their horses.”


“Seeing that the vestries are not likely to re-pave their curved streets for the benefit of the horses, what do you think ought to be done in order to save the animals as much as possible from falling into the death-traps?”

“First of all, I would strongly advocate that, though the vestries may not be willing to repave the streets, because as they are paved at present they are very dangerous to horses in wet or frosty weather, the re-paving of the streets, when next it is undertaken, should be done with a view to preventing these accidents. Let the pavement be laid down flatter, and let this especially be done where the streets are sloping.

But first of all, and this can be done immediately, let the streets be covered with gravel in a more satisfactory manner. The way in which this is done at present is altogether insufficient: a spadeful of gravel is thrown down here and there, just where it pleases the labourer. Why should there not be carts, something like the watering carts, by means of which the roads are covered equally and sufficiently with sand and gravel whenever there is a frost, or, indeed, whenever the weather is wet, for wet streets are as slippery as frosty ones.”

“This is a subject to which full attention ought to be paid at last; the horse of the poor cabman and costermonger, who can but ill afford to lose their animals, have far too long been exposed to the danger of our streets, and I hope the public will at last raise a strong and energetic protest against the present state of the streets.”


A meeting is to be held on Tuesday (to-day), when I shall make the following proposals for reducing the amount of preventable suffering amongst horses in the streets of London:-

1. To influence vestries to use more judiciously sand and water on slippery road surfaces.
2. To suggest the making of roads with less arch or curve on the surface.
3. To protest against the use of asphalt as a road surface in all main thoroughfares.
4. To provide against the suffering endured by animals fatally or permanently injured in the streets, and to petition Parliament to grant to the police the power to slaughter, or have slaughtered, animals irremediably injured.
5. To assist the police in the prevention or punishment of persons guilty of overloading.”