urban draught horses

In the fifties, I spent many of my summers and Saturdays at my grandparent’s east Hamilton home, amid the relative chaos of an urban environment. By today’s standards, it was extremely laid back, but at the time it contrasted dramatically with my life on the farm.

While we and our rural neighbours owned horses, they were most often seen patiently awaiting liberation from their cramped stalls, grazing in the fenced barnyard or hauling rusted implements in furrowed fields. The memory of their distant silhouettes making sluggish progress across the dusty landscape is burned indelibly into my memory. The equipment they dragged behind them varied from single-furrow ploughs guided by weathered men in the shade of broad brimmed hats, to mowers, jointed harrows, discs and wagons stacked high with loose, yellow hay.

It was different in the city. The familiar clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hoofs on Albany Avenue was a symbol of commerce. In the days preceding air-conditioning and prolific urban crime, the windows of most homes were propped open on warm, summer nights. Gauze-like, white curtains danced in the night breezes, and bedsprings squeaked with every toss and turn.

Cities, especially those noted for their industry, were never completely silent - even then. But, the far-off booms and clangs of foundries, and the thumping of shunting railway cars were like the notes of a musical composition. They soothed, rather than disturbed, sleeping residents. For those still dreaming after the sun had risen, the sound most likely to awaken them was the echo of distant hoofs on the pavement. Invariably, it was the milkman and his horse, Daisy.

The mare was a victim of habit. With no prompting from her driver, she moved the wagon a few feet at a time, as he hurried up and down porch steps with his wire basket of bottled milk. You could almost ‘see’ his progress with your ears. His footsteps on the sidewalk, the clinking of the bottles, and the dumping of coins from the empties on the porch were unmistakable.

The milk-wagon was a fine example of 1950’s craftsmanship. Its green, spoked wheels, lettering and trim contrasted quietly with the cream coloured vehicle.

No sooner had the milkman vanished around the corner, than the iceman was seen in the distance. He wore a leather apron and wielded a large pair of cast, metal tongs. His unpainted wagon was flat and carried its cargo of ice blocks under a soiled tarpaulin. The covered ice, destined for the zinc lined, oak iceboxes of every home, left a dark stain on the pavement as it melted in the warm morning air.

His partner was a nameless, old dapple grey, with blinkers and an air of restlessness. Her progress through the neighbourhood was checked by a wheel-brake, because ice delivery took a little longer than setting a quart of milk by the door.

If we spotted the ice wagon on a hot afternoon, we’d stalk it like a pride of hungry lions, waiting for an opportunity to steal a glistening sliver, while the driver was inside a house. He was more frightening than the milkman, who dressed in a fresh, blue uniform. Perhaps it was because we never considered stealing milk, but more importantly, the milkman always said good-morning with a smile, while the ice man hardly spoke at all, and didn’t even acknowledge us unless we approached the back of his wagon. Then, he just glared at us from the shadow beneath the peak of his tweed cap.

Just before lunch, while we were sitting on one of the six blue-grey steps of 128 Albany, the rattle of harness and din of steel rimmed wagon wheels announced the arrival of ‘the baker’. This was a delivery we anticipated, because Nanna was more likely to buy cakes, tarts and donuts than were our parents.

Coal ChuteThe Jackson’s Bread wagon was similar to the milkman’s. It gleamed in the sun, and his horse, Becky, was relaxed enough to be patted on the flank with care. The reins entered the wagon through a purpose-made hole and were attached to a lead weight, which sat on the floor. At each stop, the driver lifted it out and set it down on the road. If Becky moved ahead, the weight pulled on the reins, signalling her to stop. Of course, she wasn’t above littering the asphalt with fresh road apples from time to time, but they weren’t half as offensive as the steaming cow pies in our neighbours’ pastures.

After a few seconds of reorganizing the merchandise, the driver stepped nimbly from the wagon with a very large, wicker basket of tempting baked goods. The shallow basket was like a twenty-four by thirty inch rectangular tray with a handle. On more than one occasion I watched the driver hang a cylindrical canvas bag of oats over the mare’s face and straighten up his inventory, while she munched on her mid-day snack.

In early spring, and again as summer was nearing its end, the coal wagon would come lumbering along the street. Its over-sized driver, lightly but entirely dusted with black, rocked from side to side in response to the motion of his overloaded wagon. The creases and pores of his hands and face were crammed with coal dust, making him appear less respectable than the other vendors but of course; his product was just as vital as ice, bread and milk. The reins drooped lazily and the whipple-tree rattled as the load came to a stop in front of the house. The wagon’s wheels looked as if they would burst their stubby spokes, and the poor horse appeared forlorn, resigned and tired.

Following a brief discussion with the homeowner, the vendor positioned his back against the wagon, reached over his shoulders and hefted a fifty-pound burlap sack of anthracite or bituminous onto his hunched frame. Into the alley he trudged, between the houses, where the coal chute had been latched open by the resident, just in time. There was a “whoosh” trailing off into a waterfall-like sound as the coal slid into the coal bin below the sill. The grubby, stooped man made a number of trips, more or less identical, though he seemed to walk a little slower each time. When he was finished he mounted the wagon, slapped the reins against the horse’s flank and jostled his way to the next potential customer.

On rare occasions the ragman, the scavenger of all things unwanted, would appear out of nowhere. He may have had a route like all the others, but his arrival was unpredictable and not especially exciting, though there were sometimes weird and wonderful contraptions among the junk on his wagon.

Gradually, panel trucks and delivery vans replaced the horses and wagons. For a few weeks in the early sixties I drove a Divco truck, making residential deliveries to Hamilton homes on behalf of Royal Oak Dairy. Within a few years yet another aspect of 1950’s culture, the household delivery driver, had all but disappeared from the city's streets.

© David J Forsyth 2013