The first horses appeared in what would later become Brisbane with the establishment of the Moreton Bay convict settlement in 1824. The number grew rapidly along with the population after the Queensland Government sponsored immigration of the 1860s, passing 3,000 by 1870. Apart from the many businesses that utilised horses, wealthier families also maintained one or more.
In this post, I’ll look at various aspects of life in a city filled with horses. There were many different types of horse drawn vehicle with some overlap in the naming of types. I’ve tried my best to name the type in each image but not being an expert, I may have made some errors.
Australian horse breeds
From the time the first horses arrived in Australia in 1788, constant interbreeding in the harsh Australian environment led to breeds such as the Waler. Its robustness and endurance led to a large export trade. An article published in the Queenslander in 1867 described superior aspects of Australian horses such as the ability of a saddle horse to be able to cover 100 miles (160 kilometers) a day compared to an English horse’s 50 miles, and Cobb & Co. stage horses covering double the English norm of 10 miles (16km) on poor roads.
Local horses were held in such renown that Ernest Baynes, long term ringmaster of National Association’s annual Brisbane Exhibition, was asked to find a mount for the use of King George V on his visit to India in 1911. After a long search, he chose “Akbar”, from the property of Miss Enid Bell of “Coochin” in the Scenic Rim area. For more on Ernest Baynes, see my post “A Strawberry Afternoon Tea“.
Other breeds such as the Australian Stock Horse and the Australian Draught Horse also emerged as a result of breeding for local conditions.
Private horse ownership
In 1973, Ronald Lawson published his study of Brisbane in the 1890s, based in part on 75 interviews with people about their memories of that time, This included information on horse and carriage ownership. He comments that
“Another important element of a family’s style of life was the number of horses and vehicles it owned and their quality. The most prestigious light vehicle was the phaeton; beneath this ranged the various types of buggies, down to the sulky.”
Lawson found that families of the elite commonly owned 3 or more horses, members of the upper middle class 2 and of the lower middle class 1.
Others only had a horse when it was necessary for their occupations. My grandfather, for example, kept a horse at the family home in Kangaroo Point in the 1930s, as he used it to ply his trade of fruit and vegetable man. A domestic horse cost typically £10-20 and around £15 a year to feed, large sums for most families with incomes of under £100 a year.
In the urban area, most horses were stabled. Multiple horse ownership usually meant that a carriage house was also needed.
Large families were common and those able to afford a wagonette or a dogcart could still have difficulty in all travelling together.
The sulky could only carry one or two but was relatively quick and cheap to buy.
All had large wheels, well suited to the many rough and undrained streets of the time, often with tree stumps scattered along the way.
The most flexible means of getting around early Brisbane was by riding a horse.
Steep roads were common, and many have been cut down over the years. For example, Vulture Street near Stanley Street presented great difficulty to wheeled traffic before the large cutting was made in 1889. Likewise, Gladstone Road near Vulture Street was difficult for all traffic except horse riders before the 1901 cutting to allow the passage of trams.
Given the rough state of Brisbane’s streets, delivery of the mail by horse in lower density and hilly suburban areas also made sense.
Social mores dictated that women should ride side saddle.
In an article written in 1938, Elizabeth King recalled how late in the 19th century, Miss E. O. Drury and her sister began riding in long divided skirts,
“usually after dark so that no-one would see them. However, when they were seen they raised much adverse comment. “
Elizabeth King also commented that the 1893 flood wiped out many famous breeds, chiefly as a result of feed shortage, and the quality of horses in Brisbane never recovered.
After World War One, social restrictions on women eased significantly and riding astride became the norm.
In the early days of European settlement in Brisbane, those who couldn’t afford a horse simply walked everywhere. The town was not large. The first cabs appeared on our streets in 1861. Initially these were of the Albert Car design, but it wasn’t long before they were joined by the Hackney Car and Hansom Cab.
With no regulation in place, some complained of the exorbitant costs of cabs and the need to bargain with the driver.
As described in my post Brisbane’s Omnibuses, the first omnibus service commenced in 1863, operating between the town centre and Fortitude Valley, and later Breakfast Creek. The increase in the number of cabs and buses led to the introduction of a comprehensive by-law in 1865 regulating public transport. It covered a large amount of detail, even specifying the requirements of conductors’ uniforms even though at the time there were no conductors in Brisbane.
Horse drawn trams were introduced in 1885, but were not a financial success. Electric cars began operation on 1897 and the horse drawn trams were phased out.
Around this time, cheap bicycles became available and became the preferred means of daily transport for many men. Again, social mores precluded women from cycling in public until the late 1890s.
Transport technology continued to advance and in 1909, horse drawn cab drivers were strongly opposing the introduction of motor cabs, citing issues such as the dependence of their families on their income, the impact on suppliers of horse feed, farmers, horse breeders and carriage builders and the fact that taxi cabs would be imported. However, there was no halting progress, and the first taxi cabs began operation later that year.
Amazingly, the last hansom cab stopped didn’t stop operation until 25 years later when veteran cabby Fred de Jersey passed away. It had become something of a novelty by that time.
Motor bus services grew rapidly after World War One and the horse drawn omnibuses faded away in the 1920s.
Safety and Regulation
For some decades, street traffic in Brisbane was light and totally unregulated. In 1877, with a growing population and subsequently road traffic, the Brisbane City Council was impelled to introduce a bye-law to bring some order to the situation. The preamble stated that “the careless and negligent driving of vehicles and riding of horses in the municipality of Brisbane is fraught with danger and inconvenience to the public”.
The bye-law covered the key problems. Within the municipality, vehicles and horses were to travel no faster than a walking pace and keep to the left of the road, and vehicles were to be parallel parked. Fines of up to a stiff £20 were to be levied for breaches.
In days when most travelled by foot, bicycle or by public transport, it was common for shops to home deliver items purchased. Also, fruit and vegetables, milk, bread and later ice were usually purchased from vendors who passed by regularly.
Milk was carried in bulk and ladled into customers’ billy cans or jugs, which were left out on the front verandah. This, along with lack of hygiene and warming through the morning led to health problems, especially with children. The introduction of milk bottlers and pasteurization greatly changed the situation. See my post Doctor A. Jefferis Turner – “Gentle Annie” for more on this.
Proprietors of fruit and vegetable shops as well as those with delivery businesses made the daily trip to the Roma Street Markets to buy their produce.
Of course horses were utilised to pull all other vehicles used to service a city like Brisbane. Here are a few self explanatory examples.
A large proportion of road accidents in the equine era reported in newspapers were due to bolting horses. When frightened by things such as sudden loud noises or movements, the natural instinct of a horse is to flee the possible danger. Horses have a very wide field of view, and most were fitted with blinkers to reduce the risk of their reacting to a perceived threat in their peripheral vision.
One spectacular event took place in 1907 when Boundary Street, West End, butcher Peter McKinnon was doing his delivery rounds accompanied by his 3 children. He went into a shop for a few moments and the horse bolted from Hampstead Road all the way to Melbourne Street, with the three children screaming in terror. They were thrown out of the cart when a wheel came off but fortunately two were uninjured and the third suffered from concussion.
The situation became worse when horses had to share the streets with new arrivals such as steam rollers, electric trams and tricycles. In 1883, a pony pulling a dogcart along North Quay took fright at a tricycle and bolted. The cart overturned and smashed and the horse took off down Queen Street. One of the three women riding in the dogcart received an injury to the spine.
The first steamrollers appeared on Brisbane streets in the early 1880s and it wasn’t long before accidents occurred due to bolting horses. In one spectacular 1897 incident, the horses pulling an omnibus down Logan Road were frightened by a steamroller. Most of the passengers including a woman with a baby in her arms managed to jump off before the vehicle became entangled with a verandah post of a nearby butcher shop, bringing it crashing down.
Even horses that didn’t bolt from steam rollers weren’t always safe. In 1924, a runaway steamroller collided with a horse and dray in Wharf Street.
Electric trams were introduced to Brisbane’s streets in 1897 (see my post Life with Brisbane Trams for more). Soon after, a correspondent to the Brisbane Courier described how his normally quiet horse when passing a stationary tram at Woolloongabba, had been alarmed by a combination of a tram’s bell, the hissing of the brakes and an electric flash.
“As it was, my horse immediately bolted, carrying me at an awful pace for over three miles; the harness was broken, the lamp dashed from the socket, and I had great difficulty at times in preventing the buggy from turning over, as I was frequently travelling on two wheels. “
With motorised vehicles increasing in numbers after World War One, there were of course accidents involving horse drawn vehicles. Luckily in those days of light traffic and slower speeds, most accidents were not serious. In 1929, for example, a pie cart travelling down Ann Street was hit by a 3 ton motor truck. The cart was damaged with pies strewn across the road, but neither horse nor driver was injured. There were, however serious accidents and fatalities as horses and their owners learnt to deal with motor vehicles.
Street facilities provided for horses included water troughs and hitching posts. Nonbe of these have survived in the city centre.
Streets were covered with a melange that included dried horse droppings and the “slops” or waste water that flowed or were thrown from houses. In busier areas, the various councils had street cleaners who formed the “street dirt” into piles which were collected irregularly. There were complaints of the dust being blown into shops soiling goods as well as into the eyes of all in the vicinity. As late as 1941, there were complaints of manure being blown into air raid shelters in the city.
Wood paving was introduced on major busy thoroughfares such as Queen Street from 1898. Whilst this reduced noise and was more durable than road metal, the surface became very slippery after rain or hosing down dust.
On a November day of 1898, not long after Queen Street was laid with wooden blocks, rain had made the surface very slippery, and sand had not been spread on the surface as was to become the normal practice. Numerous horses slipped and most traffic diverted via other streets. One poor unfortunate animal pulling a Norman Park omnibus fell in Queen Street and again on the blocks that had been laid on Victoria Bridge. It had to be put down.
The wooden block surfaces were finally replaced in the 1920s.
Auction sales of horses took place at what were called “Horse Bazaars” in the 19th century. These often also provided livery and bait (hire) stable facilities for visitors to the city.
Establishments supporting horses and related vehicles included coach builders, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, shoeing forges, saddlers, harness makers, and whip makers. There were also ironmongers specialising in products for coach builders and saddlers.
As Brisbane grew, so did the number of horses and the support infrastructure. By 1891, the city had a population of around 292,000 supported by 13,000 horses. Pugh’s Almanac of that year lists 26 coach builders, 66 blacksmiths, 31 shoeing forges, 25 saddlers and harness makers, 5 saddlers’ ironmongers, 9 wheelwrights and 9 livery stables and horse bazaars, although there is some overlap in listings.
The long farewell
The first motorised vehicles made their appearance on Brisbane streets in the early years of the twentieth century.
Whilst there was a steady increase in numbers from then, it was after World War One that the major swing from horse to internal combustion began. However, a 1925 census of traffic revealed that around a third of the vehicles crossing the Victoria Bridge were still horse drawn.
The number of motor cars registered in Queensland steadily grew until the effects of the depression were felt. The number of trucks, although small in number, also grew rapidly, but the economic downturn had a greater effect with registrations dropping off significantly.
The photographic evidence suggests that the majority of remaining horse traffic comprised commercial vehicles. Some still used horse drawn vehicles for private transport. My grandmother told me of the first time she crossed the newly completed Story Bridge in 1940. She was walking across and a gentleman driving in a sulky pulled up and offered her a ride into the city, which she accepted.
Heavy drays, which moved very slowly, were still common, and complaints of their disrupting traffic flows started to increase.
Even larger companies were still operating mixed delivery fleets well into the the 1930s.
During World War Two there was a shortage of petrol, and registrations of vehicles dropped. In 1941, there was a call for greater use of horses to reduce petrol consumed for non-military purposes. A number of carriers were using horses for city work during the war years.
After the war, the decline of horse traffic continued rapidly, and the last horses commonly in use were for home deliveries. Today, there are few reminders of the days when the city relied on its horses and it’s only occasionally that they are seen on our streets.
© P. Granville 2023
4 thoughts on “Brisbane – Horse and Carriage”
A lovely read
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A lovely read,
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Paul, another excellent piece of work.
One question: you show a milk delivery cart in Highgate Hill. Do you recognise the street? I keep looking for an early photo of Mabel Street, where I live, but without luck.
I think you are in Italy now?
All the best,
Dr William J Metcalf
Adjunct Lecturer, Griffith University,
Honorary Associate Professor, University of Queensland,
div dir=”ltr”>Thanks so much aga