The Black Brigade etching

This is an excerpt from a 1971 reprint of The Horse-World of London (1893) By W.J. Gordon, originally published in 1893. The book contains information about all classes of the London equine, from the coal ponies, to the stately carriage horses, to the brewsters horses, to the queen’s stables. Although never using their current name, the funeral horses described in the following excerpt are with little doubt what we now know as the Friesian. The descriptions of both appearance and temperament are suprisingly similar to how they are described by adoring owners today. Also it is noted that compared to the harsh working and living conditions other horses in the book endured, the funeral horses are surprisingly well cared for and doted upon.

Update: Google now offers the entirety of this book online for viewing. You can see it, including the excerpt below, at The Horse-world of London.

“A good many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as “the black brigade”; but the real black brigade of London’s trade are the horses used for funerals.

This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the jobmaster is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The “funeral furnisher” is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The wholesale men, the “black masters,” are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand – London’s normal is seventeen – but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the “blacks” have to get help from the “coloured,” and the “horse of pleasure” becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.


[Here I have excluded a few paragraphs concerning the Victorian funeral buisness. It is largely unrelated to the horse itself, with only a few references concerning the preference of the black Flemish horse to the regular colored horse at prestigious funerals. Although somewhat unrelated, it may be of interest and if you would like to see these paragraphs I can certainly e-mail ( them to you or include them here upon request.]

Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing ; in fact, they begin work as what we may call the “half-timers” of the London horse-world. when young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65l. each ; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas ; if they go to the repository they average 10l. ; if they go to the knacker’s they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price ; but the law of supply and demand came into check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.

Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth, for instance, is “most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud” ; all the Salvationists “are doing well,” except Railton, “who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.” Stead, according to his keeper, is “a good horse, a capital horse – showy perhaps, but some people like the showy ; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn’t work with Huxley at any price!” Curiously enough, Huxley “will not work with Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. Barnardo.” Tyndall, on the other hand, “goes well with Dickens,” but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. Morley works comfortably with Balfour, but Harcourt and Davitt won’t do as a pair anyhow.” An ideal team seems to consist of Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. Adler and Cardinal Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. “All the horses,” the horsekeeper says, “named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!” And so we leave Canon Farrar, and Canon Liddon, and Dr. Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights to glance a the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now “out on a job,” and meet in turn with Sequah and Pasteur, Mesmer and Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.

“Why don’t you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, and artist stable, and so on?”

“They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree ; and as to the politicians – well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!” And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four ; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives ; under him being another man, who drives when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.

One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes ; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion.

“I am not a horsey man,” said Mr. Dottridge to us, “but I have known this one particular class of horse all my life, and I say they are quite affectionate and good-natured, and seem to know instinctively what you say to them and what you want. If you treat them well they will treat you well. One thing they have is an immense amount of self-esteem, and that you have to humour. Of course I have to choose the horses, and I do not choose the vicious ones. I can tell them by the peculiar glance they give as they look round at me. the whole manner of the horse, like the whole manner of a man, betrays his character. Even his nose will tell you. People make fun of Roman noses ; now I never knew a horse with a Roman nose to be ill-natured. The horse must feel that your will is stronger than his, and he does feel it instinctively. He knows at once if a man is afraid of him or even nervous, and no man in that state will ever do any good with a horse. Even when you are driving, if you begin to get nervous, the horse knows it instantly. He is in communication with you by means of the rein, and he is somehow sensible of the change in your mind, although perhaps you are hardly conscious of it. I have no doubt whatever but that you can influence a horse even when he is ill, by mere power of will. There are affinities between a man and a horse which are at present inexplicable, but they exist all the same.”

There is an old joke about the costermonger’s donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The “black family” has always to be alone ; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result ; and thus it has com about that in the black master’s yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.

The funeral horse hardly needs description. the breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., and even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones of Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads “like a book,” and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day?s rest in the week.

To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day – it is a trifle under that, over the 700 – and his food differs from that of any other London horse. In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes and so forth ; and as Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for this would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not ; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.”

[The Horse World of London (1893) by W.J. Gordon; Chapter XI, ‘The Black Brigade’; pages 138-147]