We have become so used to cars dominating our streets that it comes as something of a surprise to see them comparatively empty, as they are now during the coronaviris pandemic.

It recalls an earlier age: one before the motor car became quite so all-conquering.

Horses were everywhere in Georgian and Victorian York.

Elegant gentlemen rode them. They pulled fashionable carriages for the rich, horse-drawn trams for the rather less rich, carts for the common man. Horse-drawn carts were also used to haul goods to market, to bring fresh-killed sides of beef and pork to Shambles butchers, and to transport fashionable clothes to the elegant department stores on York's 'golden half mile' - aka Coney Street.

York even had a 'horse repository' near the railway station. Walker’s horse and carriage repository (later Botterills). It first appeared in about 1850 following the opening of Lendal Bridge as an access to George Hudson’s ‘new’ railway station inside the city walls, and was effectively the equivalent of a multi-storey parking place for horses, with ground floor parking for carriages.

The sheer number of horses in the city did, of course, generate its own problems: problems graphically described by Ben Johnson in an article for Historic UK entitled 'The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894'.

"By the late 1800s, large cities all around the world were drowning in horse manure," Johnson wrote. "In order for these cities to function, they were dependent on thousands of horses for the transport of both people and goods.

"This huge number of horses created major problems. The main concern was the large amount of manure left behind on the streets. On average a horse will produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day, so you can imagine the sheer scale of the problem."

Horse manure also attracted huge numbers of flies,which could then spread typhoid fever and other diseases. There were other problems, too. "Each horse also produced around two pints of urine per day and to make things worse, the average life expectancy for a working horse was only around three years," Johnson wrote. "Horse carcasses therefore also had to be removed from the streets."

It must have seemed an intractable problem. And it might help explain why, in 1909, the Corporation of York was sop keen to replace the city's horse-drawn trams with new-fangled electric ones.

And then, of course, within a few more short year came the motor car - creating a whole new raft of problems that still plague us today.

Nevertheless, to us today, the idea of city streets filled with horses and horse-drawn carts and carriages rather than endless boxy cars seems rather attractive.

We have dug out from Explore York's wonder new-look digital image archive a selection of photographs showing the streets of York in the days when the horse was king.


Stephen Lewis

All the photos on these pages, and thousands more, are held on Explore York’s redesigned digital archive of historic images. You can browse it at images.exploreyork.org.uk/