On the Move Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901
HorsepowerCars and BikesTrams and TrainsSea and Air*  


1901 - a horse-drawn society
With hindsight, horse-drawn transport a century ago may appear to us to be doomed. However, in 1901, horses were still the main form of private and road transport in Britain. In South Africa, their role in the war effort was crucial.

Bus transport, 1901 - link to an enlarged version

The horse was king, and almost everything grew around him: fodder, smithies, stables, paddocks, distances and the rhythm of our days. His eight miles an hour was the limit of our movements, as it had been since the days of the Romans. That eight miles an hour was life and death, the size of our world, our prison…Then, to the scream of the horse, the change began. The brass-lamped motor car came coughing up the road. Soon the village would break, dissolve and scatter, become no more than a place for pensioners.
(Laurie Lee's description of village life before the motor car - Cider with Rosie, 1959)

It has been estimated that there were about 3 ¼ million horses at work in Britain in 1901. About half of these were used on farms, but over a million were used commercially, to pull goods traffic, buses and trams or hackney carriages for hire. More goods were delivered by horse - an estimated 671 million tons - than by rail.

All this was not displaced overnight by the 'horseless carriage'. Indeed, until 1950, there were still more horses than tractors on British farms.

Watch a film clip Watch film of the London streets (taken in about 1902).


London congestion
Nevertheless, 1901 was a decisive year for bus transport in London. At the beginning of the year, all bus services in London were still horse-drawn. Traffic jams were a major problem and it was thought by contemporaries that motor transport would help the situation.

In September 1901 The Times announced the introduction of 'a service of motor-cars…to carry passengers, at omnibus fares, between Piccadilly Circus and Putney'. These were 10 horsepower (10 H.P.) wagonettes that could carry up to eight passengers. Motorised driven public transport burgeoned and by 1913 London could boast 3,522 motor-buses and over 8,000 motor taxis, but only 142 horse-drawn buses and 1,900 horse-drawn cabs.

Traffic in the Strand - link to an enlarged version

Horses in war
In the South African War, a steady supply of horses was essential to the British troops pursuing the Boers' mobile columns. In the siege of Kimberley alone, one cavalry division lost 1,500 horses. Thousands of horses had to be brought in from as far afield as India, Burma and Argentina for an army that 'swallowed horses as a modern army swallows petrol'. By October 1901, The Times reported, the War Office was supplying South Africa with nearly 10,000 remounts a month.