They aren’t the drunk or the drugged nor the tacky fast food and Australian themed souvenir stores, what seems to have the cities nose out of joint are not even human.
They are the handful of Clydesdale horses, pulling along mostly well-heeled tourists through some of Melbourne’s most iconic scenery.
The horses themselves never complain of course, however much they work through hot or cold and rain or shine – plenty, of which Melbourne’s weather can give in spades.
I had always wanted to take a ride, but unsure as to whether the practice was fair and safe for equine and human. So I decided to do my homework starting as always with the history books.
Australia’s first hansom cabs (the name given to a horse driven carriage) appeared in 1849 and reached peak popularity by the 1870s.
They were known to be especially popular amongst the young and unchaperoned; courting couples would make the most of snugly enclosed cabins and hence gave the mode of transport a rather shady reputation.
Drivers of old looked much as today sporting three-piece suits, gold watch-chains, smoking pipes and tilting top hats.
The majority of Melbourne’s carriages in the 19th century were owned and operated by the Melbourne company Cobb & Co. Established by four newly arrived North Americans the company quickly made big in both the city and rural districts of the booming Bendigo and Ballarat goldfields.
With the companies stagecoaches being synced to the train timetables they provided a vital link between the newly built train stations and the various establishments surrounding them.
The scenes of a horse drawn carriage defined this era of Melbourne and most developed cities around the world and with such became romanticised in both the literature and art of the day.
However by the turn of the 20th century the introduction of Melbourne’s now famous tram network, meant the practical need for the horse drawn carriage started to wane. When the motorised-car arrived on our roads the industry was all but finished and the last mass-commercial stagecoach ran in 1924.
From all reports the massive amounts of horse manure that littered the city streets will not be missed.
As the years have passed so too has the development of Melbourne’s transportation system and its citizen’s belief in the ethical treatment of animals.
With the current push for a complete ban this old fashioned industry is facing unprecedented turmoil that could see the end of any horse drawn vehicle in the Melbourne CBD.
Kristin Leigh of the group Melbourne Against Horse-Drawn Carriages (MAHDC) states her reasons for wanting a complete ban is that, “when not working the horses are kept in inadequately sized yards of the inner city that are unacceptable for any animal.” As well as, “there are significant impacts on amenities to be considered, unprotected horses are frequently forced to negotiate tram tracks and coachman have been consistently observed breaking the road rules.”
The most widely known incident that sparked social media outrage occurred when a horse literally dropped dead in the middle of St Kilda Road, with stunned onlookers the driver attempted to whip the dead horse back to its feet.
Leigh states, “the Facebook page created has been designed to raise awareness of the horse-drawn carriage trade and keep the City of Melbourne responsible for it.” With the page currently attracting over 5,000 likes and numerous comments of support it is clear this protest is being fought primarily online.
The modern day coachman has been under serious scrutiny since the MAHDC started their fight, with the most memorable protest occurring in February this year.
Footage of an incident was posted by a splinter group named Animal Liberation Victoria and showed an irate coachman hurling abuse at a pedestrian who had asked him to stop swearing at a women protesting nearby.
When speaking to the drivers both of whom are men and women, they don’t portray the attitudes that that one would associate after viewing the Facebook pages and online videos that they are demonised in.
One coachman who requested not to be identified or quoted, expressed he came into the trade because of his love for horses and after an unsuccessful jockey carrier fell into the job through a few industry connections.
He also implored that like all industries there will be some bad owners but that the majority were good and they shouldn’t be lumped together.
Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has expressed, “the banning of the horse drawn carriage is not up to him.” Stating, “that under the current act they are actually deemed vehicles under the VicRoad regulations, imploring any request for a ban to be directed to them.”
Policy Director of Vehicle and Road Use at VicRoads, Robyn Seymour advised, “there were no plans currently in changing the road rules, and VicRoads has not received any direct approach by groups petitioning to have a ban on horse-drawn carriages.” Also, “any concerns over animal welfare should be directed to the Department of Agriculture.”
If there were ever an example of ‘passing the buck’ this would be a textbook definition.
Melbourne is not the only city grappling with how to approach their aging but iconic city horses. In 2014 the newly appointed Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio made a direct change from his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s ardent support of the horse drawn carriage. Although the motion for a ban collapsed in the last few minutes before voting was due to take place, the deal was removed and after promises of review has not been placed back on the agenda.
There have been some modifications with Melbourne City Council starting to implement restrictions on where coachman can and cannot pick up potential customers. With the current restrictions forcing Melbourne’s horses to keep to the Southern part of the CBD – Flinders Street through to St Kilda Road.
Thus the restrictions have created an over supply of hansom cabs competing for foot traffic outside the National Gallery. Many of the coachmen have just seen this as an attempt drive them out of business and not actually deal with the issues alleged against them.
After speaking to everyone involved in the industry and on both sides of the dispute, I did feel comfortable enough to take a ride with a coachman I had interviewed – just a quick quarter of an hour we agreed.
I must admit however silly and slightly embarrassed I did feel (the sunglass stayed on), it was a fantastic experience and at no point did I feel the horses were being over worked or in any risk of danger from car, tram or whip.
Finishing my ride the horses were visibly tired but given adequate amounts of water and when a young Japanese couple approached for a ride it was advised the horses would need a fifteen-minute rest.
With my newly found old world experience I decided to visit one of the only other remaining industries and businesses from Melbourne’s gold rush era – the Young and Jacksons Pub.
This is what Melbourne is all about and is what sets the city apart from the more aesthetically beautiful Sydney; this is what we should be advertising to the rest of the world.
Ordering a pint I sit overlooking Flinders Street Station and the Mad Hatters Gallery shop. I reflect that as good intentioned the activists are in reality the animals are being treated much better then many other animal based industries do – think racing, live exports, cosmetic and medical testing.
At a time when Melbourne is accelerating into progress faster and faster the hansom cab ride is a reminder of times gone past and would be an absolute shame to lose as once gone a piece of Melbourne’s identity will be lost along with it.