They aren’t the drunk or the drugged, nor the tacky fast food and Australian themed souvenir stores, which seems to have the cities nose out of joint. They are in fact 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 seen the horses parked along some of Melbourne’s most iconic landmarks, 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.

Horse-drawn carriages on the street outside buildings on Swanston St, Melbourne, in 1880.

Carriages in Swanston St, Melbourne, circa 1880
(Supplied: State Library of Victoria)

 

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 and 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.

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 city.

The most widely known incident occurred in 2015 when a horse collapsed on a hot summers day. Ever since then Kristin Leigh of the group Melbourne Against Horse-Drawn Carriages (MAHDC) has been campaigning on a complete ban of all horse-drawn carriages in Melbourne.

YouTube footage that sparked the outrage that has now been going on for years

(Supplied: Elaine Crane via YouTube)

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 nearly 8000 likes and an online petition requesting a total ban achieving 30,000 signatures.

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 page and online videos that they are demonised in.

In response, Melbourne City Council has banned all permits to operators, moving horse-drawn carriages to a new, separate parking area on St Kilda Road. Although the carriages will still be able to travel into council boundaries.

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Handsom Cab parked outside the NGV during a winter night.

As a result, these restrictions have created an oversupply of hansom cabs competing for foot traffic outside the National Gallery. Many of the coachmen have just seen this as an attempt to drive them out of business and not actually deal with the issues alleged against them.

One coachman who requested not to be identified stated, “I came into the trade because of my love for horses”. Obtaining the role after an unsuccessful jockey career,  and obtaining the job through a few industry connections. Imploring, “in all industries there are some bad owners but that the majority of us behave ethically and have a deep love for our animals, we shouldn’t all be lumped together.”

Ordering a drink 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.

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View from Melbourne’s historical Young and Jackson’s Pub on Swanston Street.

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.