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Note 3

The Treatment of Animals


Much of what can be gleaned of Charles Greeves's character from his intervention in matters relating to the Stray and from his own day journal suggest that he was a querulous rather than a strong individual. It is pleasant, therefore to record in addition to his being a good family man that on one occasion he showed a public concern about the treatment of animals that stands lastingly to his credit.

This digression is ultimately to be concerned with that source of income to the Stray Committee, the rents charged for stands for cabs and donkey carriages, but in a history of this kind such a subject needs to be seen against its social background.

Before the 1841 Improvement Act introduced the power of the new Improvement Commissioners to licence hackney carriages and to control them through their own policeman, the provision of a carriage service was simply not controlled at all. The problems which faced the Commissioners once they had assumed their power testify to the near-anarchy that had prevailed before 1841. There was no control over the treatment of the animals - horses, mules, and donkeys - and what was known as Martin's Act, of 1822, designed to make the ill treatment of animals a punishable offence, was probably never invoked in this area in the first two decades of its operation. There was no control over the fares charged by the cab men or over the condition in which they kept their carriages. The act of 1841 empowered the Commissioners to licence all hackney carriages and to establish by-laws and regulations. There was a clause forbidding furious driving but that was aimed at the protection of the public, not at the protection of the animals. The self-same Act which included a clause to prevent the ill-treatment of cattle made no mention of the ill-treatment of horses etc., The omission might well have been deliberate since the Commissioners' policeman was to be sworn a constable and would then have the right to prosecute. by way of Martin's Act.

It looks as though by the time Harrogate acquired its Improvement Act there was a great deal to reform not least being the social evil of the ill-treatment of animals. The history of the subsequent half century is stained with records of cruelty which would have us wondering at the mentality of the perpetrators were it not that our own day and age is similarly stained. The major difference between then and now is that during the years after 1841 it was necessary for the more sensitive spirits to plead for statutory reforms which we, despite frequent and flaring lapses, now take for granted.

The chief sufferers in the carriage and donkey business provided for Harrogate's Summer visitors seem, if indeed degrees of suffering can really be assessed at all, to have been the donkeys. They were used both for saddle riding and to pull donkey carriages. Neither they nor the mules used in the carriage trade are likely to have been any more intelligent than their like elsewhere but judging by the letters of protest addressed to the Harrogate Advertiser throughout the 1840s, the drivers in Harrogate subjected their animals to goadings and beatings brutal enough to shock visitors unused to such scenes in their places of origin. The letter writers gave the residents of Harrogate plainly to understand that by tolerating such things they were retaining the standards of an uncivilised past in days when the social conscience about animals was beginning to stir.

Part of that uncivilised past was evoked long afterwards by an elderly inhabitant when in 1892 he recalled scenes in the Harrogate of his youth. He mentioned Harriot Mellon, the actress, who as a girl before she went on the stage used with her mother to walk miles to visit the Harrogate Theatre (now Mansfield House, in Church Square) to attend performances by the Butler Company. Harriot seems to have acquired a liking for Harrogate which she retained in her salad days when, having inherited the enormous Coutts fortune (she was the banker's second wife), and, following Coutts's death, having married the very youthful Duke of St. Albans (descendant of Charles II and Nell Gwynne) she returned in splendour to the town she knew as a girl. She stayed with her retinue at the Granby Hotel much to the financial advantage of its then proprietor, Jonathan Benn, who paid her the compliment of naming the retirement villa which he built next door to the Granby, "St. Albans".

The old resident, recalling the Duchess's visits to Harrogate, remembered particularly that she was a great favourite with the donkey boys and enjoyed taking part in donkey carriage races. At least the donkey boys benefited from her liberality even though the donkeys did not. Long after Harriot's day, in the late 1840s at a time when it was supposed to be illegal to allow donkey carriages to ply for hire it was the custom for the drivers after taking people to Starbeck station, to catch their return excursion train, to race each other back to Harrogate. Throughout the 1840s attempts to abate the cruelty had a hard going of it. A visitor from Ireland wrote in July, 1842, to the Advertiser describing how he had hired a donkey cart to take himself and his daughter down to Knaresborough. 

"The driver commenced by beating his poor animals about the head and body in so a brutal a manner that, when we had proceeded about a mile down the road, one of these ill-fated creatures fell, or rather laid down, from the effects of the ill-treatment. He then called a man to try to lift it up. one going to the head and the other to the tail which I thought would have been torn off. It is scarcely necessary to add that I did not continue my drive but retraced my steps by omnibus. I trust, before I visit this beautiful village again, Martin's Act will be carried into full force against these merciless donkey drivers".

This was the first letter of its kind to the newspaper. It brought no reaction and it was not until 1843 that the Commissioners started on a half-hearted campaign to put an end to the cruelty to the donkeys.

It was Charles Greeves who took the first step as an Improvement Commissioner. The overloading of donkey carriages was a disgrace and Greeves moved and was seconded by Henry Peacock, former workhouse master and now the proprietor of the Brunswick (later the Prince of Wales Hotel) that no donkey carriage should have more than two adult and two child passengers, the children to be under the age of ten. That was no more than a start. A month later the Commissioners' policeman was ordered to control the donkey carriage business, both owners and drivers, by way of checking on cruelty. No prosecutions followed in that year and indeed the first case of proven cruelty was not reported until 1844 but meanwhile the Commissioners had instituted a further rule, that no donkey boy should be over the age of 14. This seemingly extraordinary regulation was probably aimed at discouraging adult passengers who might not care to put their safety in the hands of a child. Later still the number of passengers was reduced to three. But it was not until 1848 (Greeves had died in 1847) that the cause of the donkeys was taken up by J.J. Harrison, the banker and an Improvement Commissioner, who not only promised to do away with the disgrace but eventually proved to be as good as his word. The Commissioners ruled against the licensing of donkey carriages and gave licences only for saddled donkeys. It was too late in the publishing season for the Advertiser to comment on the decision but it made a point of congratulating the Commissioners in its first seasonal issue in May, 1849, only to admit a little later that the ruling was not being obeyed. It was not until 1850 that the Commissioners finally succeeded in imposing obedience to their ruling and it was then the turn of the mules to be the object of sympathy and reform, for it seems they had inherited, as extra to their own, the brutality formerly meted out to the donkeys.

At one point, in 1846, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (it did not then have its Royal status) had threatened to send its own inspector to Harrogate, following representations made by former visitors. The Commissioners, much offended, replied that they had all the requisite powers and did not consider the officer's presence necessary. The Clerk of the Commissioners, Martin Richardson, was instructed to oppose the officer's being sworn in by Magistrates to act in the Commissioners' jurisdiction. They were not so well placed in 185t). for in four years they had not sufficiently put their house in order. In that year the society did indeed send an official to Harrogate and to the shame of the Commissioners and the community alike he brought a number of offenders into the Knaresborough court.


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