Working Animals, Then and Now

For centuries, working animals were our main source of power and they were a familiar part of daily life in Britain’s streets, fields and workplaces. Their ‘horsepower’ was the driving force in agriculture, transport, mining and even warfare. They played a vital role in our economic and social development.

Working animals that were a common sight included plough horses and oxen, pit ponies, carriage and tram horses, dray horses and war horses. Animals were used to transport people and deliver everyday items such as coal, water, milk and food (including bread, meat, fish, fruit and veg). They transported all manner of other goods – such as tar, limestone, sugar, flour, soap, salt etc.

In an age of rapid technological advances, many younger people today would struggle to believe that, even in the 1950s, milk was delivered to British homes by horse-drawn vehicles. In fact, despite the importance of working animals in our history – even throughout the twentieth century – 40 per cent of people in the UK now don’t know what a working animal is!

42 per cent of people in the UK think that fewer than 100 million people in the world rely on working animals for their livelihoods today. In reality, 600 million people are dependent on working animals

Actor Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Demelza in the Poldark TV series, said:

‘For centuries, horses provided the main form of transport in Britain. In the past, we were almost entirely dependent on these working horses in our daily lives and their ‘horsepower’ was the driving force of mining, agriculture and even warfare.

‘We no longer rely on animals as a source of power and they have now been replaced by replaced by cars, buses, tractors and trains. But, horses, donkeys and other working animals continue to have a vital role in developing countries around the world today. By transporting people, water and goods, they make it possible for millions of the world’s poorest families to earn a small income and put food on the table. Without their working animals, many people would have nothing, and would struggle to survive.

‘Although she doesn’t have any lines, Demelza’s horse – whose real name is Amy – is a central character in the series. In most episodes she can be seen galloping along the Cornish clifftops and beaches, helping Demelza to get around in a hurry and keep Ross out of trouble.’

Working animals were once part of daily life in the iconic locations

These nostalgic images of London and other UK cities show our streets filled with working animals and highlight the stark contrast between the past and modern day.

working animals at the royal exchange London
Royal Exchange, London, England, UK. circa 1890’s. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.
working animals at covent garden london
Convent Garden, London
working animals at Westminster Bridge, London
Working animals at Westminster Bridge, London
working animals at Trafalgar Square, London
Trafalgar Square, London
Working animals at St. Pancras, London
St. Pancras, London
working animals at Monument, London
Monument, London
working animals at Covent Garden, London
Covent Garden, London
Whitehall, London
Whitehall, London
Seven Dials, London
Seven Dials, London
Charing Cross, London
Charing Cross, London
Tottenham Court Road, London
Working animals at Piccadilly Circus, London
Piccadilly Circus, London
Working animals at Piccadilly Circus, London
Piccadilly Circus, London
Working animals at Council House, Birmingham
Council House, Birmingham
Canongate Tolbooth, Edinburgh
Working animals at Princes Street, Edinburgh
Princes Street, Edinburgh
Working animals at Harbone High Street, London
Harbone Highstreet, London
Buchanan Street, Glasgow
Working animals at Market Street, Manchester
Market Street, Manchester
Working animals at New Cathedral Street Market Place, Manchester
New Cathedral Street Market Place, Manchester
Working animals at Pierhead, Liverpool
Pierhead, Liverpool
Working animals at St. Anns Square, Manchester
St, Ann's Square, Manchester
Working animals at Swingbridge, Manchester
Swingbridge, Manchester
Working animals at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool