Grooms, Coachmen, Stable-boys and Blacksmiths
Horses were a
familiar part of life at
The 6th Earl of Portarlington playing polo
(Lady’s Pictorial, Feb.7th 1914)
The job of the groom was to feed, ‘groom’, and exercise the horses, and if there was no separate coachman, to drive and maintain the carriage. Each groom was responsible for a single vehicle and its horse(s), and was usually helped by a stable-boy. The groom was expected to know all about the care of horses, from grooming and training to basic veterinary medicine. He was also expected to teach the children of the family to ride, which they learnt to do from a very young age.
Advertisement for a groom,
The groom’s day began early, usually at , when the stable doors were opened, the stables were cleaned, and the horses were given fresh food and water. The stable-boy had the unenviable task of removing the stable-dung and sweeping and washing out the stables, which had to be done twice daily. The groom checked the horses’ hooves for stones and began the lengthy ritual of ‘dressing’ his charges.
Each horse was combed with a ‘curry-comb’ (to loosen the dirt and dust), ‘wisped’ with straw or a dead horse’s tail (to remove the dirt), brushed with a whalebone brush until his coat shone, ‘wisped’ again and then rubbed down with a clean cloth. The horse’s ears, eyes and nose were cleaned with a damp sponge, the tail and mane combed, and the hooves oiled until they shone. Diligent grooms repeated the whole process later in the day, to ensure the horses looked their best if taken out in the evening. The horses were to be exercised for two hours each day, so those not taken out riding by the family were exercised by the groom and rubbed down after every jaunt.
The groom also had to store and maintain the saddles, bridles, stirrups and other bits of harness, and clean each piece after use. If a vehicle had been used, the groom cleaned that too. His day usually finished after when the horses were fed again and the stables were re-cleaned. If the master or mistress ventured out for the evening, the groom’s day ended only when the horses had returned to the stables, which was sometimes late at night. For this reason, the head groom lived in a house attached to or near the stables, so that he was always at hand when needed.
In the early 19th century, while stable-boys might earn as little as ₤6-₤8, the recommended wage for grooms was ₤22-₤25, along with two suits of livery and two stable dresses every year.
Large establishments usually had a specialised coachman whose sole responsibility was to drive the carriages and keep them in good repair. A good coachman was expected to command his horses with the lightest touch on the reins, and to drive smoothly and not too quickly. Mrs Beeton recommended a moderate pace of seven or eight miles per hour, as a slower pace encouraged laziness in horses. Coachmen and grooms were expected to have the carriage ready for the road within twenty minutes of being asked, although the process of cleaning the horses, harness and carriage could in fact take two to three hours.
When cleaning the carriage, the coachman also had to polish the brass fittings, clean the windows, brush down the upholstery, and grease the wheels. Before setting out, the master gave orders as to his destination and the direction he wished the horses to face, as turning the carriage in the street was a sign of a badly managed household. Upon arrival at their destination, the coachman assumed the responsibilities of groom. Where two coachmen were kept, the second coachman did the night work, transporting the family to and from the ball, dinner or dance.
Large houses kept an array of different carriages, each of which was used for different occasions. The main vehicle was the covered coach, which could accommodate 4-6 people and had a top that could be lowered in fine weather. Smaller lightweight carriages, such as traps or ‘gigs’, were also used - it was in such a carriage that the governess might travel, for example. The private coach was used for long journeys and in bad weather, when two footmen, perfectly matched in height, sat in the rear, while a third more senior footman (should the family have three), kept the coachman company at the front.
The coachman, unlike his passengers, was constantly exposed to the elements, and on cold, wet winter nights his job cannot have been too pleasurable. He typically wore a long box-coat with highly-polished buttons, a tall hat, and fingerless mittens to protect him from the cold.
A good head coachman was held in high esteem and was sometimes left money in his employer’s will. The 3rd Earl of Portarlington left his former coachman, John Smith, an annuity of ₤20 per annum for life, while the 5th Earl left his head coachman, Robert Scott, a sum of ₤50.
In the 1900
A few years later,
when Viscount Carlow was growing up, there was only one groom at
“I remember the blue felt cushions, the perforated rubber mat on the floor, the varnished wicker basket which hung outside and held an umbrella, and how we had to get out and walk when we came to steep hills.”
The estate blacksmith
attended to the paring of horses’ hooves and the fitting of new shoes. In the
early 1900s, the local blacksmith at Emo was a man named James Whelan. His son
Joseph was also a blacksmith, while another son, James, was a saddler. They
lived in a small cottage with a forge and a stable attached. The workmen’s
wages books from
farrier, at work at
Horse riding was a very popular pursuit on country estates and the children of the aristocracy were taught to ride from a very early age. In his diary, written in the early 20th century, Viscount Carlow remembers his first unsuccessful attempts at horse-riding, on a rather vigorous horse named ‘Dot’. When the groom led the horse to the front of the house, “its shifty expression materialised into savage and well aimed kicks directed at the crowd of attendant admirers.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Viscount’s attempts to ride this wild beast resulted in his being thrown to the ground in floods of tears, as his nanny rushed to his aid! Once the children had learnt to ride, however, horse riding usually became a life-long pursuit and opened up a world of polo, hunting and other equine pastimes.