Horsing around

Maurice Leonard in the 50s.

Maurice Leonard in the 50s.

As Maurice Leonard reports, delivering bread was never quite the same when the horse was retired

The best smell on a crisp morning is newly-baked bread mingling with freshly groomed horses, hay and tea. When I was 16 in 1956,1 smelled it every day of my life. It came with the job.

I was a baker’s delivery boy for the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society based in Mitcham, Surrey. I lived in Tooting so I biked to the bakery every morning. That smell revived me from the five-mile journey.

First thing to do was to check my previous night’s order – sliced, cob, Vienna, Devon, bloomer and the very few special orders of wholemeal, not much of it eaten then. We also had ‘fancies’ which were very important as we got commission on fancies.

When all was in order I loaded the hot bread into the wagon – wonderfully warming on a cold morning.

Stable job

After this I went to the stables and bought a quick cuppa from the stable lads (who ran a thriving business selling their homemade tea for 2d a cup) then fetched Fiona – my wonderful skewbald shire horse, brown and white with huge frilly ankles.

I would lead her to the wagon, back her between the shafts, fasten her in and off we’d go. I barely needed the reins as she knew the round better than me. The only difficulty with driving a horse and wagon – and this was a big wagon with pneumatic tyres and a footbrake – was to make sure you steered wide round corners, as the horse would try to cut it short and the wagon would mount the pavement as you turned. In my early days I had a nasty collision with a lamppost. When it was time for a break, tea in a cafe. I’d tie Fi to the nearest post and put her nosebag on. No yellow lines then and she was perfectly happy.

In the winter when there was ice and snow I had to put screws into her shoes – little pyramid shaped metal grips – so that she could keep her footing, especially uphill.

Patiently she would let me lift those great shaggy feet. I wonder what Health and Safety would think now about me handling horses and bread in close succession.

Treats galore

Horse-drawn bread vans were still a common sight in the early 50s.

Horse-drawn bread vans were still a common sight in the early 50s.

Lots of customers gave Fi treats – an apple or carrot – which she would gently munch from their outstretched hands. She knew the route so well and got so used to this, that if they were away she would refuse to budge until she got something. Try persuading a dray horse to move if she doesn’t want to.

On one occasion at a large house she dragged the wagon right across the lawn and stuck her head in at the kitchen window in search of a snack.

Of course she had to obey the laws of nature and as her offerings came tumbling out, ladies would rush from their houses, buckets and shovels at the ready to collect it. It’s the finest manure in the world and, I am told, brings on the roses and veg a treat.

Rolling home

When we were done and the wagon was empty and light she knew we were heading back to the stables where she would be fed and groomed. It was quite hard to hold her back…

There I was standing on the brake, rubber tyres smoking, and Fi at full canter.

Traffic lights were the worst and I can still see the look of horror as people stared unbelievingly out of car back windows as this huge horse reared up behind them.

It was the best job in the world I thought – plenty of exercise, a permanent sun tan in the summer and cheeks ruddy with health in the winter. The horses were environmentally friendly and I would love to be doing it still.

Then one ghastly morning, we were informed that the horses would be retired and replaced with electric dillies.

The round took twice as long. Fi had followed me along the road, from house to house, stopping outside each house so that I could get my orders or anything else anyone wanted, from the wagon. More than that, she was a friend and partner. With the dilly I had to go back to it after each stop.

Sadly, the job had lost its magic.