The Fell Pony Museum: Late 19th C
The Fell Pony Museum
Work in Harness :: "Fell Pony" name :: Trotting Ponies :: Famous Trotters :: Sports and Shows :: Wilson Ponies :: Values :: Questions :: Fell Pony Society

Trotting poniesfell pony trotting

Trotting ponies were all the rage in the 1880s. Trotting ranked alongside cocking and Cumberland wrestling as a north country spectator sport. It was far more popular than Thoroughbred horse racing, which was an aristocratic hobby. Sir Walter Gilbey, writing in 1903, quotes Mr William Graham:

"The village of Dufton ... was quite a centre of pony breeding, and for many generations the Fell-side farmers in the district have been noted for their ponies; they bred them to the best Fell pony stallions, most of which were trained trotters of great speed." (ref)

The Racecourses

Trotting races took place at shepherds' meets and other farming gatherings and also at local sports. They were held over courses half to one mile in length. There were race courses on the central Lakeland fell top known as High Street, on Racecourse Hill above Riggindale; and the Fair Mile in the Howgill Fells near Tebay. Both of these are Roman roads and offer good, straight, level going.

Orton "Pot Fair" held in June offered sports and races of all kinds, including ridden trotting races; a report from the "Herald" in 1906 noted that there was "a large assemblage of people near the Fleece Inn" to watch. The trotting prizes that year went to Mr Thompson of Crosby Ravensworth, and Mr Iveson and Mr Knowles both from Sedbergh. Mr Metcalfe of Holme Bottom, Raisbeck, won the local trotting. The Pot Fair was still being held in the early years of the 20th C: as recorded by John Falshaw interviewing Horace Wilson, retired joiner of Orton, in 1983:

HW: There was wrestling – Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestling – running and jumping. There was some goodish athletes who used to come from about Tebay and Ravenstonedale. And there was quite a few used to come from Kendal….
JF: And was there any betting on them?
HW: Oh yes, the bookies were always there.
JF: So this was like the traditional Lakeland sports.
HW: Yes… And then there was the trotting round the village. The Whartons had trotters, and they used to go twice round the village – they reckoned it was about a mile.
JF: These trotters; when they were trotting round the village, did23 May, 2021 HW: No. They just rode them as jockies.
JF: Yes, and they actually trotted? They didn’t gallop?
HW: No. They were purely and simply trotters. Hully’s from Bousfield, they would have a few trotters, and the Hullys and the Whartons were great rivals. But there were others who used to come from a way off.
JF: What time of year did this take place?
HW: June – in summer… Wrestling, jumping and trotting, all spread out. And children’s races, the children were very involved. (ref)

Another known distance was from Petty Hall in Orton to Street Farm, and back. One horse that dropped dead as it crossed the finishing line there was buried in the garden of Ellerhowe. Street Farm also had its own racecourse in the fields to the east of the farmstead. (ref)

Fair Mile would be wide enough for several ridden ponies to race safely. If races were ever held there in harness, which is unlikely, two traps abreast would have been the most it could safely take because 19th century gigs were much wider than 21st century sporting carriages. At the extreme, Lady Georgiana Curzon wrote in 1890 that her own pony-tandem cart measured 6 feet across the axle and that it ran all the more comfortably for it; while a modern "marathon" version would measure only 125cm, or 4 feet 1 inch. (ref)

Traditionally, the riders in trotting races rode bareback. A Victorian farmer and his wife go to market from Dalemain to Penrith in a gig drawn by a brown Fell pony.

Famous ponies attracted crowds of spectators when they turned out to race.

Town and country carts

Almost certainly the Fell or "Fell Galloway" would have been the transport for the farmer and his wife going to church, or to market with goods for sale. The smart transport would have been a Whitechapel cart or a gig or Ralli car, while the safe choice was a "Digby" or governess car.

Fells were sometimes used in towns, delivering door-to-door for milkmen, greengrocers and other provisions merchants. Butchers and fishmongers liked a quick horse or pony so that perishable goods arrived as fast as possible and in good condition.

Where there are towns, there is rubbish and unwanted items to remove, and many a Fell must have joined his coloured cob brethren in pulling rag-and-bone carts.

Pit Ponies

The Dargues' ponies sold for big sums of money: Boardale Pit paid £60 to £70 for Dargue ponies in the 1920 s although prices slumped not long after to around £5 per pony.

Tourists' mounts

After Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads were published in 1800, the Lake District became a tourist attraction for those "lakers" who wished to experience the "Romantic" aspect of the countryside. Wandering around enjoying oneself without a serious purpose is still referred to as "lakin' about" or "laikin' on" in local terms - especially "laikin' on wid a pony" meaning to further its general training in a relaxed manner. The word "laik", meaning to play like a child, probably came from Norse during the 9th or 10th century. One can imagine the local people enjoying the pun on "Lakers".

In 1886 it was possible to hire Fell ponies to ride, for example from the "Prince of Wales" Hotel at Grasmere, with a guide on foot to accompany the tourists round local viewpoints.

The Royal Mail

old plain saddle

The mounted postboys who brought the mail to outlying areas probably used saddles very like this one. The pattern was in use well into the 20th century: straight headed, broad in the tree, without the "springs" that are now generally in use, and lined with quilted serge over a woollen stuffing. Serge lining does not wear as well as leather and it needs to be carefully dried and cleaned after use; but it is easier to replace and on round ponies it grips better than leather, so that the saddle doesn't roll so easily.

In Volume XII of the Stud Book the pedigree of Lingcropper Again (614) states that 4 generations back, his ancestor Lingcropper "ran the mails from Penrith to Keswick for twelve years without a break". Lingcropper Again was foaled in 1900 so his forebear was probably active in the early 1880s.

It is an 18 mile journey from Penrith to Keswick and Lingcropper was probably pulling a light two wheeled cart, rather than being ridden. Whether Lingcropper was working as a sire before, during or after his service with the Royal Mail is not stated!

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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
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