How ‘Rolls-Royce of the 19th Century’ Yorkshire Coach Horse breed became extinct

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The chance discovery of her great-grandfather’s stud books has led Anne Britton to write a new history of the now-extinct Yorkshire Coach Horse. Chris Burn reports.

They were the Rolls-Royce of their day – a much-admired British institution sought the world over by the wealthy as a prestigious form of transport in the 19th Century. But the once-popular Yorkshire Coach Horse breed was overtaken by the arrival of the real motor car and was extinct by the 1930s.

Today, their existence is largely forgotten. But one woman hoping to put that right is Anne Britton, whose great-grandfather Robert Britton exported the horses to America in the late 19th Century and was a founder member of the Yorkshire Coach Horse Society. Using family records from the time as a starting point, Anne has researched and written a new book called The Dash of Blood – A History of the Yorkshire Coach Horse which explores how everyone from the Royal Family to Buffalo Bill sought the prestige of owning one.

“People have been really interested, it is something of a hidden history,” says Britton, a retired NHS worker who lives in Ruston near Scarborough. “The book is not just about our family, it is about the extent to which these horses were so famous and so sought-after.”

The breed that came back from the brink

Her book has been almost a decade in the making after she discovered her great-grandfather’s stud books in her father’s desk which detailed the sale of the horses when he was a farmer in Haxby, near York. Some were sold to Americans at prices of what would now equate to over £40,000 and transported to the States by boat.

“It was absolutely amazing what my family but also lots of other local farming families had been involved in. These horses were not only bred locally but exported all over the world. Some of my great-grandfathers’ horses were sent to America.”

One of the horse traders that Robert did business was the Stericker brothers, from Pickering who had established themselves in Illnois while one had remained in Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire Coach Horse was a mixture of Cleveland Bay horses – another breed native to Yorkshire – and racehorses and were designed to be speedier and more agile versions of the former, able to pull coaches at greater speed. “Cleveland Bay is a native breed to North Yorkshire, it is a very powerful horse,” Britton explains. “By crossing it with a thoroughbred, you get something a bit lighter and faster.

“In the 19th Century, if you wanted to get from York to London, you would have to get on a stagecoach. It could only travel about ten miles before horses were exhausted, so the four horses would have to be changed. If you went from York to London, there would have been about 80 horses involved for one single journey. The logistics of all this was amazing. There would be coaches going in different directions from York, to Newcastle, to Edinburgh, to London. When the coach stopped, the next four horses would have to be ready in the right reins for the right coach.

“In the 1880s, transport was still based very much around horses. The Americans were desperate for them because they didn’t have a native horse population.”

It became possible to travel from Yorkshire to London in less than two days if no overnight stays or breaks were taken.

But the relative speed of travel did not suit everyone. Britton highlights a quote from Lord Chief Justice John Lord Campbell in 1847: “This swift travelling was considered dangerous as well as wonderful, and I was gravely advised to stay a day at York, as several passengers who had gone through without stopping had died of apoplexy from the rapidity of motion.”

Britton says it is difficult to say precisely when Yorkshire Coach Horses came into existence. “For a long time they had been crossing racehorses with Cleveland Bays. It had been known by different names. It probably was in existence for about 50-odd years at least. It was only with stud books that it officially came into existence. Stud books didn’t come into existence properly until the 19th Century.”

She says another challenge for her research was that Americans often did not differentiate between Cleveland Bays and American Coach Horses.

“In America, the Cleveland Bay and the Yorkshire Coach Horse were seen as the same thing.

“They were very similar and put in the same stud book.

“The same horse could be in three different stud books.”

While Americans did not differentiate, the same could not be said in Yorkshire where the Cleveland Bay Horse Society would not admit those which had been bred with thoroughbreds into its stud book – leading to the formation of the Yorkshire Coach Horse Society as a breakaway organisation in 1886.

Britton says one of those who purchased the horses was the American showman William F. Cody – better known as Buffalo Bill – who brought his touring Wild West shows to Europe and the UK which played to huge crowds.

“Buffalo Bill had a Wild West show which he brought to England which he used Cleveland Bays in. He had a farm in America and brought horses in England.

“He came to Malton and York and got in touch with a horse trader, this farmer called John Lett had an extension built on his house just so he could host Buffalo Bill.”

Britton adds the horses were also popular with royalty.

“The Royal Family had them at the time. When King George V decided to give up breeding the horses in the 1920s, he sent a stallion back to Yorkshire.”

The horses were also used in World War One, says Britton.

“They would have been sent to the frontline because of their strength and pulling power and the fact they were very similar to Cleveland Bays. They weren’t used for riding but were really in demand to be used for pulling gun carriages and ammunition.”

But after being hugely sought after, the emergence of the motor car ousted their popularity and the numbers of Yorkshire Coach Horses dramatically dwindled before the breed became entirely extinct by the mid-20th Century. The Yorkshire Coach Horse Society was wound up in the 1930s and the few remaining Yorkshire Coach Horses included in the Cleveland Bay Society’s stud books.

Britton says she hopes her book can reignite interest in a fascinating period of local history.

She says the story of the Yorkshire Coach Horse deserves to be told, particularly as its close relation the Cleveland Bay is now on the critical list of rare horse breeds.

“It is something that I think Yorkshire people should know about,” she reflects. “It is about our own history, about how we as a society have evolved and how horses have evolved and in this case disappeared. Not so long ago, so much of our lives involved horses and you can still see it today in pubs that used to be coaching inns and have what used to be stables.”

Plan for another history book

Anne Britton may have only just finished her first book but is already planning to start on another one about local history with a personal connection.

“I’m about to start on another one about the history of our family farm near Northallerton which goes back to at least 1614,” she says.

Her current book is described in a press release as revealing “not only an equine history, but also a very human one”.

The Dash of Blood – A History of the Yorkshire Coach Horse is available in paperback from York Publishing Services, price £9.99 plus p&p.

Visit www.ypdbooks.com or telephone 01904 431213.

It is also available from Hoppers in Malton and Beadlam Grange Tearooms.