The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894: Crisis or conspiracy?

BY Lizzie Enfield

10th May 2023 Environment

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894: Crisis or conspiracy?

With urban transport in the 19th century dominated by horse power, was the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 real or was it a construct to sell cars?

Cars get a lot of blame for the current environmental crisis but when they first began to make an appearance on our streets, they were the solution to another one—a build-up of horse manure.  

The horse has throughout its history been essential to transport. Our towns and cities took shape around it, right up until the 18th and 19th centuries, when stable blocks and turning circles were part of the general infrastructure.

Surprisingly, the advent of the railways increased the number of horse-drawn vehicles. Trains were great for transporting goods and people but those goods and people still needed to travel to and from stations—by hansom cab, horse-drawn buses and delivery carts.

Horse peak

Busy street in London full of horsedrawn carriagesBritain reached its "horse peak" in the Victorian era, when the Great Horse Manure Crisis allegedly hit headlines

In the UK, “horse peak” reached its height in the late 1800s, with about 3.3 million horses in the UK. 50,000 of them were in London, each producing 15-35 pounds of manure per day—and a couple of pints of urine—while in New York there were 100,000 horses.

"50,000 horses were in London, each producing 15-35 pounds of manure per day"

If you do the maths, that’s 2.5 million pounds of manure a day. It’s claimed that, at the time, people feared major towns and cities would drown in horse faeces. And humans would succumb in droves to diseases like typhoid, spread by flies, which fed off manure.

Horse manure crisis or not?

Google the “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894” and you will find numerous features citing The Times newspaper article at the time. This, they say, predicted that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure.

But while there were a lot of horses, and a lot of manure, whether there was ever a crisis is debatable.

“Horse manure was collected regularly and taken away from city centres in carts where it was piled up, used in agriculture and later built over,” explains Neil Ward, a professor of rural and regional development at the University of East Anglia and author of the forthcoming title, Horses, Power and Place.

“And while there were reports of rain turning these manure dumps into rivers of slurry, which in turn necessitated shoe-shining boys, the crisis that is frequently alluded to never seemed to materialise.”

Fake news

There are two possible reasons for this and the first is “fake news”.

Although it has been frequently claimed that The Times first reported on the Great Horse Manure Crisis in 1894—even in The Times itself—further investigation by the newspaper could find no such article. 

There were several letters in June 1894 about the state of the London streets, including one from Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) saying the matter was “not incurable”. He was right, but in a way no one quite anticipated.

Motor car saves the day

Street Life in London, horsedrawn carriage driven by manCourtesy of LSE Library. Horsedrawn vehicles were admittedly tricky to wield in small, busy urban streets

Who knows what might have happened if the proliferation of the horse-drawn vehicle had continued? It did not, because along came the motor car and then the electric tram.

Within a hundred years, except for ceremonial use in weddings, funerals and coronations—and the occasional delivery of beer—the horse-drawn vehicle has all but disappeared.

The motor car, at least temporarily, solved the horse manure crisis, if indeed there was one.

"They caused congestion, were hard to manoeuvre around narrow, medieval marketplaces and the animals themselves might bolt"

“Horse-drawn vehicles did present problems,” says Professor Ward. “They caused congestion, were hard to manoeuvre around narrow, medieval marketplaces and the animals themselves might bolt, kick or trample.

"In addition, they had to be fed with oats and hay, and a significant proportion of agricultural land was used for producing animal feed. But there’s no record at the time of the crisis that people have talked about subsequently.”

Car companies manufactured the crisis?

Chauffeur stood next to automobile in LondonHistorians question whether the motor industry manufactured the Great Horse Manure Crisis to sell more cars

Another explanation is that motor manufactures may have overegged the potential crisis in a move to promote their smaller, more manoeuvrable, and “cleaner” vehicles.

At the time, cars were not that reliable. Early prototypes were liable to blow-ups and breakdown.

"They caused congestion, were hard to manoeuvre around narrow, medieval marketplaces and the animals themselves might bolt"

People were cautious in the same way they are now about the charging capacity of electric vehicles. Nobody wants to be stranded.

But although it was a slow burn to begin with, the car took off. By the end of the 20th century, it was king of the road—and had created a new type of congestion and pollution which requires a new type of solution.

Fossil fuels and the moral of the story

The same could be said of coal, which was the solution to deforestation in England when charcoal was a primary source of fuel.

The use of coal in the iron industry allowed a resurgence of trees, just as not having to produce all those oats for horses allowed for a brief post-war period of increased food production.

Now the risk posed by the continued use of fossil fuels has led to more land being used for biofuel and solar farms. The moral of the story, if there is one, is that necessity is the mother of invention. But invention is sometimes the mother of necessity.

Did the proliferation of horse manure in our towns and cities drive the acceleration of the motor car? Or did the latter drive the story of a crisis that never happened?

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...