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Hold your horses!

When we reopened in May this year, we were proudly telling people NESM was like a new museum - so much work had been done while we were closed it certainly felt like it! Amidst all the changes were two brand new exhibitions; ‘Fiery Blaze to Fire Brigade’, telling the story of the development of the modern fire brigade and ‘Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds’, revealing more about the history of Victorian crime and punishment.

Both these new exhibitions have gone down amazingly well with visitors and we’ve had some brilliant feedback. So you would think, after the year we’ve all had, we could be forgiven for resting on our laurels, putting our feet up, taking a breather and any other metaphor you can think of for enjoying a bit of time off. But that’s not our style! No, instead we are currently working on another two – yes, two! – brand new exhibitions that will open to the public in the next few months.

First up is ‘For King and Country’, an exhibition telling the story of the emergency services’ role during World War I – from those who left the service to fight to medical personnel on the front line to the men and women who stepped into the breach at home. We’ll launch this new display on Thursday 11 November, Armistice Day, and we’re currently busy finalising the objects, stories and interpretation that will make up this fantastic addition to the museum.

Our curator Holly Gosling has done a brilliant job in digging up some fascinating stories from the period and securing some amazing objects for display and we can’t wait to share those with you when the exhibition opens. One of the most striking objects – and certainly the largest that we are bringing into the museum for this exhibition – is a World War I era horse drawn Lingfield horse ambulance. That’s a lot of horses in one sentence but essentially it’s a vehicle that would have been used to transport ill, injured or even deceased animals in the early decades of the 20th century.

You don’t need to tell anyone who works in an emergency services museum how important horses were at this point in time. In the early 1900s, even as motor power was starting to emerge, the police, fire and ambulance services still relied on this most ancient form of transport. Fire engines were still pulled by horses as were ambulances and police vehicles.

Our home, once a combined police, fire and ambulance station, was built with stables for four fire service horses and a dozen police animals. The nature of the job meant that these animals worked exceptionally hard, with fire horses sometimes pulling loads as much as six times their own weight. Yet they were well cared for by the standards of the time. They were a vital part of the team and formed a strong bond with the brigade men they served alongside. When fire horse Buller, a ‘handsome animal with a silver tail’, collapsed and died on a call-out in November 1913, his death was widely mourned by the whole crew.

Horses were absolutely vital in every aspect of Edwardian society, pulling everything from delivery carts to buses and everyone from royalty to common criminals. These animals could sometimes be treated in a way that would seem appalling to us today but organisations like the RSPCA were already striving towards better treatment and conditions for working horses.

In 1907 Robert Fowler, the clerk of the course at Lingfield racecourse, patented his new horse ambulance – often referred to as ‘Lingfield’s Humane Horse Ambulance’. Initially adopted mainly by other racecourses in England it soon became widely used in towns and cities to “carry injured animals with the greatest possible ease and comfort”.

Unlike previous horse ambulances, the Lingfield could be taken apart – the floor, front and ends could be taken away and the vehicle moved over any horse which was lying down or couldn’t walk. The animal would then be gently lifted up using a sling and the ambulance put back together around it, before it was driven away for medical treatment.

When World War I began in 1914 horses would be as vital to Britain’s efforts on the front line as they were at home. As many as 8 million horses were killed during the conflict and many more served, often in the worst conditions. The RSPCA stepped in again and, with support from the Army Council and the Army Veterinary Corps, launched the Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses - a campaign to raise money to buy horse ambulances for the front line as well as fund veterinary support overseas. In the same way that many cities, towns and villages raised money for human ambulances and tanks, so they raised money to help horses at the front.

Our Lingfield horse ambulance, which has been loaned to us by a private collector, carries a plaque that confirms it was presented by the Manchester RSPCA in 1916, so it seems likely that it was built as part of the drive to send these vehicles to the front line. Whether it was funded by the charity’s public appeal is not clear. The vehicle was named in honour of Daniel Sheriff Jackson, a former Justice of the Peace who had left a £10,000 bequest to the city’s RSPCA several years earlier. Whether it was this bequest that paid for the ambulance, or it was simply named in memory of a significant donor, will remain a mystery.

As part of our research into the history of our horse ambulance, we’re also trying to confirm if and when it made it to the Western Front. There is some anecdotal evidence that it did and, if it was indeed built in response to the RSPCA’s appeal, it seems a very likely assumption. After the war it may have been used by the Manchester Fire Brigade (something that still needs to be confirmed) but it certainly ended up with the 1st London Divisional Veterinary Hospital; a second plaque on the side of the vehicle shows this.

We don’t know when the vehicle went out of service but by the 1950s it appears to have been converted into a farm vehicle. It was discovered on the property and restored by the current owners and is now set to take a starring role in our new exhibition.

As we complete the last few bits of our King and Country exhibition there’s still time for us to discover a few more gems for us to share with our visitors. Watch this space!

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