A partnership between man and beast which had stretched back several centuries comes to an end
The last five pit ponies in the Yorkshire coalfield left Wheldale Colliery, near Castleford, yesterday to begin their journey to an animal centre in Surrey.
So ends, for Yorkshire at any rate, a history of pit ponies going back to the seventeenth century when they turned “horse whims,” or capstans, which worked pumping and winding machinery. Until 1842 tubs of coal underground were hauled by both ponies and women, a social equation that even the early Victorians could not stomach. The Coal Act of that year forbade the use of women.
The welfare of pit ponies, like that of women and children before them, was left to chance until 1887. Since then no other working horse had been protected by such detailed legislation.
After repeated questions about when the Coal Board was going to get rid of its ponies the board promised it would try to get them all out by March of last year. But the board found that it had to delay giving freedom to ponies that were working in districts of collieries that had a short life and were therefore not worth mechanising.
In June last year 632 ponies were still working underground, most of them in Northumberland and Durham. The Coal Board believes that the number now is probably under 500 and they should be all out by 1974.
In 1913, when British pits mined their record output of 287 million tons, there were about 70,000 ponies working on haulage. Since then their numbers have fallen progressively.
The pit pony, by the nature of its work and its environment, does not take readily to life on the surface. Mr K Colvin, honorary director of the International League for the Protection of Horses, which has taken 56 ponies into its care since the pit strike began, said they often had to be hand fed because they were not used to cropping grass; they were sometimes difficult to catch when given freedom, and many were old animals needing special care.
For all those reasons the league usually put pit ponies into the care of its farm homes. They went to private homes only when the league could be sure they would receive the right treatment.