Horses: symbol of a vanished yesterday
When I was a little kid temporarily living in a Perth suburb, the hours and days were measured and enlivened by horses.
Early in the weekday mornings I’d lie awake following the progress of the milk-man by the sound of his horse’s shoes on the road. Clip, clop; clip, clop; then, clip-te-clop, as it dragged a toe. The float would stop outside our house and I’d hear the gate open and the soft scuffle of the milko’s sandshoes on the path. Next the muted clank as his half-pint measure tapped against our milk billy, followed by the clink of our pennies into the leather bag strapped around his waist. Pad, pad, pad back down the path, the clack of the gate latch and a soft whistle: clip-clop, clip, clop, clip-te-clop, an occasional soft “woah there”, another whistle, and the milko and his cart faded away into the pre-dawn, down the street and around the corner.
Two or three days a week we’d see the baker’s cart, one of dozens owned by a large bakery named, with beautiful irony, Brown & Burns. Artfully Yankee-lined in gold on a maroon ground, wooden wheel spokes and felloes trimmed in the same colors, they were set high off the ground with small wooden doors at the rear of the box body, allowing access to an interior lined with tin or zinc. The driver stood on a small step at the rear of the cart, looking out over the top. Brown and Burns’ horses were all bay or brown half-draughts; quick on the trot, sure-footed – they had to be on the tar roads criss-crossed by steel tram lines – and intelligent.
The drivers’ standard uniform was shorts, sandshoes and a snow-white sleeveless singlet protected by a short canvas apron of pale green. A brown leather bag with compartments for change and a receipt book for those respectable or solvent enough to run a weekly account hung from the belt. The bread was carried in a heavy wicker basket and covered with a sheet of the same material as the apron. No gloves for the driver and no plastic or paper to mask the stomach-tightening, spit-raising smell when he opened the breadbox door or uncovered the basket.
“Bah—aaa—ker!” and the women and kids would come out of the houses to gather round: “Half a sandwich loaf and a poppy-seed, please.”
“Just a milk loaf thanks, baker.” The driver would whip the loaves from his basket, flirting with the women all the while – a good cartside manner no doubt sold more bread.
“Half a loaf and no stale rubbish, driver.”
“As if I’d sell yesterdee’s bread to someone with those legs!”
“Yer’d sell stale bread to yer own grandma yer cheeky bugger…and don’t forget I know ’er!” This from an older woman.
Meantime, the kids would be at the horse end of the cart, slapping the bay’s neck and inhaling the heady salt tang of horse sweat.
There were occasional visits by other hawkers and their carts: a greengrocer; the bottleo, collecting scrap and empty bottles; the rabbito, gutted corpses of bunnies – Australia’s scourge – trapped on the outskirts of Perth, Fremantle and further afield dangling from his cart to be skinned on the spot when you bought one. More rarely we’d see a fisho, probably an opportunist who’d bought a surplus from the professional fishermen on the river or at Fremantle, packed them in ice and drove them around the suburbs till they were all gone, the price decreasing as the day drew on.
Once a week the iceman drew up in our street, his insulated cart drawn by a big, brown clumper with a nose like the King of China’s silk handkerchief and an inquisitive upper lip. The blocks were dragged from the icebox onto a board where the iceman – also in shorts, singlet and apron but with a leather pad over one shoulder – expertly broke them into the required size with an icepick. When we could afford them, we could just squeeze two threepenny blocks into our little green and cream ice chest, where it would last almost a week. Everything was green and bloody cream in the 40s, even the enamel water jug in our kitchen. When we didn’t have ice, we used the Coolgardie safe.
Some districts still had “night-soil collection”, as it was delicately referred to by the good aldermen of the time – it was still a fact of city life in some houses we lived in up to the early 1950s. Two or three times a fortnight the night cart would clip-clop down the back alleways, stopping at each dunny, the backyard outhouse. The dunny man would lift the trapdoor at the back of the outhouse and remove the full bucket – galvanized sheet metal reinforced with iron bands – from under the wooden bench seat and replace it with an empty one smelling of the cup or so of Phenyl that sloshed about in it. The full “pan” was emptied through a heavy sliding door near the top of the Quonset-shaped tank on the cart and placed with the other empties in a compartment at the rear.
The dunny man was a legendary figure and us kids even sang a song about him, to the tune of Ghost Riders In The Sky:
The municipal dunny cart was full up to the brim;
The municipal dunny man fell in and couldn’t swim;
And as he was a-sinkin’, a-sinkin’ like a stone,
He heard the maggots singin’: “There’s no-ho place like home”.
All this horse traffic meant occasional deposits of steaming manure – a bonus in the days when vegetable gardens were the rule. There was a sort of collection roster, unwritten but strictly observed. A tail would lift and the household at the top of the roster that day would order a kid away to fetch spade and bucket. Thup, thup, thup. If the horse was a quiet one, and most were, the treasure would be scooped up almost before it hit the ground.
Among our favorite horses were the police mounts. The WA Mounted kept a stable of bay thoroughbreds for State occasions, but it was the equine proletariat used for crowd and traffic control at footie matches and other really important events that attracted us. Light gray – a color that set off beautifully the royal-blue saddle blanket with its police crest – their confirmation leaned towards the military packhorse type: big boned, big footed and broad across the bum but with a nice head and intelligent eye. The kids loved them – if you thought the copper wasn’t watching you could lean against a front leg and feel the horse return the pressure until the trooper pretended to have just noticed what was going on and growl: “That’s enough of that, Sonny Jim. Git orf his leg or ’e’ll step on yer foot.” You and the horse would exchange knowing looks and you’d give him a bit of a pat on the nose so he’d know you weren’t blaming him for spoiling the moment.
The troopers, or “traps” were also a great favorite of the younger boys, just below their horses, and there was always a lot of jostling to stand in one of the two choicest positions: close to the horse’s head, handy to its silky nose, or by the stirrups where you could cast envious glances at the chrome-plated, government-issue spurs and the much-admired concertina leggings worn by the trooper, much flasher than the workaday “springsures” of the drover. A smart rig of blue shirt, black “bum-freezer” jacket, black peaked cap and light-khaki jodphurs completed the uniform. But it was the spurs and leggings that we boys coveted.
They’ve gone now, the workhorses of the cities and towns, only the police mounts survive. I wonder do kids still rush out into the street to pat their noses and feel their warm, moist breath on their faces, or are their parents too frightened their offspring might catch something? A sense of awe and wonder perhaps.