Horses seemed to play a big part in our lives probably less for me at the transition of horses into tractors than for the older members of the family. But whenever a few of us were around the kitchen table, or making hay or cleaning stables talk often turned to the lives of horses long dead.
No surprise really given their long lives that they became a part of the family but always remaining beasts of burden with an economic purpose. Life was usually good for them but they had a job to do and there could be little sentiment when they could no longer do it.
A particular favourite was Tommy, a horse that died 9 years before my birth but was such a part of my childhood that I can sometimes remember him.
It was a few years before the Second World War. Dad had been working for Alf but a mighty great row over preferential treatment for his brother Tom had led him to quit and start up in business on his own. That is in itself another story that I must tell and it is a good one. Suffice it to say he was his own master but shared half a house with another family, owned a single cow and was forced to work a few days a week for his dad.
Money wasn’t in a big supply and keeping up house and home for Mum and little Dennis wasn’t easy. When a friend told him that Guppy’s the mineral people had a good horse with a full set of harness to give away for nothing he couldn’t get there fast enough. As was often the case little 4 year old Dennis wanted to go too. The two of them were as close as close could be a relationship that was only broken because of the machinations of Adolf Hitler of which more anon.
As is often the case when things sound too good to be true they are too good to be true. Indeed the horse and harness was free but on one condition that the prospective owner had to go into the stable by himself, harness the horse and then lead it into the yard. Easy for a skilled horseman like my dad.
He was brought up with horses of every shape, colour and temperament. Alf had many business ventures one of which was as a second hand horse seller. He bought and sold any horseflesh he could find. Gassed horses from WW1 with tubes in their throats which had to be cleared each morning by removing them and blowing out the goo. Biting horses, stubborn horses even sickly and lazy horses. While they were waiting to be sold they became the farm horses.
Alf removed Dad from Amherst school at 11 years old and he became a farm hand and cheap source of labour which has long been a Camp family tradition. Everything was done with horses which constantly changed with the ebb and flow of sales and purchases. Dad was ploughing once with a matched pair of horses when Alf came down and replaced one of the large horses with a small pony. Not quite the matched pair he had started with. A bit of fussing with the harness and off he goes ploughing as straight a furrow as he had before.
Back to Tommy.
Why was Guppy’s giving away a good horse? Quite simply the horse was a terror and completely out of control. He couldn’t be handled in anyway and after a last dangerous outburst had been locked in his stable.
At first they tried to starve him into submission but that was too cruel. None of the drivers would open the stable door so they fed and watered him through a hole from the hay loft above. That satisfied his appetite but made not a jot of difference to his temper.
The obvious answer was to have the vet put him down with a humane killer. But that needed to be placed flat against his head before being struck with a hammer. The vet declined the job. Someone suggested a soldier from the Fort could come and shoot him with his rifle. Or they could find some idiot prepared to take him on using a free set of expensive harness as the carrot.
Many had looked into the stable but none were prepared to enter. Then the idiot they were looking for appeared with his little boy.
After a bit of chatting to the drivers and a climb up into the loft to check him out from above and to whisper some sweet nothings to the horse Dad decided to give it a go. Much to the amazement of the gathered crowd who prepared themselves for a bit of entertainment.
Dad entered the stable and closed the door behind him. Tommy could be heard going through his normal mad routine and the crowd waited with hushed breathe to make sure they could still hear Dad’s quite but constant talking trying to calm the wild horse down.
Things went very quiet and concern was felt by all and it was wondered if the doctor should be called. No one really wanted to climb up to the loft and check that everything was OK but someone would have to do it soon.
When a knock came from inside the stable door and Dad shouted to be let out. The door was opened a crack to allow him to escape but he pushed it fully open and led a fully harnessed Tommy out into the yard. Stopping to scoop Dennis up he placed him on Tommy’s back and said “This is your horse, he is called Tommy”. Then leading him with Dennis happily riding on Tommy’s back they went home.
Dennis rode Tommy whenever he wasn’t working until the evacuation parted them with Dennis going to Stockport and Tommy staying in Guernsey with Dad.
All through the war Dennis thought of Tommy and even managed to find horses in bomb torn Stockport to give him some comfort. While no doubt doing something he shouldn’t he found a brewery with a big dray horse and he helped when he was allowed.
When he came back to Guernsey soon after the war’s end he found out to his everlasting sorrow that Tommy who had been a faithful worker throughout the long years of work had succumbed to the effects of lack of food and hard times and he had died in the shafts a month before the Liberation. Many tears were shed. Damn you, Hitler!
How did Dad do what no one else could? When I told my grown-up children about Tommy they decided to play Columbo and investigate. Soon a reasonable hypothesis began to take shape. How does a horse go from insane madness to being so calm a 4 year old could ride on his back? Some form of tranquillizer was suggested.
That stirred a memory of mine when we were tidying up the family farm at Pitronnerie Road which Dad had sold, a decision he regretted for the rest of his life. Forty four years later when I’m having a cup of tea with Dennis and we mention “Home” it is Villa Castrorum in Pitronnerie road that we mean.
The farm had been in the family for nearly 60 years and there was so much junk including an old tram car and the fuselage of a sea plane that had crashed in the harbour. I used to play in both. There was also a big barrel full of medicine bottles and potions for sick cows, horses, pigs or goats. New stuff at the top but pretty old stuff near the bottom. Many strange looking bottles of many colours with a lot being blue. A few had torn labels and some had words impressed into the glass. I asked if I could have them to collect. I was told no. What if I wash them out properly. No. I looked at the impressed bottles and they mostly had the word “poison” on them. I looked at one bottle with a label which said “contains opiates”.
Here’s what we think happened. Dad goes into the stable and does his best not to get killed while feeding opium laced apples or some such thing to Tommy. Tommy calms down and starts to feel pretty good with himself. Quickly get the harness on and out of the door. Put Dennis on his back and quickly get home before he falls fast asleep. Then spend a few days using his enhanced horseman skills to turn a wild horse into a docile and useful part of the family.
It could have happened that way, couldn’t it?
Next time we will hear about Kitty the war wounded French Mare and Tony the Welsh pit pony.