Chiswick’s Municipal Stables

by Geoffrey Bowles

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 4 (1985)

Chiswick’s municipal stables at the Corney Road depot have recently been converted for a more modern use; plans for the conversion were first announced in 1981 and the staff of Gunnersbury Park Museum went to see the building. They were astonished to find that the interior of the building was remarkably unchanged and still contained stalls for the horses which had long since been re­placed by municipal motor vehicles!

Stables map

They called in members of the Greater London Industrial Archaeological Society (GLIAS) who made a detailed record of the buildings and their contents before anything was removed. This article was originally published as a supplement to the GLIAS Newsletter in October 1981 and we are very grateful to GLIAS for permission to reproduce their report below.

The stable block was built in 1910 to accommodate horses used by Chiswick UDC for carting refuse. It is a substantial two-storey brick building under a slate roof; the floors are concrete and the upper storey rests on cast-iron pillars. The horses were kept tethered in stalls on the ground floor, while fodder was stored and processed above. Lighting was by electricity from the Chiswick Electrical Supply Corporation; the original fittings have been removed. The layout of the ground floor is shown in the plan; there are seventeen stalls roughly nine feet by six, and two loose boxes of twice that size, probably used for veterinary procedures and, until 1913 when a small additional stable was built for the purpose, for isolating sick horses. The ground floor also contains two interconnecting rooms. One of these, distinguished by a timber floor and a fireplace, was provided for the stable attendant; the other was a store room into which fodder and bedding straw was dropped from upper storey. On the partition wall which divides the store room from the store area were a large number of tack hooks. The walls of the stables are faced with salt-glazed brick on the inside up to a height of about seven feet and white-washed above this level. The floor is of course concrete granolithic paving, giving the effect of bevel-edged tiles, while within the stalls the surface is crossed by oblique channels which empty into drainage gullies.

Stables - front elevation

According to Council records the stall divisions were bought at auction in 1909 and the stables were apparently planned around them. They are constructed of teak tongued and groove boards set in a curved cast-iron frame and are provided with wide elm kick boards. The free end of each division is supported by a cast-iron post bearing the initials ‘LGOCo’. This identifies the stalls as surplus stock of the London General Omnibus Company which was at this time replacing its horse-buses gradually with motor buses. Each stall contains a large iron hay rack and in a few stalls mangers for oats and chaff remain, consisting of deep galvanised bowls fitting into a triangular framework fixed across the corner of a stall. The stalls have no permanent water supply. The construction of the loose boxes is similar to that of the stalls. Here the cast iron posts, which bear no initials, take the form of double doorposts at the entrance to each box. The doors, which have been taken off their hinges, were massively built with iron frames, teak panelling and closely spaced Iron bars.

The upper floor, reached by an external flight of steps replacing wrought iron originals, Is a storage area open to the roof timber. About a quarter of this area is divided off by concrete block and timber partitions, forming three rooms apparently used as workshops or offices; they may not be part of the original construction. Otherwise the upper floor was given over to storage, handling and processing of fodder and bedding straw. Loading took place at double doors at the front by means of a long gantry suspended from the tie beam on rollers. A hand winch was used to wind the gantry in and out of the loading doors. No lifting equipment remains on the gantry but a block and tackle found on the ground floor may have been attached to it for hoisting bundles of sacks and bales to the upper level.

Stables - ground plan

A trap-door over the ground floor storeroom allowed straw for bedding to be dropped through as required. Oats and hay required more elaborate treatment and the upper floor contains three machines for processing fodder: an oat grinder and two chaff cutters. The oat grinder placed against the back wall opposite the loading doors was made by Bentall and Company of Maldon; it is a simple rotary machine for belt or hand drive, in which the grain was crushed between two smooth rollers. Council records mention the purchase of a “small oat crusher” in 1909 and the machine was presumable moved to Corney Road from the previous municipal stables – since demolished – at the Fire Station in Chiswick High Road. An interesting feature of the grinder is the large timber hopper which has been added to it, allowing it to run longer unattended, but at the expense of raising the feed level so that the sacks had to be carried up a ladder. The meal produced fell through a hole in the floor into the store-room below, probably by way of a chute which has since been removed.

Both chaff cutters could be hand or belt driven, and fed hay or straw on a continuous slatted conveyor through revolving blades geared to the conveyor’s drive. The larger of the two, a Samuel Edwards Patent Duplex fitted with a Bentalls dust extractor stood beside the oat grinder over a hole in the floor so that the cut chaff fell directly into the store-room, while dust removed by the belt-driven extractor fan passed out through a pipe in the wall. The Edwards machine was clearly a replacement for the other chaff-cutter, a Bentalls machine bought in 1906, which had been moved to one side. The machinery was driven by belt from a shaft mounted on the back wall, turned, according to Council records, by an electric motor. A 20 volt DC motor which still stood beside the retired Bentalls machine was obviously used for this purpose.

The stables formed part of the small complex of buildings concerned with cartage and refuse disposal built on the existing sewage pumping and treatment site. The only remaining building associated with the sewage works, which employed four steam engines and one diesel engine, is the superintendent’s house. In 1908 a cart shed, housing dust vans, road sweeping and watering machines and the municipal steam roller was added to the depot, probably at the site now adjoining the east wall of the stable block. The stables were, as we noted, built two years later. In 1911 a farrier’s shop was added to an existing smithy and in 1913 an isolation stable was erected; the sites of these buildings cannot now be identified.

The stall divisions and mangers in the old stables, photo by James Wisdom

Cartage functions became concentrated at the depot largely because of its easy access to the river, where a wharf had been built for unloading coal and building materials. When, in 1899, the Council lacked a convenient rubbish tip they employed contractors to barge the rubbish away. Three years later the practice was discontinued, partly for health reasons, and a dust destructor was built at Corney Road which combined refuse and sewage functions by incinerating the refuse along with chemically-treated sewage sludge. During the 1900s, therefore, refuse disposal was increasingly being concentrated at the depot and the advantages of stabling the horses on the site were obvious. The depot was the final destination of the refuse, the carts were already being kept there and fodder could be unloaded direct from the wharf. Moreover, the old stables on the High Road were inadequate and had been supplemented by renting from the George IV pub next door. The new stables, therefore, paid their way, despite the need to service a large loan from the Local Government Board.

View along the stalls in the old Stables, photo by James Wisdom

The stables clearly made financial sense, but the wider confidence in the future of horse traction they represented had a less obvious basis. In fact the decision to continue with horses represented neither ignorance nor conservatism, but sobering previous experience of the limitiations of contemporary mechanical alternatives. In 1897, three years after its formation, Chiswick UDC took over refuse collection and disposal from contractors, when the district surveyor, Arthur Ramsden, obtained the Duke of Devonshire’s permission to tip refuse on part of his estate. Ramsden was an advocate of steam power and on his advice two steam wagons of three tons capacity were ordered from the local firm of J I Thorneycroft, which had made its name in field a year before by constructing a steam-powered commercial van. For various reasons the experiment, witnessed with interest by delegations other local authorities, was not a success. The wagons proved costly to maintain and while fairly efficient for bulk tipping were less suitable for feeding barges, or, from 1902, the dust destructor, and in that year the steam wagons were sold at a large loss. It seemed that the mechanical alternatives had been tried and found wanting and horse traction was adopted with some relief.

By 1914, as the vehicles available became cheaper and more reliable, the questions of horse versus mechanical traction had been reopened, and an ad hoc committee recommended the purchase of two steam and two motor lorries. The first of these was delivered the following year and from this time a combination of horse and mechanical traction was used. By the early 1920s the number of horses had declined from its peak of around twenty to thirteen and a garage for motor vehicles had been built at Corney Road; a Fordson tractor, among other vehicles, was also in use. The Council’s horses occupied only a part of the stables; an adjoining firm, the Lep Transport and Depository, rented the remainder, at first for horses and later for storage purposes. During the 1920s and early 1930s the use of horses for carting refuse in Chiswick gradually declined, as low-loaders suitable for either form of traction replaced the worn-out horse vans. By the mid 1930s the dust destructor required replacement and the system of refuse disposal for the Brenford & Chiswick Borough Council was rationalised, all refuse being taken to a new destructor on Brentford Town Meadow. Though a small number of horses seems to have been retained beyond this date, the re-organisation effectively brought the primary use of the stables to an end.

A copy of this report, together with photographs and drawings, has been deposited with Gunnersbury Park Museum. The illustrations used in the article are based on working drawings provided by the Hounslow Borough Engineer and Surveyor’s Dept, who also gave permission to visit the site.

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