Sunday, 23 February 2014

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse ...

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse …”

And so said Richard III in Shakepeare’s play, after he is unhorsed and reaching the climax of the Battle of Bosworth. We all know what happened next, but this is not the subject of this blog post. Let’s turn instead to the topic of horses!

Horses have been in the local news a lot recently, when campaigners signed an online petition to have about 20 horses that were being kept in a field near Fosse Park, moved to somewhere more suitable.

Horses were also in the news back in 2011 when a film called “War Horse” was released. This film showed what life was like for horses during the first World War, and to be honest I hadn’t really given it much thought before that. I studied WW1 for my O level history, but I’ve got so used to thinking of war using tanks, guns, and bombs that I’d forgotten that horses would have played a huge part in WW1.

However, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I learned, courtesy of one of my guiding colleagues, that Loughborough had its very own warhorse, and that there was information on him in the Carillon Museum. Now, since that time I haven’t managed to make it into the Carillon, so I’ve been digging around in my local history books, and on the internet and managed to find the following interesting stuff about Songster. [Editor's note: I have, of course, since worked at the Carillon Tower and War Memorial!]

Songster appears to have been born in about 1900 and he was chestnut horse, which could mean he was anything from a very light brown colour to an almost black colour. Apparently, chestnut horses don’t have any black hairs, but their skin is black, and their eyes dark brown.

Despite originally not being accepted for war service because he was too old, in 1914, Songster was mobilised along with other horses, and assembled in the Market Place, along with members of the Leicestershire Yeomanry. From the look of the pictures I’ve seen, the event filled the Market Place with soldiers and horses, although it’s not possible to identify Songster specifically.

Luckily, he survived the war and came back to live at West Beacon Farm at Woodhouse Eaves, having been purchased at auction by Bert Main, the man who rode him during the war, thus narrowly missing being sold to a butcher, or as a beast of burden to the Middle East. Along with Songster, Bert Main also bought another war horse from the Leicestershire Yeomanry, Fenian, and the two horses lived together, until Fenian died. 

One of the stories about Songster that appeals to me most, is the one about him showing off and walking up the stairs in the Old Boot Hotel, parading round the room, and then walking back downstairs again. Apparently, his hoof marks were visible on the brass stair rods! What a pity the Old Boot  is no longer there. If I’ve got it right, it was next to Town Hall Passage, and is where Santander is, and where Jessops was (or Baker’s Oven if we’re going back a bit!).

Songster himself died in 1940 and was buried on the farm, along with his medals, and there is a small memorial to him. There is an obituary in The Times (you may have to prompt this link a little bit - didn’t seem to want to open properly on my pc, but it is definitely there).

Since then, in May 2013, the TA named one of their Land Rovers after Songster, and there’s a bit more explanation on the Leicester Mercury website.
For a bit more background on the use of horses during times of war there’s a good resource available.
Replica Songster in Loughborough Carillon

For a more detailed account of Songster’s life, have a look at the Carillon Museum’s facebook page, especially the article on Songster. Also, why not visit the museum and see what Songster may have looked like and what he would have faced during the war. The museum is situated in Queen’s Park, Loughborough, and is usually open from Good Friday, but is closed during the winter season.  
A full account of Songster’s life, with copious pictures, appears on the Leicestershire Yeomanry website.
There’s an article in the Leicester Mercury following the release of the film War Horse (the video isn’t showing on my pc, but there is some information further down the page).

PS Can you imagine my surprise yesterday, having written this blog post in advance, knowing that I wouldn’t have much time today, when I went to Southampton, to see "War Horse" on those AA signs! It seems that there was a touring National theatre production of War Horse taking place in the Mayflower Theatre! Rather coincidental since this was the topic of my blog post, and the touring play was only going to about half-a-dozen places!!

Anyway, it may also surprise you to learn that there is a local connection to a very famous horse called Fox Hunter, and that there is another local horse who is also famous. But, I must leave you now and hope to tell you about this in a later post!

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If you have found this post interesting or have any questions about any of the information in it do please leave a comment below. I might not be able to answer immediately, but I will reply as soon as possible. Thanks for reading the blog.