Article by L Raff
Horses living to advanced age are nothing new.
But what's surprising is how often they did before the advent of modern veterinary medicine.
This is the first in our series of Old Horses--the incredible story of Billy, a barge horse in rural England who lived to be an amazing 62 years old.
Meet Old Billy.
He wasn't always called that; his handler said that he was just plain 'Billy' or Bill until he got old. At 30. Turns out, Billy got to keep the 'Old Billy' nickname for another 32 years.
He was verified to be 62 years at his death. It's an astonishing age, especially since he was a working horse almost the entire span of his life. Billy was a barge horse, born in England in 1760. He was thought to have been a cob / shire cross, though his exact breeding is unknown and lost in the memories of the people that used and bred work horses where he was from. He was almost certainly a draft cross of some sort, not a big, heavy workhorse, but short and strong, and he worked as a barge puller up and down the canals of northwest England.
He was owned by the Mersey and Irwell Navigation company, who provided the service of 'pulling' flat-bottomed barges full of goods--most likely wool or cloth, because of the local industries--through a canal and lock system from the Mersey estuary to Salford and Manchester.
Billy was bred by Edward Robinson at Wild Grave Farm, Woolston, near Warrington, in 1760. A young 17-year old farmhand named Henry Harrison, who would work with Billy for the remainder of his long life, said he started Billy's training as a two-year old in 1762 as a plow horse at the farm. As Billy became a 3-year old, he was purchased by the barge company (Seyd), who needed smaller draft horses for canal work just as much as larger horses. And an interesting part of the story was that his handler, Henry, also joined the barge company when Billy was sold to them. Henry and Billy, in fact, were going to work together for the next five decades.
A barge horse and his handler in the early 20th century. The job required a lot of walking--up to 30 miles per day.
There were two types of jobs for a barge horse in 1700s England--to pull the barges themselves through the water, or to be a 'gin' horse (short for 'engine') that used horsepower to lift heavy items from ships with a crane. Horses usually did both jobs, depending on the time of year and how much boat traffic existed that day. Billy's canal route was near the Lancashire town of Warrington, and he would have been an important part of the service, as the heyday of this type of small barge transport lasted from about 1734-1870's. He had a very busy career.
It is said that Billy did his job dutifully. He walked about 30 miles a day, at his own pace (Livestock Journal, 1895), which likely was a big part in why he was able to work for so long. After the decades passed, he became something of an industry celebrity to his customers and his company. When he was retired in 1819 (at age 59), the company higher-ups wanted to be sure he and Henry were well looked after, and so both went to live on the estate of William Earle, one of the directors of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company. Billy was kept in care by his old friend Henry Harrison, who had been given that job as a special retirement award by Mersey and Irwell Navigation.
Old Billy in the year of his death, attributed to the English artist W. Tayler (1836-1852).
Billy was bay (or dark chestnut) with a crooked, wide white blaze, with large sturdy feet. His ears were cropped as was the fashion of that time, and he likely had a docked tail as was common for draft horses--meant to protect them from getting caught in the heavy vehicles and machinery they worked. As he became an aged fellow, Billy became more and more of a local celebrity, even getting his portrait made by a few well-known artists, the most famous being Charles Towne, and a young William Bradley in 1821. Towne was invited by Mr. Earle to paint Billy in 1822, only a short time before the horse's death that November. A wonderful description of Billy exists, written by veterinarian Robart Lucas and W. Johnson, who accompanied Towne, stating that Billy still had "the use of all his limbs in tolerable perfection, lies down and rises with ease; and when in the meadows will frequently play, and even gallop, with some young colts, which graze along with him. This extraordinary animal is healthy, and manifests no symptoms whatever of approaching dissolution". (Bibby, Historic UK)
Johnson related that he was informed that Billy had been a particularly difficult horse, and was grumpy until the age of 50, especially around dinner time. In 1821, Billy had been invited to take part in the Manchester celebration of the coronation of George IV, but at age 60 the horse may or may not have taken part--it is mentioned in at least one source that he could not be talked into leaving his stall, so he did not attend the festivities. (Bibby, Historic UK)
Billy's advanced age meant that his teeth failed him eventually, and getting enough calories became his biggest hurdle. He ate mashes and soft food, but stayed in good health thanks to the excellent care given him by his partner, Henry Harrison.
Billy died on November 27, 1822, aged 62 years. His taxidermied head is now at The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum (formerly Bedford Museum & Art Gallery), and his skull (though his teeth have been retouched) is on display in the Manchester Museum. An oil portrait of Billy hangs in the Warrington Museum, Warrington.
There is a well-known lithograph of Billy from 1820 at age 60, with his Squire Henry Harrison and the Warrington canal where he worked in the background. The inscription underneath reads: "This print exhibiting the portrait of Old Billy is presented to the public on account of his extraordinary age. Mr. Henry Harrison of Manchester whose portrait is also introduced has nearly attained his seventy-sixth year. He has known the said Horse Fifty Nine Years and upwards, having assisted in training him for the plough, at which time he supposes the Horse might be two years old. Old Billy is now playing at a farm at Latchford, near Warrington, and belongs to the Company of Proprietors of the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, in whose service he was employed as a Gin horse until May 1819. His Eyes and Teeth are yet very good, though the latter are remarkably indicative of extreme age.”
Atlas Obscura: "The Split Skull of Old Billy, the World's Oldest Horse".
Bibby, M., "Old Billy the Barge Horse"
Images: Wikipedia Commons
Livestock Journal, "Scraps", vol. 42, July-Dec 1895, London: Vinton & Co., p. 93.
Painting by Charles Towne, 1823 (frontspiece top), Yale Center for British Art
Painting by W. Tayler, ca 1822, Warrington Museum & Art Gallery
Photo: Old Billy's Taxidermied head on display
Seyd, E.; "Old Billy, the oldest horse ever recorded", New Cut Trail.