Horse meat

Written by Nhu Nguyen

It cost about £3,156 and 12 shillings per year to feed one horse in 19th-century London. Although it was expensive, it was important to keep the horses healthy because their interactions with humans varied from transportation to consumption (St Giles (Camberwell) 1887). The demand for horseflesh was so popular that 10 tons of the meat was imported into London every week from Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. London did not have a shortage of horses, but the need to import more animals was influenced by the major flesh loss in the boiling process utilized to make 1 ton of catsmeat (Stepney 1909). However, the trade eventually decreased due to the preparation of the meat. The British preferred smoked meat but the imported horseflesh was quickly transitioning from smoked to pickled meat, which could not be converted into catsmeat. To compensate, merchants attempted to sell other parts of the horses. It was common for merchants to advertise horse tongues as reindeer tongue or horse breast as cattle breast. Since horseflesh contains more oily fat, customers could distinguish the difference between it and more common types of meat. Through the unique traits of horseflesh, sanitary inspectors would pinpoint the products at butcher shops.

The way horses were fed was vital in maintaining its health. Naturally, the spread of diseases would skyrocket if humans consumed infected meat. In order to make sure that animals were free from disease, the London County Council often inspected horses before shipment. This issue became more prevalent during WWI because the conditions the horses were treated in and the food they received encouraged illness in the horses. In 1920, 1,201 horses were diagnosed with parasitic mange in London. To ensure the quality of horsemeat, the Council visited areas of mass transit to have the best sample size to inspect (London County Council 1920). They needed reassurance that no diseased meat would leave the city. The demand for horseflesh continued to rise and was still sustained 27 years later in Acton. The increase in the number of horses slaughtered that year was largely influenced by the poultry infection and tuberculosis rates in pigs (Acton 1947). While 17 tons of pork was discarded at Atlas Road Slaughter House, only 7 tons of horsemeat was classified as infected. Only three cases of Fowl Pest were found in the borough, but people still took precautions with buying poultry.

Smithfield Market
Description: The old open air Smithfield Market in 1855. en:Illustrated London News 1855. Wikimedia Commons

To accommodate all shoppers, London opened various meat markets. Unfortunately, animal cruelty was a huge problem at Smithfield Market, one of the biggest meat markets in London. The market was not big enough to accommodate the increasing number of livestock each year. The horses that were sold there went days without food or water because there were not enough supplies for all of the animals to quench themselves. Their exhaustion led them to collapse in the streets and dragged by a crank across the fields (Velten, 2013).

In 1953, the number of horses sold as livestock or meat began to decrease due to the falling horse population. With a small pool to select from, the public became pickier with the meat. Individuals preferred meat that contained less fat. The horse population was heavily inspected before they were sold. If the horsemeat was diseased, it was usually found in or near the liver. In Islington, of the 646 horses slaughtered for human consumption, 514 were intended for export. Primarily, the horses were healthy as only 7 carcasses were disposed of that year in the pre-examination round for tuberculosis (Islington 1962). Rigid supervision of the horses allowed for most of them to be free from disease (West Ham 1953). Despite the government’s best efforts to prevent infections, the poor bacterial quality in boneless horsemeat kept the Port Health Authority preoccupied (Greenwich 1962). In Lambeth, salmonella was also a small problem as 128 samples of horsemeat was sent to the Public Health Laboratory Service to eliminate any uncertainties about the safety of the meat (Lambeth 1964). The constant inspections also influenced the entertainment business. A play in the Princess’s Theatre, Edinburgh, familiarized the audience with the characters questioning diseased meat and contemplating the effectiveness of regulation of meat (Atkins, 2012).

While most people supported the laws that ensured the safety of all meat, concern was raised for the poor. Opponents argued that that more regulation would discourage people from entering the meat trade, which would affect the economy in the long term. Some people also argued strict rules on meat actually caused more diseases because it limited the food supply of the lower class. That is, the poor were more susceptible to disease if they did not consume enough nutrients (Atkins, 2012). When funds are limited, people make the best of the situation and do what they can to survive. In this case, it was willingly consuming diseased horseflesh, beef, and other types of meat. In Wiltshire, one of the poorer counties, the standard diet consisted of bread, butter and potatoes. The people usually bought diseased meat at the market anytime there was money to spare. Even though they did not want to become ill, it was one of the few options to incorporate iron and protein into their diets (What the Poor Ate).

Despite the feasibility of the counter argument, London picked the lesser of two evils and did not slack on regulation laws because they felt the laws protected a wider audience. In the early 20th century there was regulation to decrease the amount of diseased meat that was available to the public, but fines were not utilized until the later half of the century. In Hackney, there were legal proceedings for merchants who did not abide with the safety regulations. The Medical Officer of Health also had the authority to examine meat for sale at anytime. An individual could be fined £5 for every two pieces of diseased horse liver for human consumption (Hackney 1952). Those who advertised the sale were fined £2 for every two pieces of horse liver. Those who were caught had to meet with a magistrate for official condemnation. Furthermore, stricter laws were enacted in exporting horse carcasses to other countries. London’s government did not want to violate the other countries’ health codes or tarnish their own reputation (Romford 1962). As more knowledge about the adverse effects that the diseases of animals could have on humans arose, the people of London became better equipped at battling its health issues.


Acton 1947

Greenwich 1962

Hackney 1952

Islington 1962

Lambeth 1964

London County Council 1920

St Giles (Camberwell) 1887

Romford 1962

Stepney 1909

West Ham 1953

What the Poor Ate

Atkins, Peter. “This Nefarious Traffic: Livestock and Public Health in Mid-Victorian Edinburgh.” In Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories (2012): 107-108, 124. 

Velten, Hannah. “Cruelty to animals.” In Beastly London: a history of animals in the city (2013): 22.