The Tip Cart
by William Castle of Yorkshire, England
This most excellent article on the operation of the English tip-cart features some terminology which may be challenging to a few of us North Americans but I am confident that a careful reading will answer questions. We are grateful to Mr. Castle, who is a subscriber to SFJ, and once again reminded of how vast and vital our readership is. LRM
When horses were the main source of power on every farm, in the British Isles it was the tip-cart, rather than the wagon which was the most common vehicle, and for anyone farming with horses, it is still an extremely useful and versatile piece of equipment. The farm cart was used all over the country, indeed in some places, in hilly areas and in the north, wagons were scarcely used at all, and many small farms in other areas only used carts. In his recommendations for equipping a farm, Primrose McConnel writes in his “Agricultural Notebook “(first published in 1883) that a mixed farm of 100 acres needed 3 carts, and it was only when a farm got to be 150 acres or more did he add a wagon to the list.
The reasons for the cart’s popularity were many. On practical grounds, it was simple in construction and therefore cheap, it can tip its load on to the ground, saving time in handling and it is very maneuverable in narrow lanes and farm yards. In the last century there was much debate about the relative merits of the cart versus the wagon and studies were made to compare their efficiency. Primrose McConnel again, quoting an 1873 study by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, states that a cart required 51.4 lbs to move a ton on a good road; whereas a wagon required 68.1 lbs per ton. On arable land this increased to 201 lbs against 295.2 lbs, an efficiency in favour of the cart of between 24 and 31%. Of course the practical farmer wouldn’t throw away his wagon after reading a study. The wagon had its place, particularly in the hay field and at harvest. The value of having a four wheeled vehicle at those times but a 2 wheeled tipping vehicle for the rest of the year is demonstrated by the invention and widespread use of the hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite or “morphry” was a normal tip cart, which when required for hay or sheaves, had a fore carriage and loading platform which fitted in front of the body of the cart where the shafts used to be, to turn it temporarily into a wagon, the shafts then being attached to the fore carriage. But after harvest it returned to its main function as a cart.
The geography and economy of the country also tended to favour the cart. Compared to the N. American situation of abundant land, a plentiful supply of horses and relatively little available labour, land in Britain was expensive and farms were small, horses were expensive but labour was plentiful and cheap. Farms were therefore worked with the minimum number of horses and they had to earn their keep, and the men were expected to walk. These facts, combined with smaller fields and an open climate allowing cultivations to be continued throughout much of the winter were also reasons why large teams of horses were not employed on British farms.
The tip cart varied in size to suit the local terrain and was known by different names in different parts of the country – muck cart, scotch cart, tumbrel or putt, amongst others, some names belonging to particular styles of construction; but they were all similar in their basic design; two wheels, a tipping body and shafts.
The shafts and the harness for the tip cart differ from that used for lighter vehicles, intended for road use, because of the greater forces exerted upon them. So the shafts are thicker and the harness is stronger, using steel chains where necessary. The shafts are held up by the back chain (or ridger), which lies in a groove in the cart saddle, and is attached at each end to the hooks on the shafts. These hooks slide along a long staple which is bolted through the shaft. The front of the staple has another hook to attach the shoulder chain (or tug), with a third hook at the back to attach the britchen chain.
The cart saddle rests on the horse’s back, where a riding saddle would sit. It consists of a saddle tree, two boards of beech or elm wood, joined by the wooden bridge, which has a metal-lined groove for the back chain to lie in. The boards need to be far enough apart to prevent pinching the horses spine and the cart saddle is wide enough to keep the chains away from the horses sides. The boards have pads underneath of cloth filled with straw, and these rest on the horses back. The top of the boards are covered in leather and the girth strap is nailed to the boards. There is a strap at the back to buckle onto the britchen and buckles at the front for the meeter straps, which come from the collar. These prevent the collar sliding forward if the horse puts his head down.
The britchen consists of a breech band, 3-4 inches wide, made of two or three thicknesses of leather and hip and loin straps to keep it at the right height. Joining hip and loin straps and lying above the horses spine, is the crupper, the front end of which buckles onto the cart saddle. Although it is called a crupper it does not go round the horses tail, having only a very small loop at the end which has no practical purpose except maybe hanging it up. At the ends of the breech band are chains to hook onto the shaft hooks. The cart saddle and britchen are usually left buckled together when not in use.
The bridle and collar are the same as usual, the hames being provided with hooks for the shoulder chains. The final item of harness is the belly band, a double thickness strap, 2″ wide, which buckles round each shaft. It only comes into operation when the shafts lift up when backing, tipping or when there is too much weight on the back of the vehicle.
When putting on harness, the collar and hames go on first. The bridle can be put on now, or later, if you like the horse to see the harness going on or if he is still eating. When picking up the cart saddle and britchen, I put my left arm under the centre of the saddle with the long end of the girth pulled back over the top, towards my body; and put the crupper, between hip and loin straps, over my right shoulder. Walking up to the near side of the horse, I put the cart saddle on the horses back with both hands, then leaving my left hand to steady the saddle, centre the britchen over the back of the horse with my right hand. Then with both hands I lift the saddle up and forwards and slide it back into position with the lie of the horses hair, push over the girth, reach underneath and buckle it up. The meeter straps are buckled up and the tail is pulled out of the breech band. After the bridle is on, leather reins or rope cords (lines) are passed through the hame rings and tied, buckled or snapped into the bit rings, and the rest of the cords are neatly coiled over the top of the near side hame. With the hame rein (bearing rein) hooked over the top of the offside hame and making sure to bring a belly band and shoulder chains, if they are not already on the vehicle, the horse is ready to be hitched up.
There are two ways of hitching to an empty cart. The easiest way, especially when working on your own is when the shafts are left up in the air. [photo 4] The back chain should be hooked onto the shafts at both ends, and the belly band can be left on the off side shaft. The harnessed horse is led round under the shafts or backed underneath, and the shafts are carefully lowered over the horse and the back chain is laid in the groove in the saddle. If a halter is used under the bridle (as it is in my native county of Yorkshire) the waggoner [teamster] can keep hold of the halter rope whilst hitching, particularly if the horse is not used to what is happening. Then, starting on the nearside, the shoulder chain is hooked on to the hame hook. The waggoner then walks round the horse and hooks on the off side shoulder chain, then the off side britchen chain before walking back round to the nearside. He hooks up the near britchen chain and reaches under the horse for the belly band,and buckles it round the shaft. The waggoner is then in the correct position to tie up the halter rope and take the lines down from the top of the hame. For safety reasons the shoulder chains are always hooked up first and unhooked last so if the horse moves forward, the cart goes with him.To check that the shafts are in the correct position, the back chain should be vertical when the shoulder chains are tight. This can be adjusted by not using one or more links of the shoulder chains. [photo 5] The shoulder chains should be the same length to equalize pressure on the collar and the horse’s shoulders. The height of the shafts is adjusted by dropping links of the back chain so that the top of the shafts is about four inches below the hame.This allows the line of draught to pass from the hame, along the shoulder chain in a straight line through the centre of the wheel. The britchen chains should be made tight enough, by dropping links, so that the cart doesn’t run forward much before being held back by the britchen. The belly band should be loose under the belly so that a flat hand can be put under it, but not enough that a horse could get it’s back foot over it, if kicking at a fly.
Unhitching is the exact reverse procedure, making sure that the britchen chains hang inside the shafts and the shoulder chains, if left on the cart, are outside the shafts, so they don’t get caught on anything, before pushing the shafts up in the air. Avoid letting the back of the cart bang on the ground. It is a good idea to keep the horse where he is for a moment before walking him forward so he learns to wait while you check everything is clear.The second method of hitching up; and the only method with some smaller carts, is when the shafts are on the ground. [photo 6] In this case the back chain is left hooked to the off side shaft only and all the other hooks should be turned outwards, out of the way of the horses feet. The horse is carefully backed between the shafts, making sure he doesn’t stand on them. If there are two of you, each person lifts a shaft, the back chain is passed over the cart saddle and hooked on the near shaft by the other person. If you are working on your own you can hook up the off shoulder chain to keep the shafts up, pass the back chain over the saddle and hook it on, but I find the chain tends to slide back out of the groove in the saddle before I can get to the other side of the horse, which is why I prefer to start with the shafts up in the air. The shafts can be held up by looping the shoulder chain round the off shaft and hooking both ends on the hame hook, until the back chain is fastened. Alternatively, if the shafts have prop sticks one of them can be let down to hold the shafts while the back chain is hooked on. The procedure is then the same as before, shoulder chains first, then the britchen chains and the belly band.
Un-hitching is the same as when the shafts were in the air, except the back chain is unhooked at the near side before lowering the shafts to the ground, without dropping them and frightening the horse. Check all is clear from the horses feet before leading him forward.
When driving the horse from the ground, the usual position is to walk level with the horse’s flank, keeping aware of obstacles on both sides, as well as your own position relative to the cart; particularly when turning the horse towards you or when going through a gateway. [photo 7] It is all too easy to allow your hands to slip back down the lines while you are driving and find the body of the cart knock you from behind. When working in confined spaces and in particular when backing , it is better to go to the horse’s head, and steer him from there, having first looped the lines over the top of the hame.
When the cart is empty you can of course ride in it, either standing at the front or sitting on the side board. The safest way to get into the cart is over the front. Put your left foot on the back of the shaft and, keeping hold of the reins, pull yourself up with one hand on the crupper and the other on the top of the cart. If the horse should move, you still have contact with his mouth and can easily swing the other leg up into the cart. [photo 8] The other driving position is sitting on the front with your feet on the near shaft. This position can be useful when the loaded cart is tail heavy and the shafts lift up against the belly band. It puts some weight on the shafts and helps the horses feet grip. If going any distance it would be better to rearrange the load and walk. To check the balance of the load in the cart, it shouldn’t be a struggle to lift the front end of the shafts to take the weight off the back chain, nor should it be too easy as the cart will then tend to bounce about on the back chain.
When working round the cart it is often necessary to tie up the lines. If you are behind the cart and the lines are long enough, they can pass down the side of the cart, above the wheel, and be tied to the back, close to hand. Otherwise they should be tied to the back of the shafts but not to the tipping lever, and definitely not to the front of the cart body, because if the cart should tip for any reason, the horse’s bit would be pulled sharply back and you would be in a mess!
The great advantage of the cart over the waggon is its ability to quickly tip its load. Before tipping the cart the tailboard is removed. Then the tipping lever, or other mechanism to secure the front of the cart body to the shafts, is released. [photos 10 & 11] The horse is backed up a step and the cart tips up. This happens because the very back end of the shafts, where they pivot on the cart body, is in front of, and usually higher than, the axle; and since the load on the wheels tends to act as a brake, the force of the horse backing pushes the cart body over. If the cart is front heavy it might need a bit of a push upwards at the front. As the horse moves forward the load slides on to the ground. The position of the axle relative to the pivot point with the shafts also helps in getting the cart body back up into its travelling position, but because there is now much less weight on the wheels, there is not enough resistance to enable the pull from the horse alone to lift the cart body. So the waggoner needs to assist. One method is to lift the tail of the cart whilst sending the horse forward a step. Another method, which lets you keep hold of the reins, is to push your right foot against the front of the nearside wheel and pull down on the front corner of the cart whilst sending the horse forward. [photos 12 & 13] When the cart body is back up again, it is secured to the shafts and the tailboard is replaced.
Leaving the cart loaded
If the cart needs to be left loaded and the horse taken away, maybe to do another job, some carts have prop sticks to allow this. There are three sticks, one under the back of the cart body, and one on each shaft. When not in use, the loose end of each of the front prop sticks hangs on a ring, which can slide along a staple in the underside of the shaft to allow the stick to be let down. [Fig. 1] The rear prop stick hangs on a large hook above the axle. To ‘set up’ the cart, both wheels are securely chocked at back and front so they can’t move at all. The prop stick at the back is let down, angled backwards and pushed tight between the cart and the ground. Then the front prop sticks are let down, pulled out sideways and the bottom ends gently kicked inwards, towards the horse, to take the weight off the back chain. The horse is then unhitched as before, belly band first, then the britchen chains, shoulder chains and the back chain. All the hooks should be turned outwards and the breeching chains dropped in behind the breech band to prevent them from catching on anything. Then the horse can be led slowly forward, checking everything is clear. It is a good policy to stop the horse when he is halfway out to make sure none of the harness is caught up. [photo 14] When the horse is out, the waggoner then walks between the shafts and then holding them up with his forearms, repositions the prop sticks with his feet so the bottom ends touch each other on the ground. [photo 1] This makes the cart more stable. Putting the horse back in the cart is the same procedure in reverse.
Although the cart was probably the main use for cart harness, many other vehicles and implements were made with shafts. Except for Yorkshire pole waggons, all other waggons had shafts, usually a single set, although some did have double shafts. The single shafted farm waggons frequently needed one or more trace horses hitched in front of the shaft horse, unless carrying a very light load. Most rollers, root drills and steerage hoes, hay turners and tedders also had shafts so the cart harness was always in use.The main use for cart harness, however, was for the cart, which was in constant use throughout the year, moving anything and everything about the farm. And for the practical horse farmer today, particularly the single horse farmer, the tip cart still has much to recommend it.
[With thanks to the Morton family, Fred Stevens and George Roper for help with the photos, horses and carts]